What it's like

Students share their experiences with homelessness, food insecurity

Portland State Campus


Tara Prevo didn’t consider herself homeless.

“I sold everything I owned and I packed it all into the back of a real crappy pickup truck,” Prevo says. “I mean like no speedometer, no gas gauge, nothing on the dash worked and you know you had to touch wires together to get the windows to go up.”

She moved to Portland from Flint, Michigan with a singular goal: go to college.

With 2,400 miles and her family behind her, she crashed on a few different couches. But that truck would quickly become her home. Until the truck broke down. This triggered several years of homelessness, housing and food insecurity while Prevo struggled to earn her degree in mechanical engineering from Portland State University.

“I was lucky enough to have a car for most of my experience being homeless, so I didn't think I was homeless,” she says. “Learning these definitions was hard for me because I was like wait, you mean to tell me that I'm not a privileged white girl that I thought I was?”

She’s one of many students who experienced homelessness, housing and food insecurity while seeking an education at PSU.

A new report from PSU’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative (HRAC) sought to determine how pervasive housing insecurity, homelessness and food insecurity is among PSU students and employees. 

That report found 44.6% of PSU students experienced housing insecurity in the 12 months prior to the survey conducted in fall of 2019. During that same timeframe, 16.1% experienced homelessness and 47% experienced food insecurity.

“The study was designed to provide a foundation for Portland State University to work from in determining how to best address homelessness, housing insecurity and food insecurity among students and employees,” says Greg Townley, research director at HRAC, a center working to reduce homelessness with an emphasis on communities of color. “If we have any hope of helping Portland and the region more broadly address homelessness, we must address it within our own campus community.”

Removing the stigma

Many students, including Prevo, want to share their experiences to help reduce the stigma facing homelessness and basic needs insecurity. 

Prevo’s experience included living in her car, on numerous couches, a tent in a friend’s yard and ultimately an RV parked in a friend’s driveway. She just sold that RV and moved into an apartment last November.

“It's wild how pared down requirements for feeling comfortable were at that point, because after living in the truck and living in the rain, you’re just used to it,” she says. “I'd normalized all of it and I didn't even realize I was doing it.”

Each complication required a new Band-Aid, but eventually she made her way through and graduated in June with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. She’s currently completing her second internship with NASA and deciding whether to pursue a master’s degree or enter the workforce full-time.

“It’s such a happy ending. It’s ridiculous,” she says.

For some college can be a way to find stability. Cameran Nicholas, a junior studying special education and linguistics, experienced housing insecurity and homelessness after high school, including his first two weeks at Portland State.

“When I was homeless I had to rearrange my schedule in order to make sure I could get to the shelter on time,” Nicholas says. “People think it’s a choice to be homeless, and it’s not … it happens, and it can happen to anybody.” 

A $500 disbursement check from financial aid — what he had leftover after paying tuition and fees — made all the difference and he was able to move on campus.

“I finally didn’t have to worry about having to get to the shelter on time or having to rearrange my school schedule and work schedule to make sure I had a place to stay at night,” he says. "It’s been great knowing that I have a place to come to, a steady place to live.”

Heaven Lane, a graduate student studying education, says her past isn’t something she readily shares — talking about homelessness isn’t exactly lighthearted banter between classmates — but she’s hopeful sharing more of her story can help other students feel less alone.

“I didn't realize that I had been homeless until years later because I think we have this idea of what homelessness looks like,” Lane says. “When you start to realize the levels to homelessness you start to see how prevalent of an issue it really is, especially among young people.”

During the height of the recession, Lane’s father lost his job.

“In a matter of weeks we lost our home,” Lane says.

They moved in with a grandmother, sharing one small storage room while her father lived in his semi-truck, her brother slept on the living room floor and her sister lived with another family member. At the time, two other families were living with her grandmother. It was cramped and uncomfortable, but they had a community of support to get through it. 

“I just normalized it,” she says.

Lane’s experience now informs her approach to teaching and how she interacts with students — especially concerning equity issues in school districts.

Prevo says her eyes were opened to just how pervasive homelessness and housing insecurity is for students.

“I just want to help people know what it looks like when you're homeless, and know how easily it can happen,” she says. “That really strong, smart, successful woman that shows up to class in a three-piece business suit and takes notes in the front every day can be homeless, too, and it's not always apparent.”