Street-level Education

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Professor Boykoff’s Politics of Homelessness Course immerses students in the pressing realities of homelessness in Portland through both travel and classroom materials. 

The distance between Forest Grove and Portland is approximately 25 miles. Students attending colleges and universities have heard over the years that Portland is not the same as it was in the past. If you ask a college student why they do not spend much time in the downtown area to take in the sights and sounds of the city, you will most likely hear that they do not go downtown because of the homeless people and the dirty streets. 

   There is a very superficial degree of comprehension regarding the homeless population and the circumstances that led to its existence. Often, people lack empathy in understanding homelessness issues. The feeling of not being safe in Portland is a valid reason to avoid traveling downtown. However, there is a lack of knowledge regarding the homeless community that individuals see throughout the majority of Portland. 

   The tuition price for Pacific students includes the opportunity to enroll in a winter term class. Students can fulfill up to four necessary core requirements by taking a winter term course, which allows them to pursue major required classes during the regular semesters. Classes for the winter term start at the beginning of January and last for around two to three weeks, depending on the credit load.

   Jules Boykoff, a professor of political science, has been actively involved in addressing homelessness issues in Portland since the early 1990s. He took the initiative to construct the Politics of Homelessness in 2022 course to teach one of his areas of specialization and passions. 

   The 11 students in the class take a van and head to Portland to meet with people experiencing homelessness, policymakers, and NGO employees. The students visit Old Town Portland to assist with Street Roots, the Portland-based newspaper focused on homeless issues and sold by people who are unhoused and/or experiencing poverty.  

   “A lot of media coverage tends to oversimplify the issue and really put a lot of the responsibility on how these people themselves, rather than the systems that produce them,” explained Professor Boykoff. 

   The class engages in conversations with individuals experiencing homelessness. It compensates them for their participation and time through giving gift cards, funded by a stipend provided by the Center of Civic Engagement at Pacific. Fieldwork offers students the chance to learn about real-life scenarios. At the same time, classroom lectures focus on the past and policy factors that contribute to the existence of homelessness, both locally in Portland and globally. In the classroom, students read academic articles that analyze the racialization of homelessness, diverse articles from various media outlets, and a range of videos that provide a thorough look at the Fentanyl issue and the launch of safe injection sites. 

   “It’s not just sort of addressing the problem itself, although we definitely look frontally at the problem, we also look at some of the solutions that are being offered to try to fix the issue,” explained Boykoff. 

   Andrew Matto, a senior double majoring in Public Health and Politics & Government, is taking the course and grew up outside Portland in the suburbs. Matto explained how taking the course opened his eyes to the crisis happening in Oregon that he was not completely aware of and that it’s been refreshing spending time in a different part of Portland. 

   “Before speaking or even thinking about harmful assumptions about our homeless or unhoused communities, you need to have a wide perspective of how one ends up becoming homeless or unhoused,” explained Matto. “A vast majority of the time, it is not how the media necessarily portrays them; many could have gotten injured on the job, served in the armed forces and were unable to continue working, suffered from a medical emergency, gotten kicked out of the house because their parents didn’t support them being LGBTQ+.” 

   After visiting the Afrovillage, Matto was blown away by the creative solutions that the organization had discussed. One is the transformation of old MAX Cars from the TriMet into stationary, possibly even mobile services that would supply food resources, showers, washing machines, and health clinics.

   “It is this kind of creativity that will revolutionize how we as a society bring services to people, most importantly to those who need it the most,” said Matto. “Rather than recycling or throwing away these trains, they can be put to good use helping the community.” 

Professor Boykoff’s goals for the course are for students to better understand the full complexity of the problem of homelessness, to remember that people experiencing homelessness are human, and then to remember that homelessness is a set of policy choices. 

   “We study policies that lead to homelessness, and we study policies that lead us out of it,” said Boykoff. “So this is a policy crisis, and there are paths forward to eradicate homelessness. If we can only muster the collective political will.” 

   And beyond policies, Boykoff adds, “We should never judge anybody, whether they’re homeless or their house, based on their worst moments in life.” 


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