Tuition, textbooks, food, gas, rent: all things college students are expected to pay for. Combined with a shortage of time and job experience, some students find it hard to keep up with expenses. Sometimes the bills pile up, and the funds can’t stretch. Eventually, people find themselves without a bed to go home to. Instead of waking up in a dorm room, some students wake up in their cars.
The rumor of homeless students at the University of Oregon has echoed through the halls for many years. Many professors have heard of their existence, but few claim to have met any.
Josie McCarthy runs the Dining Room in downtown Eugene. The restaurant serves free meals to anyone over 18, four days a week. McCarthy says that students struggling with funds often come in for a free meal.
From 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, the Dining Room looks like any other brunch cafe. The walls are covered in hand painted murals; soft acoustic guitar music fills the air, mingling with the chatter of the volunteer waiting staff and their many customers. Today, the smell of hot dogs adds a tinge of middle school cafeteria.
“Sometimes we have great food, and sometimes we have hot dogs,” McCarthy said. “Today we have hot dogs.”
The only thing that separates the Dining Room from a greasy spoon is the line.
“We serve 300 people a day at the hall,” McCarthy said. “Some of them are students, living in their cars and going to classes.”
Faire Holliday, a Dining Room volunteer and UO graduate, has met students whose “living situations are in flux,” she said. Their financial aide was shrinking, and “they couldn’t stretch it.” They started coming to the Dining Room to eat and to volunteer.
Students from both UO and Lane Community College get meals at the Dining Room, Holliday said. Patrons don’t have to be homeless, just over 18 and sober upon arrival.
Rumors of homeless students have spurred conversations on campus. “It’s a condition, not a crisis,” philosophy professor Naomi Zack said. “It’s a problem that keeps getting bigger. […] Our culture as a whole is not addressing this in anything like an effective way.”
In early September, Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy asked for help addressing the homelessness and transients issue. In an email to the City Council and City Manager Jon Ruiz, she said, “I don’t want travelers actually controlling, living on our corners, our plazas, our public spaces.” She wanted “our public spaces to be for all to use.”
This reaction is part of a culture McCarthy wants to end. Lane County originally wanted the Dining Room to be farther out of the city, in the Whitaker district, instead of its current location on 8th Street.
“Why are we hiding poverty?” McCarthy said. “It’s not going to get better if we hide it.”
UO itself does not have a program addressing homelessness.
“I think the University of Oregon has an international reputation, certainly a national reputation, for a certain kind of progressiveness,” Zack said. “If we could come up with a program, it might just be a drop in the bucket, but a well developed program from higher administration would be a model for other universities.”
“On the other hand,” Zack said, “the university is in a constant struggle to survive and get better. The university is not a church.”