Denise Chin from Malaysia sits in the simple living rooms of the Simplon hostel at the Boterdiep. She is a pre-master student in psychology and really wants to stick around Groningen for her master’s degree, but her living situation is becoming increasingly disheartening: ‘I’ve thought many times of giving up and going back to my country. It feels as if I’m being pushed out – as if the city doesn’t want me.’
The hostel doubles as a restaurant in the evenings. As the staff bustles around setting up for dinner, Denise shuffles out of the way to sit in a chair by the window.
Customers trickle in, shaking off the rain and greeting each other merrily. She watches them. They are here to have a good time, but she is here because she has nowhere to else to go. ‘It’s been a month already and I’m still looking for a room.’
Denise had to make a decision this week. Would she stay, or would she give up and go home to Malaysia? University spokesperson Jorien Bakker says that housing problems are usually resolved by October, but Denise hasn’t been so lucky. Neither have many of the other students living alongside her at the hostel.
We don’t know
Are things quieter now because everyone has found a place to live, or because people are simply giving up?
According to Bakker, there are currently 115 students living at the emergency housing in the Metaallaan and the Eemskanaal Noordzijde. But those are not the only places where homeless students are staying. They’re also sleeping in hostels or on the couches of other students.
Koen Marée from student party DAG estimates that there are dozens of homeless students in town who don’t show up in the university’s statistics. ‘We estimate that at least 200 students total are still looking for a place, maybe as many as 300. I heard a lot of stories of students who went home after three weeks in a hostel. So we don’t know how big the problem really was.’
Commuting every day
Jennifer is one of those students. She arrived in the Netherlands a year ago for an internship in Den Haag. After that, she decided to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in international relations. ‘This year I enrolled at the RUG hoping to find a place in Groningen and move there before courses started. But I couldn’t find anything, so I had to commute to Groningen every day.’
Jennifer would wake before 5 a.m. every morning, after only four hours of sleep, to catch the first train that would put her in town in time for class. On the side, she also kept room hunting. ‘I did everything I could’, she says, ‘but in the end I had to give up.’
Exhausted, she decided to drop out last week. She considered returning home to the UK, where she says most of her friends are already ‘debt slaves to students loans’. ‘But I rethought it’, she says. Instead, Jennifer decided to stay in Den Haag. Now, she says, she is stuck in a kind of limbo; she doesn’t know what to do next, or where to do it. But one thing is very clear: ‘Groningen is not an option’.
The university should be aware of students like Jennifer, says Marée. He asked the university board to ask students who drop out or never paid their tuition what factors motivate their decisions. That way, the university could get a clearer picture of how many homeless students just gave up.
But University Board member Jan De Jeu said that isn’t possible. ‘That would be far too complicated. We keep track of how many people unenroll, but we don’t know why.’
In the meantime, Denise is hanging on at the Simplon hostel. She gets that uncertainty is a normal part of student life –‘there is never a satisfying balance, you accept that’ – but she thinks insecurity should not be. ‘Not having the basics covered… I would have never expected that.’
Nonetheless, she’s decided to keep trying her luck in Groningen: ‘I’ll leave this city only if I’m forced to. I want to feel at ease here, make it my new home, to one day come back to this hostel and enjoy a nice dinner with friends.’