It’s early September and Stochemhoeve Camp Site, close to Cronesteyn Park, is gradually filling up. However, its guests aren’t holidaymakers but homeless students looking for a place on the wet grass to pitch their tents or caravans. “I was the only one here on Saturday”, says Yichao Li (26, Data Science). “I didn’t actually expect more students to arrive.” Now there are five of them, including two Dutch students with nowhere to go. They all need to find somewhere by 4 October, as that’s when the camp site closes.
“The advantage is that you make friends easily”, Li continues. “Nothing unites people like being in deep shit together.” There is a potted plant in front of his tent. “I brought it with me from London in the car. I’ve had it for eight years, so I didn’t want to abandon it.”
He had not expected that it would be so difficult to find accommodation here. “The university sent me an email with the advice to look for housing before you are formally admitted, but they didn’t explain why. And who’s going to look for digs before you’re sure you’re going to live there? I thought London was bad but there’s more available in London even than here.”
In Leiden, the municipal council, the university and DUWO, the student housing service, reckon another 2,700 student rooms are needed. Their estimate is based on the national monitor produced by the Dutch umbrella organisation for student housing. But how accurate is that figure? After all, it’s not clear how many graduates leave Leiden and how many of the town’s new residents are registered as students by Leiden’s municipal authorities.
One thing is certain: both internationals and Dutch students are having lots of trouble finding somewhere to live – and that applies to other universities towns too. In Groningen, the university arranged emergency shelter for a hundred and twenty international students: they set up three tents, a dormitory and a house boat, provided meals and looked for addresses where students could stay for a time.
“Before the summer holidays, one of the student parties called for couchsurfing addresses and the university asked its staff to help after the summer holidays”, says Jan Wolthuis from Groningen University’s Student Affairs Department. People responded to the reports of the tent dormitories by offering rooms in their homes for a short time. “A total of about three hundred students, staff and private homes offered places, so some hundred and fifty students have a roof over their heads for now.”
Leiden won’t be following Groningen’s example just yet, says Caroline van Overbeeke, the university spokesperson. “We haven’t discussed the option of staff or private homes taking in students this term. We have an emergency solution: temporary housing at a holiday park in Noordwijk and we’ve actively contacted students who reported that they have nowhere to go, so they can stay there for two months. From there, they can look for somewhere more permanent.” However, this solution seems to lack structure, as only seven students have moved in so far.
“I’m not proud to be a tramp”, says German student Mirco Berner (23, Maths). Nonetheless, he and Li would prefer to spend the whole winter at the camp site. “I only need somewhere to sleep; I’m at the university the rest of the time”, Berner explains. What about the cold? “You need dress like an onion, with lots of layers and long sleeves. I’ve already heard about a camp site nearby that stays open until November. Perhaps I’ll move there in October.”
At the Lipsius Building, four international students are on their laptops, looking for a place to live. They’re desperate, they claim. “I only heard from the university that I had been admitted to the Master programme on 13 August”, says Federica (22, Psychology). “So, I couldn’t start looking any earlier. If I can’t find a place, I’ll go home and take an unwanted gap year, although I did my utmost to finish my Bachelor’s on time.”
Federica is staying with different people she meets on the couchsurfing site until she finds a place. At the moment, she’s sleeping on Dutch student Anne’s (21, Cultural Anthropology) couch. She only intended to stay a week, but it’s already been two.
“I can’t just throw someone out”, says Anne. “It’s really tough for them. I’ve also made a Facebook appeal to see whether other people would be willing to take in any international students.” German student Anika (22, Psychology), who spent one night in her car, is staying with Anne too. “It was so cold and wet, I couldn’t face a tent and I thought my car would be more comfortable”, Anika explains. “Of course, it’s not ideal. There’s no bathroom, nowhere to cook. I don’t even think it’s legal.”
Marina (24, Film and Literature Studies) will get her first taste of couchsurfing tonight. Until now, she’s being staying with friends in Wageningen. She had already started looking for digs in Spain, where she lives. She had even found a place, she thought. “I had made a Facebook appeal, and someone replied that he had a room for me in Leiden; he sent pictures and videos too”, Marina recalls. “He even put me in touch with the girl who supposedly lived there.”
Because he said lots of other people wanted the room, she paid a deposit and one month in advance, a sum that came to 1,100 Euros in total. She transferred the money and sent copies of her ID; then she heard nothing from him at all. “I’m scared that my ID is being used to scam other people.”
Eleonora (24, African Studies) was conned by the same person. She, too, lost 1,100 Euros. “I’m sleeping on a mattress in someone’s scullery. Do you want to see the pics? Look, here’s a pile of pasta, some bread... But I’m just glad they’re willing to put me up.” Going home is not an option, she says. “I’m going fight to the end, no way I’m leaving.”
Another week has past and Mirco Berner is still in his tent, but even with the rain, he doesn’t see it as a problem. “My tent leaks, but I’m tough. The only problem is that my clothes get wet and there’s nowhere to dry them.” He’s already booked his pitch until the end of September.
After that, he’ll move into a hostel or to another camp site. “I don’t really have a plan. I’m still responding to adverts for rooms, but often I don’t even get a reply. And if I do, it’s a rejection.”
Yichao Li has had more luck: he rang the Housing Office at exactly the right time and got a room because someone else failed to turn up. “I moved in on Saturday. Camping was fine, but I’m glad I’ve got a proper place. Last week, I went to a viewing at a house that cost 750 Euros a month. It was a huge mess, in a house the owner had converted into as many flats as possible. You even had to pay to get power for the washing machine.”
He was still on the camp site during the very Dutch cloudbursts last week. “Getting up and going to the bathroom facilities was awful, especially because I sometimes forgot to put my shoes inside.”
By Susan Wichgers and Sebastiaan van Loosbroek
Hotline student housing
Leiden Municipal Council’s policy paper states that currently 2,700 student houses are needed. In response, student party ONS has set up the Housing Shortage Hotline. “Last year, we received lots of complaints, particularly from international students. The Executive Board’s ambitions are more focused, but only on the long term. We need solutions now, though, too. It looks as if the university doesn’t know precisely how many students are affected.”
Many international students find the scant information very irritating, but Leiden University says they have done their bit. “This year, we’ve focused all our communication on informing students about the matter”, a spokesman replies. “The departments are helping too: when students apply for a place, they are asked whether they want the university’s help to find accommodation.”
Dozens of students have already reported to ONS since last Thursday. The hotline will remain open until October, when the party is to discuss the issue with the Executive Board. Students can voice their complaints at www.stemons.nl.