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Pacific University students explore housing insecurities at school

Out of 200 survey respondents, some couch-surf, some move frequently, some can't pay rent

Living with roommates, eating Ramen noodles, and working part-time jobs are standard expectations for college students.

Being homeless, eating scraps and panhandling for cash are not — yet that’s exactly what 32 Pacific University students learned some of their peers are doing to get by in Forest Grove.

Twenty students from Rebecca Schoon’s Public Health Class and 12 from Jessica Ritter’s Macro Social Work Class — with guidance from Celeste Goulding at the Center for Civic Engagement — began spring term with a goal to combat housing insecurity at Pacific by increasing education and awareness of such problems, decreasing their stigma and helping affected students.

The result, according to one student involved, was surprising and disappointing.

“We barely scratched the surface with this project,” said student Alison Wulfman. “I think we did start the conversation a little bit, but we only had two months to do it. What we did do — putting out the survey and raising awareness — was good.”

The housing insecurity survey was distributed to roughly 80 percent of Pacific’s student body and drew about 200 responses.

While all respondents wrote comments, a few “told their whole stories and let out pent-up frustrations,” Goulding said, and 137 identified specific ways the cost of housing in Forest Grove has affected them.

Nearly 50 percent found it difficult to pay their rent but managed to do so. But 18 percent said they couldn’t pay their full rent, 15 percent said they doubled up with friends or couch surfed, and 7 percent said they had moved two or more times in the past year.

When asked about what resources they’d relied on during times of homelessness, 36 of the 200 respondents replied, with 69 percent of them saying loans, 47 percent saying friends and 11 percent saying family.

None said they relied on the university for help.

“I wouldn’t be going to class because I was so exhausted. I wasn’t sleeping. So I couldn’t go to class...And then the homework wouldn’t make sense,” one anonymous survey respondent said. “I didn’t want to go to my professors and be like, ‘Oh, I’m homeless right now. There’s nothing that I can do.’”

“If you don’t have money to afford the tuition, food, your bills — there’s no outlet, no one to talk to,” Goulding said. “Students don’t want to admit they’re struggling.”

Half of the 200 respondents said housing issues had affected their academic performance, with 60 percent citing a lack of sleep and 40 percent acknowledging an inability to eat.

“Having this outlet — giving them an opportunity to talk about it and release frustrations that they’re experiencing — was awesome,” Wulfman said. “The magnitude and level to which students experience this is greater than we realized.”

While the presentation had Pacific University Professor Emeritus Russ Dondero, Forest Grove Police Chief Janie Schutz, City Councilor Victoria Lowe, and Sustainability Commission Chairman Brian Schimmel in the audience, the students and Goulding had hoped the 200-plus emailed invites would draw the university’s administration also. But the presentation evidently fell on the same night as the school faculty’s end-of-year party, she said.

“I hope someday the project can get presented to the administration. We want to know they understand,” Goulding said. “Does Pacific University even know that housing insecurities exist?”