Portland State University swung open the doors to The Landing, a shelter located in a church near campus for students experiencing housing instability, a month ago for the fall semester.

The university’s first attempt to provide temporary beds was during the spring semester, but just a single student used the facility though officials knew there were many more in need. After shutting down the shelter for the summer, the university upped their outreach and education about the cluster of eight private sleeping cubbies with helpful amenities.

The Landing is a low-barrier shelter that is paid for by and run out of the First United Methodist Church of Portland. The church raised the funds to launch the shelter and asked the community to volunteer time or supplies to help build the space.

Now, five students are resting their heads at The Landing each night.

“It’s fairly comfortable for a shelter space,” said Stevie Stevenson, one of the students residing at The Landing. “I just wish that more people knew about it because I know with the homeless rate in Portland, there are more students that could benefit from it.”

The Landing is part of a three-prong housing system that Portland State University has developed. In an immediate emergency, there are housing units where students can stay for a day or two while their situation is assessed. The Landing, while also temporary, offers cots in a shelter setting where students can stay as long as they need, for the whole semester or longer. The third resource is subsidized housing made available through the Affordable Rents for College Students program.

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While the programs offer significant help, they can only serve a very small portion of students due to limited funding. More than 52% of students across 17 Oregon community colleges reported they worried about being able to afford rent or utilities or had to live in substandard housing during the last year, according to a national survey by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.

The Landing shelter

With subsidized apartments for Oregon college students in very short supply, Walsh hopes that more students take advantage of The Landing and that eventually the shelter can expand to include more beds and more locations. While there are no plans or funding yet, Walsh would like to eventually see another shelter location that is actually on PSU’s campus.

While there are no religious requirements to stay at The Shelter, students must have a COVID-19 vaccine and a negative COVID-19 test prior to being admitted. The only restrictions are that the shelter is not equipped to house children and it is not ADA accessible.

Stevenson found The Landing after her roommate situation became unsafe.

“This has been very different for me because I’ve never stayed at a shelter before,” she said. “But they have gone out of their way to make sure everything is comfortable and [that residents] are being supported while still having autonomy.”

The one challenge is where to go during the day. Students are allowed stay at The Landing from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Each guest has a cot in a private cubby surrounded by makeshift walls, a place to study and a secure place to store their personal items. There’s also a shared kitchen and laundry area and free Wi-Fi.

“But the daytime is kind of the challenge,” Stevenson said. “Especially the evenings because I work during the day a few days a week, but then need to find a place to go in the early evenings and if you have an online class, you need to find somewhere to log on to that class during the day.”

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While there are some spaces on campus where students can participate in online classes, Stevenson said she goes to a friend’s house during the day to do so. But overall, she said the shelter is a resource she is thankful to have.

“Having personal space to store our belongings and having space to do laundry, that’s a big deal,” she said.

Subsidized housing

In a perfect setup, students staying at The Landing could transition to a subsidized apartment. But currently, all 20 subsidized spots are filled. Those 20 spots are shared among three colleges and two nonprofits — Portland State University, Portland Community College, Mt. Hood Community College, New Avenues for Youth and College Housing Northwest.

“One of the greatest barriers to subsidized housing is that many of the programs, like low-income housing tax credit housing or Section 8, excludes full-time students,” said Mike Walsh, Portland State University dean of student life. “This is why we developed this pilot program to get around that problem. … Because students were having to choose housing or school.”

The subsidized housing program, which is in its second year, started with seed funding from College Housing Northwest, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing for students. Recently the program received $280,000 in state support with help from Sen. Chris Gorsek, D-Troutdale. It costs about $7,000 to provide subsidized housing for a single student for a year through the program, which covers 50% of a student’s rent.

Amanda Ward, 29, is one of the current 20 recipients — a status that brings them to tears to talk about. Half of their $1,150 rent for her one-bedroom apartment is paid for by the stipend since March. Ward uses student loans to pay their tuition and cleans homes to save for other expenses.

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“I was about to drop out of school because I was about the be homeless again,” said Ward, who is working on a bachelor’s degree in social work. Ward is focusing on child, youth and family services and hopes to work in the affordable housing sector one day.

Ward’s first experience with homelessness was soon after graduating from high school. After Ward, who uses they pronouns, came out as queer to her mother, they were no longer welcomed in her childhood home. Ward ended up at a youth homeless shelter in downtown Portland and was eventually connected to housing. But balancing a job, paying the bills and remaining in school was a constant struggle. Ward would lose housing as they strained to pay their bills, then try to keep up with college as they bounced from spot to spot. During those 10 years, Ward eventually completed an associate degree while also confronting the realities of living on the streets — drugs, sexual abuse and hardship. But now that they have stable housing, Ward’s dreams are even bigger — they would love to pursue a master’s in community development after they finish a bachelor’s, a dream that feels more attainable to Ward now that they don’t just have to focus on day-to-day survival.

“I am a completely different student now that I have housing,” Ward said. “I know there are stressful things coming and midterms are coming, but I get to be in my home. I get to be safe. I get to be warm and have a fridge that is full. Those things have made me a new student. I am able to learn different and write differently because my basic needs are met.”

Ward hopes the subsidized apartments program expands so that other college students can have the same experience as they had — a warm bed to sleep in that won’t be wet from rain, walls to cover with artwork from her friends and a breakfast bar and stools in their kitchen where guests can sit and eat.

“Sometimes there are bad things that happen to us but it’s not your fault, it’s not my fault,” Ward said. “I wish I could tell other people that. If you don’t have housing, it doesn’t mean it’s a personal failure. Sometimes it’s just part of the system and it’s a system we are fighting against.”