Students
Dennis (left) at his regular spot in the Folkingestraat, together with a friend. Photo by Rianne Aalbers

Connecting with the homeless

‘They just want to be treated like humans’

Dennis (left) at his regular spot in the Folkingestraat, together with a friend. Photo by Rianne Aalbers
Students and homeless people typically live alongside each other in Groningen. But every now and then, they do connect, and sometimes even develop an unexpected friendship. ‘You learn a little bit more every time you talk.’
5 March om 9:45 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 6 March 2024
om 11:30 uur.
March 5 at 9:45 AM.
Last modified on March 6, 2024
at 11:30 AM.
Avatar photo

Door Ingrid Ştefan

5 March om 9:45 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 6 March 2024
om 11:30 uur.
Avatar photo

By Ingrid Ştefan

March 5 at 9:45 AM.
Last modified on March 6, 2024
at 11:30 AM.

On a rainy evening last November, a young homeless guy carrying two big trolley bags walked into the lobby of the Xior building on the Eendrachtskade, looking for shelter from the weather. Almost immediately a heated discussion broke out in the residents’ group chat. 

‘Most students wanted him out of there as fast as possible’, says artificial intelligence student Amit Bharti. ‘Especially when they heard that one of the students had had a negative experience with him.’ 

A few months before, the man had also entered the building. A student, wanting to help, invited him to sleep in his studio, but ended up having to kick him out because of his substance abuse. 

Even so, Amit could not help but feel sorry for him. ‘It was raining cats and dogs outside. And the guy wasn’t harming anyone; he wasn’t asking for food or anything. He was just staying in the lobby’, he says. ‘And I was thinking, if we kick him out, where will he go? To the train station? Where he’ll be kicked out into the rain again?’

Different worlds

In 2022, 708 people in Groningen were registered as homeless, according to the most recent Homelessness Monitor by Research Statistics and Information Groningen (Onderzoek Informatie Statistiek Groningen). Of those, 150 were sleeping outside. In that same year, Groningen had over 65,000 students. 

The two groups live in different worlds. And when they do connect, students often want to retreat as quickly as possible, like the Xior residents did. Only Amit and one other girl tried to stand up for the homeless man. The girl eventually went to talk to him. ‘She said he wasn’t drunk or aggressive, just hungry. He was almost crying’, Amit remembers. ‘So, to make everybody happy, she ended up ordering him a cab and getting him a night at a hotel.’

Homeless people are usually nice and have really fascinating stories

Sometimes, though, the connection lasts longer, like in the case of history student Thomas (who preferred not to use his real name). He befriended Dennis over a year ago. ‘His spot is on my route to work and university’, Thomas explains. ‘We see each other a couple of times a week, if not more. Back when I used to smoke, I would always give him a cigarette, and that was kind of the conversation starter.’

Thomas likes interacting with homeless people. ‘They’re usually nice and many of them have really fascinating stories. You learn a little bit more every time you talk to them.’

With Dennis, it also started as simple chit chat. But it turned into more one night after one of Thomas’s housemates had made way too much curry. ‘We took some plates and cutlery over to Dennis’s spot on the street. We all enjoyed it and so we did it a few more times.’

Chemistry student

Now, when Thomas goes to the supermarket, he gets Dennis some food too, and he always stops for a chat. ‘Dennis is a really nice and open guy. He knows a lot about chemistry, so I think he must have had higher education in that direction.’

Dennis has a crooked smile and his long hair tied up in a bun. He values his connection to Thomas too, he says. He was indeed once a chemistry student, but has been homeless for three years now, after having suffered an accident that left him in a coma for a week. 

Most of the time, he can be found in the Folkingestraat with his indispensable paper cup, although on Thursdays he’ll go for the Poelestraat, next to Domino’s. ‘Students usually give more money when they’re drunk’, he says.

But usually, they hardly look at him, while judging him at the same time. ‘Once, this guy threw two euros at me from his bike and yelled at me to go get a job’. Dennis just told him: ‘Why would I do that? You just gave me two euros.’ Still, he’s mild: ‘Students are young, they haven’t seen much of the world yet. I know, because I’ve been there myself.’

Sleeping on the ground

Psychology student Matúš Farkaš has less sympathy for that kind of behaviour, though. Last spring, when he lived at The Village, he woke up to a homeless man sleeping on the ground beside his bed. ‘He was in his late 40s, with layers of clothing and chunky boots’, he recalls.

The man had been trying doors, and after having been kicked out of another student’s room, he found Matúš’s door unlocked. ‘My friends who live on the same floor were screaming at me to wake up’, he says. ‘I was too tired to be confused or scared. I wasn’t really thinking.’

Students are young, they haven’t seen much of the world yet

He felt sorry for the man, who was falling asleep every two minutes, but also realised he couldn’t stay there. So, to keep him awake and make him talk, he got the guy some food and helped him out of the building. 

‘Food is a universal language. And I wanted him to feel safe. He wasn’t aggressive, he was just disoriented, so there was no need for force or violence’, Matúš says. ‘If I was lost and cut off from society, I would like someone to do the same thing for me.’

Hurtful

Mandy, a European languages and cultures student, feels the same way. Although she had an uncomfortable experience with a homeless man following her once, she still thinks it’s important to be nice to them. ‘What homeless people are often after is a conversation, a kind word’, she notes. ‘They just want to be treated like humans, because that’s what they are.’

Dennis’ friend Frank, an ex-crane driver who’s been homeless for nine months, confirms there’s nothing more hurtful than getting ignored. He usually hangs out near the Groninger Museum, where he tries to get enough money for the homeless shelter, which is around 5 to 6 euros per night. 

They just avert their gaze and that makes me feel like shit

‘Thousands of people pass by there every day. They look at you, you look at them, but then they just avert their gaze. That makes me feel like shit’, he says in flawless English. 

He lived and worked in the USA for a long time, he explains. ‘Even so, students don’t really think we’re the same. Many of them just look down on me and some even say rude things to me. They try to make me feel very small.’

Frank has worked all his life, but after a conflict with his landlord, he ended up on the streets. 

Because he couldn’t find a place to sleep and was working from 5 a.m. every day, Frank had to give up his job eventually. ’I just couldn’t keep up with it anymore’, he says. ‘Students just don’t know all that, unless they take the time to ask.’ 

But while the vast majority don’t even acknowledge the existence of homeless people, some do go out of their way to help, he has found. Like the guy who stops by now: he gives Frank some money, asks him if he has eaten anything, and offers him the protein fruit pouches he’s carrying in his backpack. ‘I know students don’t have much money themselves’, says Frank. ‘So I appreciate their help every time.’

Want to know more about the life of homeless people in Groningen? Watch Van de straat, a short Dutch-language documentary by Rianne Aalbers which was nominated for best non-fiction film made in Groningen.

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