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With a pledge of $3 million, the university hopes to influence global conversations around homelessness and technologically advanced cities.

This story was updated from its original.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: SHASTA KEARNS MOORE - Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler shakes hands with Portland State University President Rahmat Shoureshi Monday during a press conference to announce the creation of the Homeless Research and Action Collaborative and the Digital City Testbed Center. Portland State University officials announced Monday that it will open two new research centers — one focusing on homelessness and the other on digital cities.

In a press conference, PSU President Rahmat Shoureshi said the creation of interdisciplinary research centers on major social issues has been a top priority since he started at the university a year ago.

"There are plenty of 'centers' and 'institutes' around the country," Shoureshi said. "We did not want to be one of those. We wanted to be something that really would have profound impact."

The two research centers — the Homeless Research & Action Collaborative and the Digital City Testbed Center — will start work this month with $3 million in start-up funds from the university. The ideas for the new research centers were chosen out of a pool of 28 proposals by more than 200 researchers at the university, Shoureshi said.

Mayor Ted Wheeler echoed the university president's sentiment that the new research centers would put Portland in the national and global conversations on these issues.

"As Portlanders, we love to think that our growth is somehow unique — and in some respects, there's no question that it is. But as Oregon has urbanized, so, too, has the United States urbanized," Wheeler said. "As Portland continues to grow, I think it makes perfect sense to have our university tackle these urban issues."

Ending homelessness

The Homeless Research & Action Collaborative (HRAC) will be led by Associate Professor of Urban Studies & Planning Marisa Zapata, PhD, and Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Greg Townley. It will partner with A Home For Everyone and the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services.

Zapata said the center will provide scientific research to answer the questions of why homelessness exists, and what to do about it, in order to change the narrative in the public debate.

"We know that most people agree that homelessness is one of the most pressing issues in our country and in Portland today," Zapata said. "However, we disagree about why homelessness exists and how to solve it."

The researcher acknowledged that Portland State University has work to do to clean up its own house.

"We know that many of our students and staff struggle with homelessness and housing insecurity," Zapata said. "We want to be part of a regional solution to homelessness that starts by looking at our own community and understanding how we can support the people here at Portland State."

Digital campus

The second research center getting $500,000 a year for three years is the Digital City Testbed Center, which will test out "smart city" technology on the campus.

Professor of Geology Jonathan Fink, PhD, will direct the center, which will work with the city of Portland's Smart City PDX program.

"What we plan to do at this center is to look at this issue of how technology affects cities — how technology affects city operations but also how technology affects the lives and residents of its cities," Fink said.

He also acknowledged larger questions on how this technology could hurt or scare residents — such as through privacy invasion or technological blunders. But he said trying it out on campuses will allow residents to come see how the tech will actually work before it's in their lives.

"Portland State University campus is an ideal testbed because it's completely blended with the city," Fink said. The data-driven technology will also be integrated into the redevelopment of Oregon Museum of Science and Industry's 18-acre site, he said.

"That's an opportunity to start from scratch," Fink said. The center also plans to partner with the University of Washington in Seattle and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Fink said they are also in talks with the Microsoft campus in Redmond, the Oregon Zoo and Intel.

The DCTC will initially tackle issues around accessibility for people with disabilities, public education about these new technologies and resilience to natural disasters.

Both centers had to submit business plans and university officials will expect them to bring in state and federal grant money to become financially self-sustaining, Shoureshi said.

Students respond

Portland State University students the Tribune spoke to were generally supportive of the new research centers, even though some felt the answers to the research questions were self-evident.

"I'm fine with them researching it," said Alyssa Pariah, who was sitting in the Disarm PSU occupation in front of the Campus Public Safety Office, across the street from the press conference. "It should be very clear to them immediately that the best way to help homeless people is to not criminalize it and brutalize people. I just question how serious they are about solving the problem they are purporting to want to solve."

Kaden Burdick, a senior architecture student also occupying the sidewalk outside of the campus police office, said he saw a disconnect between university officials saying they want to help homeless people and campus police who are charged with rousting them off campus property early each morning.

"Privately, they are extremely horrible to the houseless community, as far as we have seen," Burdick said.

Other students were more supportive. Nesha Ruffin, a sophomore in business marketing, said she looks forward to seeing how the smart technologies improve the campus.

"Right now, we're using technology anyway, so having more access to technology would be very useful," Ruffin said.

Krista Eurich, a freshman physics major, said she doesn't have a problem with either initiative.

"I generally want my city to have less homeless people," Eurich said. "We all live here, we're all Portlanders, including the people who are homeless."

UPDATE (10/1/18): This story was corrected to reflect the accurate figures of the university pledges.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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