What I Learned from Being Homeless

I stayed in hostels including this one in Utrecht for five weeks as I couldn’t find a permanent place to live. Photo by Author.

Like most people, I never expected I would ever become homeless. I’m educated, have a stable income and don’t have drug problems. But for five weeks in 2018, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, I ended up in a foreign country with nowhere to live.

During the summer of that year, I moved from my home country of Australia for a working holiday in The Netherlands. Within a week of my arrival, I had found short-term accommodation without too much difficulty and lived happily in Utrecht for a little while. But eventually the owner of that apartment returned from his summer vacation and I left the country to travel around North America for a month, so I moved out.

In total I would be staying in The Netherlands for a year so figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find another place to live when I returned to Utrecht. But I was wrong. I happened to return at the beginning of autumn, right at the start of the university semester. Utrecht has a large university, so thousands of students from elsewhere in the country and around the world had just arrived in town — and snapped up all the available housing.

Of course, I should have done more research and this was poor timing on my part. But I certainly wasn’t the only person in this situation at the time. I stayed in hostel dorms while trying to find permanent accommodation, and there were dozens of other people — mainly students — in exactly the same situation. Utrecht had a housing crisis and there simply wasn’t enough living space to meet the demand.

I won’t go into too much detail here, but I believe the Dutch housing system has some serious flaws. For example, the controlled rent prices distort the market resulting in undersupply. It’s also problematic that so many Dutch housing advertisements say “registration not possible” when you’re legally required to register at your address in order to access basic services like opening a bank account. But that’s a story for another time.

While staying at the hostel, I would log on to housing websites and Facebook groups every night looking for somewhere to live. There were barely any listings, and there was huge competition for the few available properties. So at the start of every new week, I would have to do the “walk of shame” to the hostel reception to extend my booking as I had nowhere else to go.

The hostel was understanding of the situation, but didn’t always have rooms available. I kept having to change to a new dorm room. Some nights they only had beds available in the 16-bed dorm room, which I hated. And during weekends, there was often no availability at all — meaning I had to pack up and find somewhere else to go for the weekend. This was unsettling, to say the least.

After four weeks of uncertainty and hours spent searching for housing, I was lying in bed on a Saturday night in a smelly dorm room, wondering how I would ever get out of the depressing situation I was in and contemplating leaving Utrecht altogether. Out of the blue, a friend of a friend contacted me to offer his apartment as he was moving out. I nearly cried. I was overjoyed.

From that point, I still had to wait almost two weeks before I could move in. But I didn’t care. At least, now, there was light at the end of the tunnel. I knew that in two weeks, this nightmare would be over and I’d have my own roof over my head.

With the certainty of knowing when I would be able to move in, the last two weeks of bouncing around between hostels was actually quite enjoyable. After all, I enjoy staying at hostels every now and again — just not indefinitely.

There was one bizarre incident when a drunk Dutch bloke peed all over our dorm in the middle of the night and tried to snuggle up with a creeped-out Italian guy sleeping in the bed opposite mine. But I was content knowing that the days without having my own place were numbered.

I guess mine isn’t a typical story of homelessness (but then again, what is?). I could have afforded to live in an apartment — in fact, living in hostels worked out to be more expensive on a nightly basis — there was just no housing available at the time. At least I was able to pay for food and a hostel bed each night, so I wasn’t living on the street or starving. I can imagine that many peoples’ experiences of homelessness are far, far worse than mine.

Three key lessons learnt

Looking back on this experience, I learned quite a lot. I would like to share some of the key lessons with you now…

1. The worst part was the uncertainty

Looking back now, I think “well it was only five weeks, that doesn’t seem so bad”. But when you’re in the middle of the crisis, you don’t know when or even if it will end. That’s the worst part.

When you’re at your lowest point, things can only improve. Unfortunately, you don’t realise at the time that you are at your lowest point. In that moment, it’s so easy to think that the worst is yet to come, and that’s a really depressing feeling.

This is probably the most important lesson I learned from my short period of homelessness, and one that’s helped me to deal mentally with the pandemic.

I’m lucky not to have become seriously ill from COVID-19. For me, the worst part of the pandemic is not knowing when it will all be over.

