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  • Writer's pictureAfonso Ivens-Ferraz

Beyond the Streets: The Unseen Reality of Homelessness in Groningen

Updated: Jun 2


“When I was 13, I remember giving a homeless man some money and I made a promise to myself that I would help as many people as possible,” says Wesley (40).  Little did he know that, years later, he would be the one in need.

 

After separating from his partner at the time, following the birth of their son, the The Hague native had no choice but to seek shelter elsewhere. Due to a troubled relationship with his direct family, his friends were his first resort. However, couch-surfing soon came to an end as he exhausted his network. Now, homeless shelters seemed like the only option.

 

“The fact that I had to sleep there is just painful. Nobody should have to sleep there,” says Wesley.


Like him, tens of thousands of people find themselves in a situation of homelessness in the Netherlands. Yet, his story reflects the reality of a rather invisible segment of the homeless population.


This group includes a wide range of people who are excluded from the official count of homelessness conducted by Statistics Netherlands (CBS), a leading government institution responsible for statistical data in the Netherlands. According to their latest but outdated statistics, there are approximately 26.6 000 homeless people in the Netherlands. 

 

“No one in the field is taking the CBS statistics seriously,” says Willem van Sermondt, project leader at Kansfonds, a Dutch charity organization. Van Sermondt explains how the official statistics provided by the CBS do not paint an accurate picture of homelessness. By failing to account for underage people, seniors (over 65), undocumented migrants, those living in suboptimal circumstances like couch-surfers, for example, and others.

 

With hopes to “find a home for everyone,” Kansfonds, alongside Hogeschool Utrecht, introduced a new way of measuring homelessness in 2023, based on the European Typology of Homelessness and Housing Exclusion (ETHOS) approach. The ETHOS framework sees homelessness as the lack of adequate housing which, when taken into account, reveals a much more complex and nuanced reality. This is certainly the case in the Netherlands.


Based on a total of 12 Dutch municipalities, Kansfonds research shows that people living in the streets or in homeless shelters only account for about 30% of the homeless population, explains Van Sermondt. To the surprise of most, he adds, people living in other, albeit inadequate housing, actually make up the vast majority of the group.


 



© KANSFONDS AND HOGESCHOOL UTRECHT 2023



In contrast with the latest CBS figures, Kansfonds and their research partner have found that the number of women who are homeless is in fact much higher than was previously assumed. While in 2022, the recorded number of homeless women was 19%, Kansfonds new count recorded almost 30% in 2023. Another finding that stands out is the remarkable number of underage people, approximately 25%, who are homeless. However, while Kansfond’s results do paint a more precise picture, they are not absolute. As van Sermondt says himself “We cannot guarantee we have included everyone because there will still be some people who escape the system.”


Wender, a local organization in Groningen, agrees. Marcel Petrusma, project leader at Wender, a homeless shelter, tells The Groninger that the majority of people staying at the shelter are men. Women, he says, make up about 30% percent of the 18 temporary rooms they offer.  Those staying at Wender are a slight fraction of the approximate 700 people who are homeless in the Groningen municipality.

 

"Homelessness is a stigma. We try to not use the term homeless anymore,” says Petrusma. The stain that comes with the phrase reproduces a stigmatized image of homelessness associated with crime, misery and addiction. But “people don’t start out that way,” he adds.

Jeroen is an example. During our visit to Wender, the 43 year old construction worker and father of 2 boys shares that he has recently separated from his partner and, having no roof over his head, his choices soon became limited. He currently stays at Wender’s for €5.65 per night, which he hopes is temporary.


While the shelter helps, he feels trapped in the system and thinks the government is not living up to his expectations. “They [the government] help a lot of people, but sometimes I feel like they forget their own a bit.” New to the challenges of life without a home, he says he is now hoping to receive financial help from the government, provided he meets certain criteria. This social assistance benefit can range from about €1000 to €1500.


Petrusma agrees that while shelters help, they are not the solution. “We are not helping them now. We are helping them for the night, where there’s a roof and they are dry. But that in itself is not a good support system.” For this very reason, Wender puts great emphasis on intervention work. Synonymous with prevention, Wender’s intervention work starts by trying to mitigate any issues that put people at risk of homelessness, like debts. “People only come here to the shelter when everything else fails, when we can’t find you the right help or when there is noone in your family or network who can help you,” says Petrusma. And indeed, as we see in the cases of Wesley and Jeroen, this does not always work. 

 

All experts The Groninger spoke with seemed to agree that institutionalizing people once they are homeless, significantly hinders their recovery. “When you stay too long in a place like this [a shelter], you become the place. You become homeless," he adds. Whatever problems lead people to homelessness are only aggravated once they have no choice but to stay at a shelter.

