A report from Portland State University released Thursday examines the prevalence of food and housing insecurity among students and staff. Although the survey the report is based on was conducted last year, PSU’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative said the results are even more relevant now due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report found that of the students surveyed, more than 60% said they had experienced some form of needs insecurity in the year prior, whether it be food or housing insecurity, or a combination.
“I’m concerned about the findings, deeply concerned about the findings and the results,” PSU President Stephen Percy said in a press conference Thursday. “We knew anecdotally that many members of our campus community struggle with stable housing and enough food to eat, but this survey shows that those problems are much more widespread and much more challenging than we thought.”
PSU’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative conducted the survey last fall. It was taken by 3,511 students — 15% of enrolled students at the time, and 1,017 staff members, roughly 28% of all employees.
The margin of error for the student sample was plus or minus 1.5%. For the employee sample, it was plus or minus 2.5%.
“So, we feel quite confident that our results are reflective of the broader PSU campus community,” said Greg Townley, PSU Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative research director and associate professor of psychology.
In the report, the Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative said Black, Indigenous and other students of color disproportionately experienced needs insecurity in comparison to their white peers. Native American students were particularly impacted — almost twice as likely as white students to experience homelessness; they also had the highest rates of food insecurity, at more than 66%.
In addition to students of color, students in the LGBTQ+ community and students with disabilities and medical conditions also reported higher rates of needs insecurity. The same went for transfer students, first generation students and current or former foster youth.
Although the survey was conducted last year, PSU’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative conducted a follow-up survey to assess students' insecurities during the pandemic. Only a small number of the original respondents took that survey — about 160 students. Of those students, roughly 65% said they had experienced housing insecurity, 20.5% experienced homelessness and 55.4% experienced food insecurity.
“We’ve started going grocery shopping much less frequently because of not wanting to be exposed to the virus,” an anonymous student said in the follow-up survey. “This makes it difficult to keep healthier options like fresh vegetables in the house. We’ve also started eating much cheaper foods in order to stretch our food budget further.”
Additionally, Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative found that more than 30% of the students who took the follow-up survey had to leave their housing during the pandemic, with students of color twice as likely as white students to leave housing.
“I lay awake wondering how I’m going to survive with the possibility of having to live in my car,” one student wrote.
The original survey last fall is one of the first university polls to examine employee needs insecurities, the Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative’s Townley said.
About 23% of employees who took the survey said they experienced housing insecurity, 5.6% experienced homelessness and 16.5% experienced food insecurity.
Employees of color were also disproportionately impacted, with Black employees more than twice as likely than white employees to experience needs insecurities. Of the more than 800 white employees surveyed, about 21% said they experienced housing insecurity. Of the 24 Black employees surveyed, about 46% said they experienced housing insecurity.
“I had to move from downtown Portland to Beaverton because of rent increase,” one anonymous PSU employee said in the report. “Parking fees and gas were added to my budget and less walking created health issues … I feel like once you step off the ‘right track,’ there is no way to get back up even though I finished my masters degree at PSU and worked at PSU for 12 years. It is embarrassing and upsetting.”
PSU’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative said in comparison with other regional and national studies, the university has already implemented many of the suggestions to address needs insecurities, including offering resources like a food pantry, a free food market in partnership with the Oregon Food Bank and SNAP food benefits enrollment assistance.
PSU Vice Provost for Student Affairs Michele Toppe said PSU’s food pantry has continued to serve students during the pandemic. PSU has also built programs to provide emergency short-term housing by referral for students if they are in need, she said.
“We are really proud of these efforts, and we are so grateful to the many members of our community who have gotten us to this point in understanding and addressing the very great challenges our students and communities are facing,” Toppe said. “There is still much work to do.”
Although PSU already offers a wide range of services, The Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative’s report said the school should look into expanding hours and offerings, as well as funding and staffing for resources like PSU’s food pantry and free food market. HRAC is also urging the school to broaden its outreach and education on eligibility for basic needs support programs.
“These data provide a foundation for Portland State to work from,” Townley said. “What we really envision is a process whereby campus community groups are engaged in dialogue around what the needs and wishes for types of programs and types of policies would be.”
Townley said he would like to do town hall discussions to get more input from the wider PSU community on solutions.
“Our faculty and staff are providing support services to our students, faculty and staff,” Percy, the university president, said. “But clearly, we’re going to need to do more.”