Yes, living through the pandemic sucks. Like many people, I’ve had to make radical life changes, take a large pay cut and temporarily give up many of the things I love. But I’ve realised that uncertainty about the future is just as mentally difficult to deal with. I know that when the pandemic is over, things will be much better and I’ll be able to return to the enjoyable life I once had.

If we knew today, hypothetically, that “COVID-19 would cease to exist in August 2022”, we could at least set expectations and start preparing mentally and practically for life in a post-COVID world. But as we’re still in the middle of the crisis, we simply don’t know what will happen in the future. Right now, it’s easy to assume things won’t ever get better.

But things will get better, and eventually the pandemic will be over. And that kind of mindset is much better for your mental health than dwelling on all the bad things that might happen in the meantime.

Beyond social distancing, wearing a mask and practising good hygiene, etc. there’s not much I can do as an individual to make the pandemic end faster. So, rather than letting negative thoughts overtake my head, I might as well sit back and try to make the most of the ride.

2. Don’t take anything for granted

After moving into my own apartment, I was so grateful to have my own bed and a roof over my head.

My humble new aparment in Utrecht. I was so happy to move in there. Photo by Author.

This experience has certainly put a new perspective on some of the first-world problems people seem to complain about. (Seriously, when I worked as a barista, people complained all the time over petty things like their coffee being too hot… I mean, really?!)

This is also something many of us have been reminded of during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, I love to travel. I don’t think I ever really took the ability to get on a plane and visit another country for granted, per se, as I still find it a mircale that we can fly in a metal tube in the sky at 1,000km/h. I also realise there are many people around the world who don’t normally have the opportunity to do travel abroad, either because they can’t access visas or can’t afford to. But for a while, for me, international travel seemed routine. Now that we can’t do it, I appreciate it now more than ever.

3. During a crisis, you’re susceptible to making irrational short-term decisions with long-term consequences

Shelter is one of a human’s basic needs. So it was extremely disappointing to come across scammers and fraudsters blatantly trying to exploit people desperate for housing.

I met several people at that hostel who had been scammed into paying deposits for apartments that didn’t exist.

I also came across a lady who lied about her identity online, then tried to get me to sign a contract for an apartment which was in a terrible condition and illegally overpriced. As I later discovered, this woman was so notorious in Utrecht that there’s even a website warning people not to rent from her. She owns much of the student accommodation in Utrecht, but only seemed to rent out to international students staying a short time — presumably because they’re desperate and therefore willing to pay exorbitant prices for run-down accommodation, or because she thinks they won’t know their legal rights under Dutch law. (When I backed out of signing the contract, this woman angirly accused me of working undercover for one of the housing websites. Classy stuff.)

But I nearly did sign that contract, despite many red flags and obvious warning signs telling me it was a bad idea. Why? Because I was desperate. I was willing to overlook a lot of things because I just wanted somewhere to live.

I now realise that in the mental state I was in, I was putting myself at risk of making an irrational short-term decision with long-term consequences.

This is not dissimilar, in my view, to companies that offer short-term loans at interest rates of up to 42% (the legal limit in Australia). They make their money by preying on vulnerable people trying to fulfil their basic human needs. Frankly, that’s unethical.

We also saw this at the start of the pandemic, when people stockpiled toilet paper, medical supplies and personal protective equipment so they could on-sell them at a huge margin to people who really needed them. Not to mention, there are countless scams that target the elderly. Such behaviour is incredibly shameful.

What helped me get through that period

I would probably rather forget about those five weeks in 2018 when I had nowhere to live. But there were some redeeming features.

The support of friends

I met a lot of great people during that time who genuinely cared and tried to help. Although a minority may seek to take advantage of other peoples’ adversity, the vast majority of people are good people.

The hostel staff were as helpful as they could be, and there was a camaraderie among the hostel guests. We were genuinely all in it together (rather than just at the same time, as is the case with the pandemic) and that support was greatly appreciated.

A good network of friends is also what ultimately led to finding an apartment.

Having somewhere to go each day

While I was in Utrecht I rented a desk at a co-working space (I was working remotely).

An unexpected benefit of this was simply the psychological motivation to get out of bed each morning, even though I was going through a tough time. Each day, I at least had somewhere else to go where I would be welcome, have a change of scenery and could even work productively. I’m a huge advocate of co-working spaces anyway, but at that time I needed that more than ever.

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Matt Graham

Matt Graham

Australian travel writer and frequent flyer points fanatic. Connect: mattjgraham.com