PSU survey first step toward solutions for students and employees experiencing homelessness
Author: Stefanie Knowlton
Posted: October 3, 2019
 Portland State University students and employees experience homelessness and housing insecurity, but it’s unclear how many and who is most at risk. 

Greg Townley, research director of PSU’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative, wants to change that. The center will launch an anonymous survey for students and employees via email this month to better understand the scope of homelessness, housing insecurity and food insecurity on campus. 

“We know that students and employees are struggling to meet basic needs because we see it every day in our classes and on our campus,” Townley said. 

The university prides itself on being an access university and actively recruits and serves low-income, first-generation and nontraditional students. PSU was ranked the top school in Oregon for graduating students who received federal Pell Grants and need-based awards, by U.S. News & World Report. 

"We must understand how hunger and homelessness impact our campus community,” said Interim President Stephen Percy. “This survey will help us understand our most vulnerable students and employees and shape university support in the future.”

National surveys estimate that as many as 14% of university students experience homelessness and 41% experience food insecurity, according to “College and University Basic Needs Insecurity: A National #RealCollege Survey Report.” 

PSU’s Committee for Improving Student Food Security, which serves students struggling to meet basic needs on campus, found that 54% of students experienced food insecurity at PSU, according to its 2016 survey, which puts them at a higher risk for housing insecurity and homelessness. 

Food insecurity means the “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or the ability to acquire such food in a socially acceptable manner,” according to the national report by The Hope Center. Its definition of homelessness includes living in cars, shelters, the streets, couch surfing and staying temporarily with relatives.

It is unclear how national rates of student homelessness compare to those at PSU, but Townley believes PSU will likely be higher. The survey will also ask demographic information, including whether students have disabilities or are first-generation college students, in order to identify vulnerable populations.

While The Hope Center brought national attention to student homelessness, Townley believes this is the first survey in the nation that looks at homelessness and housing insecurity for university employees. 

“It’s really important for us to know given the cost of living in Portland, the low wages that many employees face and the precarious situation of adjunct professors,” he said.  “We want to know the challenges they may have meeting basic needs.”

Using research to better address student and employee homelessness is one of the top priorities for the Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative.  

“If we’re not serving people on our own campus, how can we possibly serve people in the broader community?” Townley said. “We need to start here.”

The center encourages everyone to fill out the survey, and as an incentive, there is a chance to win one of several $100 Visa gift cards. Students and employees have four weeks to complete the survey.