Our DukeEngage cohort has not been in Portland for long. However, I’m feeling poignantly both thankful and mindful as I write this blog post in my comfy PSU dorm room after my second day of work at The Nature Conservancy.
I am immensely thankful for the opportunities that my undergraduate education at Duke has provided me with. This past fall, I had the privilege of studying abroad for four months in Berlin and staying with an amazing host family, and I now find myself on the West Coast for the first time whilst immersed in a novel yet exciting city and workplace. I’ve never lived in an American city, and I’ve never worked for such an amazing and literally world-changing organization as TNC. Regarding the latter, my marketing supervisor is taking me on my first-time trip to the Pacific on Friday for a World Oceans Month Facebook Live event, and my government relations supervisor consistently impresses me with his illustrious career as a lobbyist and approachable disposition as a superior. To be frank, I never thought I would have access to any such prerogatives as I’ve listed; I grew up in starkly less-than-auspicious circumstances in comparison to the average Duke student.
Without divulging the numerous and relatively noxious nuances of the adversity from which I’ve come and that I’ve overcome, I want to speak pointedly about houselessness. There have been several points throughout my childhood at which my mother, siblings, and I didn’t have a place to live and knew neither how nor when we would obtain housing. As a child, when I buckled down in school and set my sights on Duke, I hoped—nay, even believed—that I had the ability and positionality to never be houseless again. Still, I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams that I would be not only housed but housed in new places across the map through scholarship and grant funding. For this, I am profoundly and ineffably thankful.
Coextensively, I am attempting to remain mindful. I wish to be mindful that my past circumstances’ being “less-than-auspicious” in comparison to the average Duke student is a disparate and anomalous comparison; in other words, such a comparison is neither particularly useful nor meaningful in a truer, more global breadth. Although I have only been in Portland for a few days, the city’s disproportionate houselessness has made the frivolousness of said comparison clear to me. On the short walk from my dormitory to the local Safeway, I walk past unenumerable people inhabiting Portland’s sidewalks, alleyways, underpasses, and doorways. According to Transition Projects’ “2017 Homelessness Snapshot,” the houseless population in Portland is now older, more disabled, and houseless for longer with a shocking 4,177 people experiencing houselessness on a single night in February 2017. Resulting largely from rent inflation, problematic policy, and a lack of adequate public housing, Portland’s houselessness illustrates the unyielding and unequal nature of America’s houselessness crisis in all its horror.
Moreover, I seek to remain mindful of my privilege—past and present—as I reflect on my history with houselessness. Whether invariable or incidental, privilege is inextricable from any situation involving safe and secure housing. Even though I frequently feel underrepresented and underserved in a variety of respects whilst at Duke, the advantages that enabled my family to gain temporary and then low-income housing and me to be where I currently find myself are many, intertwined, and undetectable in their entirety to any amount of introspection. Through such a deployment of mindfulness, I hope to understand how systemic and social injustices disproportionately relegate certain demographics to undue terms and types of houselessness, many of which I cannot relate to; for example, between 2015 and 2017, Portland experienced a 120% increase in houseless transgender people and a 132% increase in the number of veterans in shelters. In the end, I choose to be mindful in this way so that I can be both thankful for all that I have to be thankful for and critical of all the injustice requiring redress and reform.