Hosting the homeless

Gijs Altena won’t be coming home to any empty room anymore. This month, incoming Irish student Shea Casby will be around to keep him company. Three days ago the two were strangers – now they are friends sharing a roof.
By Tamara Uildriks

Gijs is one of the organisers of DAG’s couchsurfing initiative. Monday night he welcomed Shea Casby, who will study psychology, to his small room. Gijs has kept a close eye on housing shortage developments over the past weeks. He wanted to help.

Peanut butter jars and notebooks litter his desk; clothes are drying on a laundry rack; Shea’s suitcase and backpack lay open in the corner, its contents spilling out. The unfolded sofa bed in the middle of the room takes up the only floor space.

For the next month, space is going to be tight. The two will have to improvise. Shea skirts the bed to point out a small, open window. ‘If I come home late at night, I’ll just pop in through there so I don’t wake Gijs’, he jokes.

Shea and Gijs talk about how to make daily life work. They both agree that the best way to survive the month is to be as laidback as possible. Gijs has a spare key, which will give them both a little more freedom to do their own thing.

Shea: ‘We haven’t really got to making arrangements yet. We’re of course not a married couple, but it would be nice to have dinners or go for a drink together, right?’

James Joyce & politics

A large bookcase fills an entire wall of their shared room. Shea spots a book by James Joyce; he’s pleased. ‘I’m not a big fan myself, but it’s good to see some Irish culture.’ The two stayed up the night before discussing music and Irish politics. Gijs: ‘There cultural differences between us aren’t that significant, so it doesn’t feel much different from hanging out with my Dutch friends.’

Before becoming roommates, Shea and Gijs got to know each other over Whatsapp. Gijs: ‘I was quite nervous before meeting him. Not scared, but I just hoped our personalities would match.’

But the two soon found out they have a lot in common. Gijs would highly recommend his new roommate to future houses: ‘He is social, open, flexible: I’d say the perfect roommate.’

Even though it can be difficult to have so little personal space, both students feel living together has some benefits. Gijs helps introduce Shea to the university, explaining how Nestor works and how to use the printers.

And Gijs suspects that having a temporary roommate will motivate him to work harder: ‘I won’t procrastinate going to the library as much when there’s Shea in my room watching me and judging me.’

Feeling unwelcome

Shea never planned to crash with a stranger during his first month in Groningen, but pure desperation drove the psychology student to sign up for the DAG couchsurfing initiative. ‘This really was my last shot, otherwise I would have brought a tent to Groningen.’

He spent looking for a place to stay. The stress completely swamped any excitement he might have felt about coming to Groningen. ‘People would not respond to my messages online, except maybe with an automated reply. I understand there are many people looking for a room, but it made me feel unwelcome.’

In October, Shea will move to a room at the Suikerfabriek. For the month of September, he will stay with Gijs. Shea: ‘Of course it is better to have your own space, to have the opportunity to be on your own, but this is just the situation we have to deal with. I’m feeling very lucky to be staying here instead of at the tent camp.’


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