 

“It’s not a healthy place for anyone (...) My situation was a bit special compared to other people because I'm healthy, I'm mentally okay, I don't have drug addictions …. But if I look at other people who do have problems, it's really difficult for them. They have nothing going for them, and nobody is really helping them get where they need to be. They're sort of forgotten people,” Wesley reveals.

 

He highlights an important point. While the group of people affected by homelessness is much broader than the stigmatized image of individuals affected by drug addiction and mental illness: these two issues remain a problem.

 

The Groninger spoke with Hans Kroon, university professor and head of the department of Care and Participation at the Trimbos Institute, a Dutch institute for mental health and addiction. While he does not work directly with homelessness, he tells us about the growing trend of integrated care treatment. In his work with severely mentally ill individuals, he sees that the issues faced by these patients are often multifaceted and interconnected.

 

“It's not only their psychosis, but it is also the way they are housed, whether they are poor, lonely, etc. And to combine all the efforts, that's a really huge challenge for mental health care services,” explains Kroon.

 

He attributes this in part to the fragmented nature of care services in the country. While there are agencies and facilities for different needs, they tend to operate independently. A more integrated care network is missing, he says.


Like mental illness, homelessness too is a complex and multilayered phenomenon. While Kroon does not see mental illness as a direct causing factor of homelessness, contrary to some reports, the two are intimately intertwined. That is also why, according to Petrusma, there needs to be specialized care for those whose issues amount to more than not having a house. 


“You need special help. You need to go to a clinic and there's a long waiting time, sometimes for months. Some of the waiting lists are up to nine months, but when you need help now … that's the problem,” explains Petrusma, Wender’s project leader.

 

He reports that according to his own sources, hard drugs like crack have been growing in popularity in the city. When he started working as a social worker 20 years ago, heroin addiction was fairly noticeable, but from what he observes, consumption of hard drugs seems more common now.  

 

Someone who deals with this on a daily basis is Naomi [not her real name], a social worker at the Salvation Army in Groningen, who asked to alter her name for privacy concerns. The day shelter where she works is currently housing 40 to 50 people, the vast majority of which struggles with serious substance abuse. The group is almost exclusively made up of men.

But staying at their shelter is often detrimental to their recovery. When struggling with addiction “it doesn’t help when everyone around you is also using and offering you drugs,” says Naomi.  She explains that the Salvation Army assists struggling addicts by directing them to specialized addiction clinics but that they need to be willing to get help. “Sometimes they are not interested, so we wait for them to be ready,” she adds. 

 

During The Groninger’s visit to the Salvation Army, we were denied access to their facilities, where we hoped to speak with some of their temporary residents. This was due to privacy reasons.


© STATISTICS BASED ON THE GRONINGER'S SURVEY

© STATISTICS BASED ON THE GRONINGER'S SURVEY

In a survey conducted by The Groninger, we found that people in Groningen are noticing an increase in homelessness in the city. To be exact, 62% of those surveyed notice this increase whereas 37% think that the homeless situation has stayed the same. The vast majority of the survey participants, aged between 17 and 43 years old, report being slightly to very aware of this issue.

 

These anecdotal observations are also mentioned by Naomi, the social worker. She says they have more people staying at the Salvation Army day shelter compared to other months, a phenomenon which seems to repeat itself every winter. 

 

So… What can be done?


All parties involved agree that there is no easy fix to homelessness. Considering the diverse facets of homelessness which The Groninger sheds light on, and the other coexisting issues people experience: different cases require different solutions. Still, there is also a shared understanding that more can be done, with some proposing solutions.

“A lot more is possible in prevention,” says Van Sermondt from Kansfonds, the housing-oriented charity. He explains that despite the complexity of the situation, and the specialized care required in certain cases, “you cannot solve homelessness without housing.”

 

Van Sermondt describes his organization’s housing-led approach to tackling this overwhelming social problem. It highlights an even larger, nation-wide issue which experts attribute as one of the causes of increased homelessness: the housing crisis. This is particularly the case with the invisible group who make up to 70% of the homeless population, according to the ETHOS count.

 

In 2023, there was a shortage of 390.000 houses for the total of 437 thousand applicants. In Groningen, the estimated housing shortage last year was nearly 12.000 houses, and the number is expected to grow north of 13.000 by 2025.

 

Van Sermondt emphasizes that the savings in public expenses are 'enormous' when we prevent someone from becoming homeless. But for that, of course, more houses are needed. Petrusma agrees that more housing-led solutions are needed. 

 

Based on our survey findings, Groningen residents also see the housing crisis as a significant factor of homelessness. A staggering 91% of participants agreed that affordable housing could reduce homelessness.The call for housing echoes loudly based on the survey conducted, the experts approached, and

those willing to share their stories and experience in the streets.

 

“I think I'm more happy and content with life  than almost anyone I know .... Actually, I don't know anyone who's happier [than me],” admits Wesley.


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