“I urgently need a room or I’ll have to drop out, does anyone have a spare room going?” reads one post. “Need a room to stay in temporarily until I can find accommodation, even a sofa to sleep on will do,” a user writes. “Desperately looking for a room if anyone knows of anything,” asks another. These were all recent posts on Facebook groups for universities across the UK, from students who are facing or experiencing homelessness.
The ongoing recession in the UK has caused the biggest rise in living costs the country’s seen in 40 years, while sparking the worst fall in living standards since records began. The cost of living crisis has hit students especially hard, with one in ten facing homelessness due to lack of affordable housing, according to the university marketing network Student Beans.
Global student housing provider Yugo did research on the impact of the crisis on 6,000 students around the world, which it shared with VICE. The findings suggested that over half (53 percent) of students in the UK are being affected by the crisis, a higher proportion than that in any other European country represented in the survey.
The study also showed the extent to which those in the UK feel let down by the government. Nearly three quarters (72 percent) of UK-based students say the government should be doing more to support them through the cost of living crisis.
Since the crisis began in late 2021, many students have found themselves unable to afford rent and bills while the scarcity of affordable housing means that viable accommodation gets snapped up quickly. This, combined with oversubscribed universities taking more students than they have rooms for, has left some students - who can’t rely on living with parents or offer potential landlords rent above the asking price - homeless.
One of those students is 20-year-old Kat. Like all the interviewees in the piece, we are only using her first name to protect her privacy. Studying film at a university in Surrey, Kat has been unable to afford her rent and bills for student accommodation, and has been forced into homelessness as a result.
“I was in halls on campus for my first year at uni but that’s the only year they offer it for,” she says. “After that, you have to find student accommodation elsewhere. All the student landlords were asking for guarantors, I’m estranged from all of my family and so I had no one to ask.”
Kat told prospecting landlords about her family situation, but none would budge on the guarantor. “I must have spoken to about 20 student landlords and all of them wanted a guarantor and wouldn’t negotiate. I had found a pretty dodgy looking company that you could pay to be your guarantor for like £200 a month or something like that. I almost paid for it with my student overdraft and considered the cost something I could worry about later, but one of my friends stopped me.”
Kat figured things might be easier if she rented a home as a professional, rather than a student. “I had to get around the guarantor problem somehow and I was working three jobs. I worked at a pizza place, did some cleaning and some freelance social media stuff, so I went into private renting with those roles on my application. I didn’t mention that I was a student.”
For a while, this plan worked. Kat found a house where she could easily walk to university. But when the cost of living crisis began, her home life started to unravel. “I had always only just been able to afford my rent, so when my energy bills went up 100 percent and food prices got more expensive, it tipped me from ‘just about affording it’ to not being able to afford rent at all. I asked my landlord for some time to figure things out but, in the end, I had to leave. I didn’t want rent arrears or an eviction on my record or anything.”
Kat stayed on multiple friends’ sofas while she searched for student accommodation options, but was faced with the same guarantor issues she had before. “Maybe I should have spoken to my university about it, but I knew the usual policy was only first years get on-campus accommodation, and I was so embarrassed to tell people that I’d basically fucked everything up,” she explains.
Sofa surfing was not as easy as she’d hoped. “People say that they’re happy to help and then get sick of you being in their space after a couple of weeks, which I totally get, so you have to switch to a new friend’s sofa pretty frequently and lug your stuff around every single time. I don’t have a car and I moved about six times in the space of a few months, wheeling my stuff around town every time,” she says.
Kat ended up dropping out of university and returning to her hometown, but as she’s estranged from her family, she was still sofa surfing via friends. “I ended up calling the council, and now I’m in temporary emergency housing for homeless people. I’ve been here for a few months and I don’t know if I’ll ever have a proper home at this point.
“In hindsight, maybe I should have looked at emergency housing in my uni town but I don’t know how well I’d have studied while knowing my home could disappear any minute,” she adds. “I wish someone had been able to help me. I wish I’d asked for more help.”
The research from Student Beans shows that the majority of homeless students (49 percent) are sleeping on a friend’s sofa, like Kat did. A survey by NUS Scotland presented similar findings, showing that 12 percent of students have experienced homelessness since the beginning of their studies. The level of financial difficulty was highest amongst estranged, disabled, mature and care leaver students.
Patrick Mulrenan, an associate professor of learning at London Metropolitan University and Fellow of Chartered Institute of Housing, says that homelessness has been a hidden problem among students for some time, particularly working class students and mature students who have children, and the cost of living crisis has only worsened the situation.
As part of a research project, Mulrenan spoke to 29 homeless students at London Metropolitan University and said that it’s much easier than people realise to become a homeless student.
Mulrenan says that people can often lack sympathy for students and fail to see them as vulnerable because they hold an archetypal idea of what a student is in their heads. They think of 18-year-old middle class teenagers with the bank of mum and dad to fall back on. In reality, students are of all ages, classes, ethnicities and home situations, and many are more vulnerable than you’d think. “International students, mature students with families, minority ethnic students and care leaver students are among the most at risk,” he says. “They have always been vulnerable to homelessness, the cost of living crisis is just making things worse.
