Constance speaks to students experiencing secondary homelessness and questions whether the University has addressed the issue sufficiently.
What do we call a student who doesn’t have stable accommodation in the city that they live in? Moving between temporary residences, including the sofas of friends and family, is technically considered to be secondary homelessness. This term can rub some people the wrong way. “For students who could plausibly go back to mum and dad…to describe themselves as homeless, that’s just ridiculous” says Liam, a fourth-year Literature student, who has spent the last two years in “tenuous” living. “Lots of people are doing university from home, so you know, cry me a fucking river.”
But the option of living at home is, of course, not available to everyone. And though there will always be students who haven’t got their accommodation in order, the autumn term of 2021 saw a sharp rise in secondary homelessness. During freshers’ week the hostel by Kelvingrove Park was filled with students, including third-year Biology student Steve and second-year Literature student Edward.
“Lots of people are doing university from home, so you know, cry me a fucking river.”
Fourth-year Economics student Peter found that there was “no room at the inn” when his lease went up. He ended up calling the Chaplaincy asking for a bed, or even to sleep on the floor. “Message seen but not replied. I slept outside of the chaplaincy that night.” The next day he went to a hostel, asking for a room. Only it wasn’t a hostel, it was a youth homeless centre. And there wasn’t any room.
There’s no privacy, especially in 16-man rooms. The water runs cold, so the dishes are never properly clean. And there is a “dodgy figure” who keeps offering various flats to the girls, though naturally they question “why he was living in a hostel and yet had all these rental opportunities”. But that’s not to say that sofa surfing is easy. You don’t sleep much because you’re on the floor, because you’re out on the doorstep until 2am waiting to be let in. You don’t have a key, or any of your possessions. Everything Edward owns in Glasgow can fit into two rucksacks. Steve spread out all of his luggage across five different flats.
To be accommodating, you’re out of the house all day. It’s a lot of time at the library, the reading room, and sitting in a park. “One thing I do remember quite clearly”, says Peter, “is just not being able to focus on anything other than where I am going to be sleeping that evening. It was honestly impossible to do uni work”. Of his coursework, Liam says, “well I just didn’t do any.”
They describe their time sofa surfing as a “fog”, a “blur”; you feel “set adrift”. “I’m not saying I’m a humanitarian crisis or whatever,” says Liam, “but you know, it jumbles your head, it jumbles any sense or purpose or direction you might have had before”. It’s not just affecting the students who sofa surf, but also students who take them in. Over the autumn, both Peter and Edward stayed in a flat in Hillhead, owned by two Psychology students, Lea and Casey. “We had the space, they didn’t, they needed somewhere to stay. It wasn’t supposed to be for long”. Since the summer, they have hosted 11 students who didn’t have anywhere else to go.
“They describe their time sofa surfing as a “fog”, a “blur”; you feel “set adrift.”
As students became more and more desperate for accommodation over the autumn, their standards lowered dramatically. “Landlords have run riot during Covid” comments Liam. Steve remembers one viewing he went to which ended in a bidding war. “People were literally crying, people were saying please can I have this flat, please.” Students started to offer to pay an extra £100 per month. The winner paid an advance of a year’s rent on the spot. “There was a lot of that. There was a lot of viciousness (amongst students) as well.”
Eventually Steve accepted a flat without having ever seen it. The landlord gave it to him at a reduced rent because he “wanted to see kids off the street”. Liam stayed briefly in a flat in Maryhill that had bars on the windows. “Norwegian prisoners probably get a better quality of life for free off their state”, he remarks. Students commuted in from Edinburgh. The University sent first years to Paisley. Fourth-year students moved back into halls. Edward moved into the cupboard at Peter’s new place. “Like a modern day Harry Potter, if he went to Glasgow University.”
How do you feel about telling people? “It varies”, says Edward. “I’ve never told anyone to begin with that I’m homeless. It’s not something that I hid particularly. I just wouldn’t be clear about it. I suppose they call it lying by omission. Homelessness is not a state that you expect anyone to fall into from my socio-economic position unless they’ve badly fucked up in some meaningful sense.” Liam also practises lying by omission. “I wouldn’t want to say I’m homeless, that’s awful”, he says. “It’s probably a sense of pride actually. I don’t want to confront, I suppose, the reality of the situation. I’d address it in a really roundabout way.”
Some students went the other way. “I was happy to talk to anyone about my fucking grievance”, says Peter. “Everyone seemed to have a story, like oh god me too, or they’re putting someone up.” Steve, similarly, estimates that he knew over 50 students who were also in-between accommodation. “It was just a very normal part of conversation. You’d say ‘hello, how are you’, and then the next question would immediately be ‘have you got a flat?’ and one of the most common answers would be ‘no, I’m staying at someone’s’. It was just ubiquitous at that point.” In regards to how he felt about telling people, he shrugs. “My mother raised me shameless.”
The National Union of Students recently raised concerns about student housing. This year was especially severe, as COP26 saw 30,000 delegates arrive in Glasgow, overwhelming a city already struggling with a housing crisis. Jamie Hepburn, the Minister for Higher and Further Education, replied: “while the Scottish government has no direct role in the provision of student residential accommodation, we would strongly encourage students with those concerns to speak with their college or university.”
“And while this epidemic caught many students off guard, surely the University must have seen it coming?”
Students have indeed done this but have been disappointed by the lack of response. They have seen little of the holistic support that the University promises. A UofG spokesperson commented that “we understand the concern students have about finding accommodation”. They affirmed that they will continue to support students “with hardships funds wherever necessary”. But there is only so much that money can buy when it comes to a saturation crisis. And while this epidemic caught many students off guard, surely the University must have seen it coming?
Edward argues that having somebody from the institution that students could talk to in person would be the most valuable thing the University could do. “They’ll say it’s the arts advising team, I’m sure they will. But you can’t call them. And I’ve been to their offices. They still have offices. But there’s no one in there.” Peter remembers that before the pandemic, there was always someone available. “I see none of them anymore. They don’t exist any more. It’s just emails, endlessly, pinging back and forth, like banging your head against a wall. And their mealy-mouthed responses in their emails, that really pissed me off. COP26, all the other factors. They obviously knew. How could they not have prepared?”