REED HOME Gryphon icon
Alumni Profiles
reed magazine logoSummer 2009

Psych Major Finds A New Kind of Reward

During an unusually snowy morning in Portland, the Steel Bridge hums as a MAX train trundles east across the Willamette River. The friction between wheel and rail reverberates around the bridge’s western footing. In the shadow of the bridge, girdled by concrete bridge structures, railroad tracks, and highway, lies a triangular patch of turf known as the Pit.

Wearing snow pants and three layers of clothes for the cold, Matt Bellet ’02, a stocky, swarthy twenty-something, remembers when the Pit was covered thick with blackberry, a haven for homeless people seeking a place to sleep during the night.

Bellet

photo by Amanda Waldroupe ’07

“It was bordering on a shanty town,” Matt says.

But no more. The brambles are gone, the graffiti painted over. Grass has been planted, and unless you know where to look, there are few signs of the Pit’s gritty past.

Matt can take some credit for the transformation. Since 2007, he has managed Clean and Safe, a job-training program for formerly homeless people operated by Central City Concern, one of Portland’s largest social service agencies. He also organized work parties to clean up the Pit, removing used condoms, needles, beer cans, and sodden clothing—some of the tragic, telltale signs of homelessness.

It’s ironic, in a way. The people on Matt’s crews share many similarities with the people who trashed the Pit: drug dealers, prostitutes, and homeless people committing small offenses.

Teaching chronic offenders the consequences of their crimes and providing the services and support that target the reasons why they commit those crimes are the key, he thinks, to reforming the criminal justice system—but it was not exactly the career he envisioned while he was a psych major at Reed.

After graduation, he sent applications to a dozen universities to snag a research assistant position doing brain research. “I kept coming up second,” he says. With his bank account barely in the black, he fell back on something he had done as a part-time job at Reed: private security. He spent a year guarding parking garages, “making sure trees didn’t move,” and seeing how petty criminals are punished and rehabilitated back into society.

Remembering his psychology classes, Matt became convinced that a behaviorist approach would serve society better than “haphazardly trying” to punish criminal behavior. Then he found out about Portland’s community court system, which offers petty criminals drug treatment, mental health treatment, or community service rather than locking them up or fining them.

“I thought, man, that’s a good idea. That’s how it should work,” he says.

Matt volunteered for a theft accountability class, which worked with first-time shoplifters to address their behavior. Soon he was facilitating the class; eventually he ran the whole program.

Now, as manager of C&S, he supervises two dozen employees in the Sisyphean task of keeping a 213-block area of downtown Portland clean from graffiti, trash, and urine.

The crew are a tough bunch. Many have criminal histories, addictions, and a litany of other problems that would normally be barriers to getting a job. They are generally older than he is; some are legitimately working and paying taxes for the first time in their lives.

“There are individuals who work for us who have only been clean and out of prison for a few months,” he says. “A lot of the housing situations that are available to them are nothing better than Asylum Block dorms . . . and that is an achievement for them.”

Matt approaches each day giving time and understanding to his employees, recognizing that there may be just as many setbacks as successes.

Since he took the helm at C&S, dozens of people have graduated from the program, many into better jobs. Between C&S and the theft accountability class, which he still volunteers for, he reckons that he has touched “thousands of lives.” Former students often stop him on the sidewalk and remind him of something he once said in class—sometimes more memorable to them than to him.

In the end, Matt is glad he didn’t get a job in academia. Whether working around his employees’ schedules for required meetings with their parole officers, or recognizing a tiny red and yellow pill tossed on the ground at the Pit and breaking it apart, Matt fervently believes in the transformative power of “putting the brain power of academics on the streets.”

—Amanda Waldroupe ’07

reed magazine logoSummer 2009