Eleven students piled out of a Moreau Center van in downtown Portland on a recent Thursday evening. Not knowing what to expect, the students were nervous yet excited to connect with people who are disproportionately stigmatized and marginalized: homeless people.
On Sept. 12, a group of students from Lund and Tyson and Hagerty set aside their evening to go to Night Strike. Every Thursday night the organization, Because People Matter, coordinates a gathering under the Burnside Bridge for homeless people. Students help other volunteers give a free haircut or shave, a foot wash, a hot meal and replacement of old shoes, clothing and sleeping bags.
“Just watching everyone having conversations, wandering around, enjoying food and being around each other, all my nerves just went away,” said first time Night Strike volunteer, Student Justice Coordinator (SJC) of Lund, Sophia Riccardi. “It’s not just because they are getting clothing and food. They have this community and they have this opportunity to talk to people and make connections with volunteers.”
In 2018, Oregon experienced the second highest percentage of unsheltered homeless persons in the nation. Students observed that people who are homeless are surrounded by harmful stigmas and stereotypes that can cause them to be treated poorly by others in society.
“Back home my friends will roll up the window if a homeless person walks by, and I just think, ‘Why?’” said freshman Jackie Greenberg. “Maybe they are asking for money, but why does that make you uncomfortable if you have money to give?”
In an attempt to decrease stigma, SJC of Tyson and Hagerty, Alannah Clay, thinks it is important to fight the stereotypes and change the language on campus regarding homeless people.
“There’s a difference between houseless and homeless, because your home can be anywhere, but a house is just this object that you have or you don’t have,” Clay said. “We are really trying to use that ‘we’re serving with these people that are houseless’ language, meaning we are working as a team and learning from each other.”
Students that went to this event had positive experiences, finding it inspirational and eye-opening.
“It completely changed my view of people in the homeless community,” Riccardi said. “A lot of stereotypes we hold are broken through going to this event and having a conversation with someone, and seeing them as a person because ultimately that’s what they are.”
The students that volunteered at Night Strike found a passion for building relationships with people that are homeless and intend on going back to Night Strike as frequently as they can.
“They are human, they are just like me,” Greenberg said. “We just happened to get dealt a different hand of cards.”
While UP is a Catholic university, SJCs and the Moreau Center want to remind students that no matter their religious affiliation, they are encouraged to join in on service events on campus.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re affiliated with a religion or what your faith background is,” said Clay. “There’s a call for all of us to serve and to go out and form connections with the community.”
Although these students have begun their aid to people who are homeless, to Riccardi, service is more than that.
“Serving isn’t just about fixing situations, or helping people as a one-time thing,” Riccardi said. “The goal is to create this more permanent relationship with individuals.”
Every month SJCs organize a service event that students in their residence hall can enjoy. SJC’s encourage students to become apart of on-campus service.
“There are about 4,000 of us on this campus. There's probably double that in the homeless community,” Greenberg said. “If we all just put an hour of our time in it could change their mindset and put a smile on their face.”
Another way students can help is through donations. Due to the upcoming change of seasons, winter clothing is in high demand.
“A big part of it is donations,” Riccardi said. “If you have any clothing or blankets you want to donate, talk to your SJC or the Moreau center, because that is a big Because People Matter emphasized.”
Because People Matter gives all students the opportunity to contribute to people that are homeless in many ways and encourage the community to get involved in the change.
“If you just go and see how badly people are suffering it just really opens your eyes,” Greenberg said. “Just swallow your privilege and look at what is actually happening in this world.”
Havi Stewart is a reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at email@example.com.