There are myriad routes to homelessness for the most vulnerable students, Mulrenan adds. “I’ve spoken to students who’ve left properties because they were unsafe to live in, because their relationships have broken down and they’ve been forced to find somewhere else to live… I’ve even spoken to students who’ve had landlords make sexual advances towards them.”
Even when students do make it out of homelessness and find somewhere to live, they often end up accepting unideal and even unsafe properties out of desperation. 30-year-old mature student Bunmi was homeless in the West Midlands for four months and desperately looking for secure accommodation to live in while she studied.
“Like many other international students, I arrived in the UK without being able to secure accommodation. I ended up renting an Airbnb to avoid being homeless and had to take on house hunting as a whole other full time responsibility while full time studying,” she says. “After months of searching I finally secured a tiny room without a window because of desperation to get permanent accommodation.”
Bunmi says living in this accommodation had a huge impact on her mental health. “I had no natural daylight coming into the room and it also overheated really easily because I had no way of ventilating the room. I was constantly hot, and in the dark.” Bunmi says she also worried about the impact house hunting during her Freshers term would have. “I had viewings during lectures sometimes so I would be sitting in lessons looking at my watch or just having to leave.” She often worried about how this would come across.
“I moved from Nigeria to the UK, so there was already a huge culture shock living in a completely different country where I had no family to help me out. Dealing with homelessness on top of this was so difficult.” Now, Bunmi has graduated and lives in secure accommodation, and offers her sofa to any international students struggling with homelessness, because she knows the difficulty first-hand.
Mature student and mum-of-two Kiera, 28, had a similar experience, “I was made homeless during my studies in London after my relationship didn’t work out. I have two kids and I desperately needed to find a home for them as well as me. I moved here from Poland so I don’t have any family in the UK to help me out.”
For months, Kiera was looking for a flat, caring for her children and keeping up her studies simultaneously. “I wasn’t even able to get a viewing for ages, houses in London were getting snapped up so fast. In the end, I viewed and accepted a house that was completely ridden with mould because at least it was a house. I felt sick moving my stuff in, but it was slightly better than sleeping on friends’ sofas. My kids are not safe here, though, so the search for a home isn’t over.”
As well as the cost of living crisis and the (awful) state of UK renting, Mulrenan explains that a combination of shame and a lack of awareness is a component that keeps homelessness among students going, and keeps it hidden.
In most of his interviews with homeless students, Mulrenan was the first person the case study had told they were homeless. “They were relieved to have told somebody and clearly thought they were the only ones going through it, but I was speaking to their own classmates about the same issues.”
“Homelessness among students is hidden because students don't talk about it and nobody else does either,” he adds. “Universities also don't measure who is homeless. When students come to university they measure for diversity, taking stuff from your date of birth, your ethnicity, gender, and info around social class, but they don't collect information about homelessness, and many students will already be homeless when they arrive for their studies. Because of this [lack of data], we don’t know the full extent of student homelessness.”
Many students also struggle to recognise homelessness in themselves. Twenty-year-old Ronnie is currently homeless and just dropped out of his studies in London after failing to attend most of his lectures. He’s been sleeping on friends’ sofas and illegally subletting rooms during friends’ holidays.
“It took me a really long time to realise I’m homeless,” he says. “It sounds stupid, but I guess I thought because I’m not sleeping on the streets and I have clothes and a roof over my head, I’m basically fine. I do feel fine. I have a job and I’m okay. I just don’t have my own home. I have a different person’s home every couple of weeks. It’s been extremely stressful and difficult. I guess I just didn’t see myself as homeless because there are homeless people in much worse situations.”
He says that despite having to drop out, he spoke to his university about his living situation and they are doing their best to help him. “They were the ones who used the ‘homeless’ word and it really shocked me. I definitely didn’t see myself as homeless but I 100 percent am. They’re trying to help me find a flat with a private landlord, so I’m hopeful that things will change soon.”
Mulrenan explains that students can be quick to brush their situation off, especially if they don’t have dependents and they’re not sleeping on the street. “Homeless students who are sofa surfing might not see themselves as homeless, as it seems like it’s all part of the student culture. Often, if people are in temporary accommodation, they don’t see themselves as homeless because they have a roof over their head. But temporary means temporary. That could be ten years or a few months but it’s still not secure housing,” he says.
If universities and governments are serious about making university attainable for all, the hidden problem of student homelessness needs to be addressed with secure housing for all, and accessible, adequate services for those who are facing hardship. Mulrenan adds that we also need to challenge our perceptions of what homelessness really looks like. “Many picture a person sitting on the street with a sign and a dog but a homeless student can look like anyone.”
He adds: “You're homeless if you don’t have a home. And what home means to people is more than just a house, more than just a roof over your head. It's about community and security and safety.”
If you're homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless in the UK, you can contact Crisis, Shelter or Citizens Advice. You can also ring Shelter for free on 0808 800 4444, between 8AM-8PM on weekdays or 9AM-5PM on weekends, 365 days a year.