By AUSTIN KOELLER
KEARNEY – Kurt Borchard has always been a passionate researcher on homelessness, but new research brings him to something he’s never seen before.
A professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, Borchard is taking a yearlong sabbatical next fall to interview individuals in two homeless encampments in Portland, Ore.
A loophole in that city’s laws has allowed the homeless population to form two encampments, where camp residents have banded together to have a legal and political foundation. They can draw up contracts and negotiate with the city, according to Borchard, which shows that homeless people have rights.
“Portland is a very unique place for allowing this,” said Borchard, who visited the city last summer to launch his latest research. “I think it’s a fascinating way to address the problem of homelessness because it’s allowing people to be empowered and work with each other.
“To some extent, it’s saying that these problems are ongoing and can not be fully solved.”
The situation in Portland is different from what Borchard uncovered in previous research on homelessness in Las Vegas, which led to a pair of books he published: “The Word on the Street: Homeless Men in Las Vegas” in 2005, and “Homeless in Las Vegas: Stories from the Street” in 2011.
Studying homeless men in Las Vegas, Borchard’s research regularly took him into the heart of the homeless district as he sought to discover how the men he found there became homeless and what kept them homeless.
He began the research as a doctoral student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and has continued the work as a professor at UNK.
“The Word on the Street: Homeless Men in Las Vegas” chronicles hardships homeless men endure, proposals city administrators put forth to deal with the homeless, and ways homeless men are portrayed in the media.
Borchard interviewed 96 homeless men for his first two books.
In Portland, the two campsites Borchard is studying are run by two local non-profit organizations. One camp consists of “mini-houses” where only one person lives. The other site is made up of large, military-style tents. Both camps are entirely fenced in.
“That serves to protect the people inside because it keeps strangers from wandering in and out. It allows for some sense of control.”
Borchard said that at one of the camps, residents are required to pay $25 a month to stay there. They also must put in a set number of hours of work in helping the camp run. He said jobs include security detail, picking up trash and working on recycling.
“This adds legitimacy to the idea that homeless people have the right to live as they choose,” he said. “In this model, homeless people are treated as consumers, where they can choose where they want to stay. … If they have that, then they probably have more personal investment in their camp running well and continuing.”
The camps have inspired other cities such as Seattle; Nashville, Tenn.; Olympia, Wash.; and Eugene, Oregon to set up their own homeless encampments.
“It seems to be an innovative way to address the ongoing problem of homelessness,” Borchard said. “Homelessness is not going away.”
Borchard hopes his work informs people about the issue of homelessness and impacts students in his UNK classroom.
“I enjoy teaching my book because it provides a blueprint for people who want to study any marginalized group,” he said. “There are always ideas and stereotypes of people, and then there is the reality. What I try to do with my work is communicate that to students.”
At the conclusion of his research, Borchard plans to compile his interviews and research into a third book that he expects to be completed within three to five years.
“It’s been an important topic throughout my career,” he said. “For better or worse, I don’t think it’s going away. Ever since I began being interested in this, people have wanted to know more about it. I am happy that perhaps I have helped change some people’s minds.”
Contact: Kurt Borchard, sociology professor, 308.865.8761, firstname.lastname@example.org