homeless youth
All photos by Djanlissa Pringels 
Life

What It's Like to Be a Student When You're Homeless

"Studying really saved me."
28 November 2019, 8:45am

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

While homelessness is incredibly tough for anyone who experiences it, homeless youth are forced into early adulthood.

In the UK this year, 103,000 people under the age of 25 reached out to councils for help with homelessness. One third of Spain's homeless population is under 30, while in the Netherlands the number of homeless youth tripled over the past three years, according to the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics.

Back Up, in the Dutch city of Utrecht, is an organisation that helps homeless youth get back on track. It was through Back Up that I met Denice*, Sam* and Robin*, who told me what it's like trying to study while homeless.

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Robin. Photo by Djanlissa Pringels

Robin*, 25
When I left my childhood home because my stepfather insisted on making my life a living hell, I was already enrolled in an ICT course. I wanted to move into student housing but I had a hard time, because in the Netherlands prospective roommates have to choose you. I was feeling so down at the time that I couldn't convince people to pick me.

The label "homeless" made me very insecure. After being rejected for the umpteenth time, I had no energy left to look for a room. Luckily, I'd saved up some money, so I chose to live in cheap hostels for a couple of months.

I found it very hard to tell my classmates, who I became close friends with, that I was homeless. I think they must have known, because I looked pretty shabby, wasn't eating anything and was really quiet. It was important to keep doing activities that made me feel good, like sports or making music. That way I kept producing dopamine and I could focus more on studying.

Studying really saved me at that time. When you see your classmates every day and they see you, you don't feel invisible. It helps with a routine, so you don’t live day by day. For now, I'm living all over the place, but there’s a good chance I’ll be able to get a room in the near future. Then I’ll finally be able to start my life as an independent man.

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Denice. Photo by Djanlissa Pringels

Denice, 23
When my mother passed away I slowly turned into an insufferable teenager and it made home life horrible. When I left home at 18, I felt very vulnerable. I chose the worst places to live and hung out with the wrong crowd. I was harassed by my landlord, who said my boyfriend could only stay over if I gave him sexual favours. One night I woke up to my landlord kissing me. The next day I moved out and stayed with friends.

To give myself a future, I decided to become a qualified chef. It also provided me with a sense of security. The less stability at home, the more I held on to my education. I only had to attend school one day a week; the other days, I worked. The days when I didn't have to think about my difficult living situation were a blessing.

I was looking for a place to live but never got chosen. With the little money I made doing student jobs – €1,000 – I didn’t earn enough to rent a flat. I couldn’t even pay a deposit. Within a short period of time I’d built up some serious debt because of transportation costs, new clothes and dentist bills. Since I left home I’ve moved around 11 times and lost a lot of my stuff in the process. My debt has grown to €20,000.

Last year I was in dire straits. I couldn’t find a place to stay, so I ended up on the streets. At first I slept in an abandoned home for a few days. The only material things I had left fit into two plastic bags. It was freezing and I couldn’t sleep at all. I didn’t have the energy to go to school.

After four nights I was able to go to a homeless shelter. During the day I was still attending both my job and school, where I pretended everything was OK. Nights were hell. I was the youngest person at the shelter and one of few women, which made me a target for the men. I felt very unsafe and spent hours crying.

Studying at the homeless shelter was another challenge. It’s hard to concentrate in a room where people are always smoking weed and you’re surrounded by dozens of noisy men. But I focused on my studies because it gave me a reason to stay alive.

A few weeks ago I moved into a small flat where I feel safe for the first time in years. On top of that, it's almost time for me to graduate. A counsellor is helping me fix my debt – I’m happy I’ll finally be able to put this period behind me. I hope I’ll learn to trust people again and reach out for help a little sooner next time.

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Sam. Photo by Djanlissa Pringels

Sam*, 21
When I was eight, my mother went back to Suriname and left her children behind in three different foster homes. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to take me in, so from the age of eight to 16 I lived in a rehabilitation unit. At the time I was studying to join the military.

At 16 I was living at a friend’s house. It was hard to concentrate on my studies and I didn’t get along with his mother very well. When I turned 18 I decided to go out for some fresh air one day and she took the opportunity to lock me and my stuff out of the house. I'd just graduated and was on my way to becoming a soldier, but I had no money, nowhere to live and a lot of mental health issues.

I decided to enrol in another course – that way I could live off student grants. Because I couldn’t find a room immediately, I stayed in a crisis centre for three months. After that I lived with my girlfriend’s parents, but I couldn’t register at their address because I was in a lot of debt and they were scared a debt collector would turn up.

They also didn’t want me in their house every night. Because of that I spent a lot of time wandering around looking for a place to sleep. There were times I had to sleep on the streets. I couldn't sleep, and I didn't want to sleep. So I smoked weed until the sun came up.

I was doing a management course at the time. I made sure I did my homework. But whenever I slept on the street I would show up to class high as a kite. My mentor, who knew about my situation, usually allowed me to take a nap in the computer room when this happened.

I never felt like a homeless person. I always made sure I had money and that I never had
to beg. I took showers at my girlfriend’s house and carried a toothbrush around. If I needed food I just went out and bought a microwave dinner at the local supermarket and asked them to heat it up. I’ve learned that a lot of people are willing to help you as long as you’re not afraid to ask.

Studying has really saved me, but it wasn’t easy. As soon as you’re homeless, money becomes your biggest focus. Your entire day revolves around how you’re going to make ends meet and figuring out how to afford expensive books for school.

I don't feel stressed out about the debt I’m accumulating yet. I’ll pay all of it back once I’m off the streets. My dream is to start a hip-hop career, but first I want to finish my education so I never have to live on the streets again.

*Names changed. Interviews edited for clarity.