By Pedro D’El Rodrigues and Else van der Steeg
“The first thing I did when I arrived in Groningen was buy a pack of cigarettes. I figured I already reached rock bottom anyway, so I may as well start smoking,” says Michael Chafe, an ex-homeless and now 23-year-old student. During his first week in Groningen, he stayed with a Tinder date. “That’s when I had my first panic attack,” he says.
“On the day I left, I had already heard my mom tell my eleven year’s old brother: ‘It won’t take me much longer to get him out of the house.’ That was it for me. I packed my bags, cycled for five kilometers to Drachten, and got on a bus to Groningen,” he describes. What followed for Michael was two months of moving from place to place and trying to find a bed for the night.
Michael was just one of many young homeless/roofless people living without a proper place to call home. He is one of the so-called ‘invisible’ individuals of this world, looking everywhere for simple things, such as placement, acceptance, and understanding.
The Dutch terms for homeless (thuisloos) and roofless (dakloos) are part of the same spectrum but present slightly different definitions. Roofless refers to someone who actually lives in the street or sleeps at a night shelter, while homeless people do have a place to stay for the night but are unable to go home. This place where these homeless people often stay is a friend’s couch, a hostel, special accommodation, etc.
Reality behind the numbers
In the Netherlands, young people becoming homeless or roofless is an increasingly occurring phenomenon. According to CBS, the number of homeless individuals ranging from 18 to 27 years old more than doubled in the past ten years.
This increase is also visible in Groningen, a small city that normally has a remarkable grip on the matter. Intervention worker Marcel Petrusma from Het Kopland, an organization focused on “preventing homelessness and domestic violence,” explains that practically every homeless person in the city over 27 is known to at least one organization in town.
However, there is an invisible group of people who are not necessarily known by these entities. They are the homeless youth of Groningen who do not live in the street, but stay in any place that is not their own home.
Chafe once was part of these uncertain statistics, but he is past that time. Now he lives in Groningen, studies social care and does an internship at Jimmy’s, an organization in Groningen that helps youth homeless with any type of problem, including social reintegration.
When Chafe left his childhood home, he left behind a life of abuse. His mother and stepfather had an alcohol addiction, while his father and brother were addicted to drugs.
Most of his family also had some mental affliction and Chafe grew up being abused both mentally and physically. “We lived in a small village, which meant I had nowhere safe to go. But, at the time, I didn’t realize how bad the situation was. It was all I knew,” he explains.
“There are many reasons why a young person cannot go home anymore. It can be an unsafe environment, but also sexuality, economic reasons, religion, addiction, lover-boy problems, prostitution, human trafficking,” he says.
Lonneke van den Brink, the coordinator of the Open Hof shelter in Groningen, expresses her worry with the young homeless population, claiming that “there are more homeless people under the age of 18, but we don’t see them.”
She also cites a Dutch term commonly utilized in the shelter to describe those people, which is “pechmannen,” meaning a person who happens to be “unlucky” and, therefore, finds himself or herself in a poor economic situation.
Considering the “pechmannen” and their struggles, the shelter where van den Brink works offers more than a roof and a place to stay, but also provides financial advices, daycare, and maybe a new chance in society.
The problem with young homeless (thuisloos) people is that they manage to stay under the radar for a long time. “We sometimes meet people who, by the time they come to us, have already been hopping from couch to couch for two or three years,” Petrusma from Het Kopland says. “They don’t see themselves as homeless because they don’t fit into the stereotype of a junkie living under a bridge. But that stereotype hasn’t been the reality for a long time.”
The mixing of non-addicted youth with highly troubled youngsters in shelters and the streets also brings them to the danger of developing addictions. Hella Masuger from the Foundation for Homeless Youth (Stichting Zwerfjongeren Nederland, SZN) explains: “Mental problems or drug addiction and homelessness, it’s a chicken and egg situation. They amplify each other. Financial instability leads to more insecurity. Lots of young people already use soft drugs to ease the pain of the situation they are in.”
These people’s economic and mental support is not good already, but they will only sink even deeper into homelessness when combined with drug addiction. “We manage to help most people with economic trouble, unless they slip into the group of people with addiction/mental problems”, Petrusma explains.
Lonneke van den Brink from Open Hof agrees with that thought, saying that most people coming to her shelter have some type of drug addiction. “Most of the cases, homelessness is something that happens at the end of a lot of other problems,” she explains about homelessness and what actually leads people to that path.
During the two months he was homeless, Chafe spent one full month in a youth shelter in Assen. “It was very shocking to suddenly be surrounded by people who basically just want to stab each other. At some point, I witnessed three homeless people who started fighting in front of the shelter I was in. One of them had to have his leg amputated after the fight. I filmed it, just because I could not believe the situation I was in”, he says.
Petrusma estimates that in reality around 50 percent of homelessness is caused by something other than addiction or mental problems, but “you don’t hear about them because of the shame and stigma surrounding the topic.”
He would like to see this stigma disappear and suggests a solution. “By already teaching social workers in training about the problems surrounding homelessness. That way they already know what to expect”, he explains.
Chafe agrees the problem calls for structural change. One thing he would like to see change is the way policies are made: “Now, lawmakers and bosses just make all the decisions. Organizations forget to listen to youth. We are the ones with the experience. Why not use us as a think-tank?” he asks.
From Open Hof, van den Brink also questions the measures taken to support young homeless and roofless, saying that “most of the time it is really good, but it is not enough. It is never enough.”
She mentions her sister’s situation after a divorce when she and her young daughter took a long time to rehabilitate themselves. “My sister was homeless because of separation and she waited for 5 months until she could get her own place,” she says.
According to Hella Masuger from SZN, more should be done to help teenagers under 18 prepare for adulthood. “You cannot expect an eighteen-year-old to take care of themselves completely. For a teenager from a regular family, this is hard enough already, imagine having to do that when you are not prepared for it by anyone.”
One of the points SZN wants to change is youth financial support. Now, adults aged 18 through 20 are still counted as “youth” by law, which means they receive less funding. “But living costs are the same as for any adult”, Masuger explains.
An additional option, according to SZN, is in preparing teenagers better before they turn eighteen. Masuger suggests that Youth Services could help with this. “But in 2015, Youth Services went from national to local government, and with it came budget cuts. We see now that they simply don’t have the capacity to keep track of all of the teenagers who could use help”, she says.
After two months of going from place to place, Michael managed to find a room in Groningen. “At first I felt great. I was living in Groningen, everything was going my way. But then, after two months, the PTSD and depression came.”
His psychiatrist prescribed strong antidepressants and at the same time, Michael drank lots of vodka. It landed him in hospital at the beginning of 2020. “People don’t realize how awful being homeless is. They joke about it, I joke about it myself sometimes, saying things like ‘ugh I look like a homeless person today,’” Chafe says.
“But in the end, everyone forgets how severe homelessness is and how much impact it has on you and on your mental health,” he concludes. “Being homeless is a crisis on all fronts, on all parts of your life. When it happens to you… it’s just really bad. You wouldn’t wish that on your worst enemy.”
**The reporters tried to request an interview with the Mayor and Alderman of Groningen, but they were not available to respond on time.