Six months of couchsurfing
Homeless and overlooked
I haven’t had a viewing yet this month. So, when I see a friend’s roommate post on Kamernet, I scramble to respond. My hands are shaking as I text my friend separately, asking him to put in a good word for me.
As I wait, I begin reading through the description of the room. Rent is a reasonable 320 euros. ‘Close to the centre’, great! ‘House evenings’, okay. ‘Send a motivation for why you would like to live with us.’ A motivation? ‘What are you looking for in a house?’ What do they want me to say? Should I say I’m looking for a fun, cozy house with open doors? Or should I be honest? – that I just want a roof over my head.
I get up. Pacing back and forth, I tell my roommate, on whose couch I’ve been staying, how nice it would be to be able to bike to the UB in just four minutes. The price is perfect and I have a good recommendation from my friend. I reassure myself and the lump in my throat gets smaller.
The lump in my throat, now doubled in size, sinks to my stomach as I choke back tears
My phone goes off – my friend responds. ‘Hey Mariam, I’m sorry we decided not to go for an international this time to keep the balance in the house. I really hope you find something soon!’ I sit down. The lump in my throat, now doubled in size, sinks to my stomach as I choke back tears. I later find out that the person they did pick wasn’t homeless, just looking for a different room.
There’s that feeling again; I am invisible.
I have been homeless now for six months. Due to miscommunication errors from the university, I was not informed early enough that the pandemic would hamper my plans to study abroad. I gave my room up back in July, thinking I was leaving for a year-long exchange, only to be informed last minute that it had been cancelled. Despite this, I am blessed with friends who have offered their couches to me.
Last week, UKrant reported that there are 115 occupied beds in emergency housing, and Shelter Our Students (SOS) matched around 250 students with temporary hosts. But I do not show up in these statistics.
I remember the ease and relief that comes with privacy
Instead, I am overlooked. While I am privileged to stay with friends, I risk not being considered a homeless student by the municipality. Listings do not seem to prioritise those without rooms anymore, since the numbers are going down. Students are leaving shelters for permanent rooms or to give up on their search. But I am still here. Let down and worn out, but searching. And I am not the only one.
I remember the anticipation of people leaving your home after spending the day together. The conversation slows down, your eyes attend to the clock. Drained, yet content, and eager to be alone for the night. I remember the ease and relief that comes with privacy.
Nowadays, I endure a cycle of slowed down conversations, eyes darting at the clock. I am paralysed by perpetual anticipation. It feels like a limbo, where the anticipation to leave or be left alone prevents me from studying and focusing on anything else.
Fly on the wall
Sharing a room with other people has strained my relationships. Despite being told I am not a burden, there is a standard of privacy that I am impeding upon and so, I make myself small. The many times we both want to be by ourselves, I will make an excuse to leave the house.
I don’t have control over my homelessness and yet, I feel embarrassed
I have stopped calling my family as frequently as I used to and they have noticed. They think I am completely occupied with my new job and, in a way, they are not wrong; being a reluctant fly on the wall is a full-time job.
‘That’s such a low budget, of course you can’t find a place.’
I often hear this, even from well-meaning friends. Due to my nationality, I am allowed to work only a small number of hours and do not qualify for any loans. This usually is not an issue, but since there is a scarcity of rooms, most listings fall outside of my budget. I am aware that if my budget was 500-600 euro, I might have a room. But this is something I cannot control.
‘You’re still homeless?’
Yes. I never know what else to answer here. This question implies they want to know why or how I am still homeless and I can’t help but feel ashamed. I do not know why or how. I am not doing anything wrong. I don’t have control over my homelessness and yet, I feel embarrassed. The awkward reassurance and silence that follows my answer is more demeaning than the question posed. The conversation moves on; I feel dismissed.
I try not to outwardly express my frustration and the claustrophobia I am feeling; it feels wrong to do so in someone else’s home.
I was raised internationally, so moving around is not new to me. My family and I never knew where we’d be moving to next or how much time we had left where we were currently living. I have been raised to adapt to uncertainties and new environments. But the lack of stability I feel now is incomparable to anything I have felt before.
I never know whose couch I’ll be crashing on in a week’s time. My friend may be having a bad week, and suddenly I’m looking for another place to live. I always remind myself that I am a guest. I cannot overstep or overstay my welcome. I try not to outwardly express my frustration and the claustrophobia I am feeling. It feels wrong to do so in someone else’s home, especially when they are being so generous.
Viewings and hospis are a nightmare; I have to pretend I am perfect for each house I see, acting like I’m enjoying myself. I can’t seem too desperate or too nonchalant. Not too extroverted, but definitely not too introverted. We bring alcohol and everyone has a great time, until the decision is made and we are reminded of our reality: some of us are homeless students looking for shelter.
I chip away at pieces of myself until I am intangible. Blown away by the wind. Invisible.