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Health & Hygiene on the Streets of the Rose City
Health & Hygiene on the Streets of the Rose City


In 2013 the Portland Housing Bureau in association with the Multnomah County Department of County Human Services published “2013 Point-in-Time: Count of Homelessness in Portland/Multnomah County, Oregon.” According to the report, between 2011 and January 30th, 2013, the population of “unsheltered” persons (those “sleeping outside, in vehicles, abandoned buildings, and other places not intended for human habitation”) increased 10% from 1,718 to 1,895. During that same time the population of the “literally homeless” persons (the number of unsheltered combined with those “sleeping in emergency shelters or vouchered into motels”) increased by 5% from 2,727 to 2,869.

Unhoused individuals and families—people who are unsheltered, sleeping in emergency shelters, vouchered motels, or transitional housing, and people living in shared housing—have the same basic rights as all Americans, among which are access to food and shelter, privacy, safety, and health. However, in municipalities across Oregon, ordinances like anti-camping and loitering laws impede access to these rights. In order to protect against the infringement of these rights, a movement is gathering momentum in Oregon and California to pass legislation for a Homeless Bill of Rights in both states.

Spearheading this movement is the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) and its members, organizations that support and advocate for passage of a Homeless Bill of Rights like Sisters Of The Road (Sisters), Street Roots, and Right 2 Survive. According to Lindsay Day, Volunteer/Outreach Co-Manager at Sisters, efforts are underway to introduce a bill to the Oregon Legislature in 2015. In 2012, the “Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Acts of Living1” bill was introduced to the California Legislature, though it died in the Appropriations Committee, due in part to the cost of building, operating, and staffing hygiene centers required by the bill. To avoid a similar outcome in Oregon, the leaderships at WRAP developed a comprehensive outline for a report on the community health benefits of hygiene centers.

Recently, graduate students from Portland State University’s School of Social Work under the direction of Instructor Lisa Hawash and the Poverty: Policies & Programs (SW525) course she teachers, partnered with WRAP and Sisters on several projects with the aim of promoting the adoption of a Homeless Bill of Rights here in Oregon.

“Lindsay, Paul Boden, the Director of WRAP, and I sat down and devised a way forward, and from that conversation three projects emerged that the students participated in,” said Hawash. “The first was to take the health ramifications outline and turn it into a position paper advocates for the Homeless Bill of Rights could use to make a case for supporting the bill. The second was to conduct a survey of the ‘anti-poverty’ laws on the books in cities large and small throughout the state. The third and largest project was to survey unhoused persons in Portland to gather their input and learn about their experiences regarding hygiene and health related issues.”

Hawash and her students Haley Throckmorton, Christina Crowder, Tara Albury and others worked with members of the community at Sisters to develop a series of respectful and inoffensive survey questions to collect information to support the cause.

“We were interested in finding out if community members had specific medical problems and how they got treatment,” said Haley Throckmorton. “We were looking for connections between hygiene, police harassment, and ‘anti-poverty’ laws.”

Among respondents, the team found several consistent themes. Employment, health, and safety all suffered from lack of access to hygiene. Where there were hygiene services, other services were often lacking, such as storage for personal belongings, separate facilities for all genders, and places to secure pets while using facilities. Many reported feeling a lesser sense of self-worth because of an inability to meet basic hygiene needs. 49 percent of respondents indicated they had access to just one location where they could bathe and wash clothes. 20 percent said they had no place to meet these needs; 50 percent had experienced harassment by law enforcement and security officials. Over 50 percent reported experiencing medical problems directly related to their inability to meet hygiene needs.

The survey results gathered by Crowder, Albury, Throckmorton, and the rest of the PSU research team paints a troubling picture of widespread indignities born by vulnerable populations. Troubling also is the fact that while society requires hospitals provide costly emergency care to those experiencing house/homelessness and poverty, it seems reluctant to make investments in measures that prevent negative health outcomes such as hygiene facilities.

While Hawash’s Poverty: Politics & Programs course wrapped up at the end of the winter term, many of her students continued to work on the project. Albury, Crowder, and Throckmorton recently presented at the university-wide student research symposium. Working with people from Sisters, team members continue to collect field data; their aim is to survey 400 individuals, gathering a critical mass of information to include with materials they believe will convince policy makers and state legislators of the importance of including access to hygiene in a Homeless Bill of Rights.

Hawash, Day, Albury, Crowder, and Throckmorton all believe the information provided by the surveys they conducted, along with the position paper on the community health benefits of good hygiene, and the comprehensive list of laws impeding the rights of unhoused persons around the state will help pass a Homeless Bill of Rights act through the Oregon legislature and get it signed into law by the Governor. Once law, a Homeless Bill of Rights will improve the health and quality of life for thousands of Oregonians.

“As students, we learn clinical therapeutic skills and community building skills, but I think that one thing that seems distant to many people is the impact that we can have on policy when we directly advocate for it,” said Throckmorton. “The work we’ve done with Sisters and WRAP to make this Homeless Bill of Rights happen has been a learning experience for all of us and it’s given me the hope that we can have an impact on policies and systems where really big changes need to happen and are going to happen.”

1. Read and learn more about the bill here.
Author: Shaun McGillis
Posted June 30, 2014