PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The health of members of Portland’s homeless population is suffering due to lack of access to proper hygiene facilities, a study by students at Portland State University found.

PSU Hygiene Project report

The hygiene project, done in partnership with the PSU School of Social Work and the Sisters of the Road in Old Town/Chinatown, explores the need for showers, toilets and laundry facilities for those without permanent housing.

Lisa Hawash, an assistant professor of practice in the School of Social Work, lead the research and survey of 550 homeless people.

The project involved interviewing people over a 2 year period between 2014 and 2016, and sometimes those interviews amounted to 20-30 minute conversations about the struggles homeless people face, Hawash told KOIN.

The graduate students found that 40% of those homeless people have experienced health problems due to lack of hygiene resources, including staph infections, scabies, lice, open sores, endocarditis and urinary tract infections.

Lisa Hawash, a PSU assistant professor who led a team of students on the homeless hygiene project. (KOIN)

The same number of people said they had experienced negative encounters with law enforcement.

“People can get really serious charges against them for using the bathroom outside,” Hawash said. “It is a public health issue… it’s undignified to use the bathroom outside and we want people to have access to get their needs met.”

Hawash talked about the efforts the organizations she works with are taking to decriminalized homelessness in Oregon. The Sisters of the Road and the Western Regional Advocacy Project are supporting a HB 2215, or the Right to Rest Act, which would prohibit law enforcement from arresting or ticketing people for “resting, sitting, eating, or engaging in other basic life-sustaining activities in public if they have nowhere else to go.”

Surveyors learned that 40% of people use public restrooms at City Hall, libraries and the mall, 33% use the Portland Loo and 32% use shelter restrooms. The most common place people reported taking care of their hygiene needs was Transition Project or JOIN because those are a few of the places that provide showers, laundry and bathrooms. Other places mentioned in the survey were Red Door, Rose Haven, Sisters of the Road, Union Gospel Mission and the Portland Rescue Mission.

Portland homeless statistics 

Some of the barriers to access to hygiene the project found were limited hours, limited space, time limits and facilities being too far away. The shelters can only accommodate so many people per day, for example, Transition Project provides 100 showers a day and 48 loads of laundry.

Mike Michalek has been homeless for about 6 years and said the bathroom situation in Portland is getting worse. He said the public bathrooms get broken often because people misuse them and there aren’t enough places to take showers and do laundry.

“…they need something else,” Michalek said. “It’s going the wrong direction. There’s less instead of more in a big city with a lot of people.”

Hawash said people also shared stories of being denied access to bathrooms due to their hygiene.

“I’ve heard of people purchasing a coffee at a coffee shop which usually will provide access [to the restroom] and then being denied the key or not having enough money to buy a coffee and just really needing to use the restroom and being denied,” Hawash said.

Mike Michalek has been homeless for about 6 years. (KOIN)

According to the City of Portland, there are about 3,800 people who sleep on the street, in shelters or temporary housing, 1,887 of whom are unsheltered. Those numbers are a point-in-time count from 2015 in Multnomah County.

After completing their survey of people at shelters and service organizations, Hawash’s students are calling for a community hygiene center that would be open every day, for at least 12 hours, with showers and supplies, bathrooms, laundry facilities and lockers.

Hawash emphasized the importance of finding many ways to solve homelessness. There can be affordable housing bonds, the Right to Rest Act, shelters and hygiene centers but those things on their owe won’t solve the systemic problem. She said a hygiene center is one of the ways to address the issue.

“As a community social worker, I believe in the dignity and respect and human rights for all people and people’s self determination,” Hawash said. “At the end of the day, it’s about inherent worth.”