Student homelessness in London – My university ‘couldn’t give a shit’

This is the second article in a two-part investigation into student homelessness in London.
Read part one here.

Sarah has never claimed to be homeless. But during last summer’s exam season, she ended up sofa-surfing, staying in her friends’ living rooms and borrowing thousands of pounds from her family, whilst at the same time trying to pass her exams.

When we spoke to Sarah, “lucky” seemed to be the word: “I was really lucky. It would have been easy to fall homeless in my situation. I’m super lucky that my family supported me.”

The number of people that are in a similar situations to Sarah is unclear but London Student has revealed that potentially hundreds of students will face homelessness this academic year.

In Sarah’s case, an administrative issue at her university meant that her loans were stopped.

Unable to pay rent or foot bills, Sarah reached out to a friend who let her sleep in her living room: “I was lucky my mate was financially comfortable and didn’t ask for cash from me. I just had to move out the odd night if her sister needed the room.”

Administrative errors are just one cause of student homelessness. London Metropolitan University’s Patrick Mulrenan told London Student that there are systemic reasons for student poverty. Mulrenan highlighted the high cost of housing, insecurity in the private rented sector, and changes to loans or benefits as factors which negatively affect students in particular.

But Sarah did not claim to be homeless, arguing that elsewhere in society, people might not be so lucky to have the support network – friends and family – which allowed her to avoid sleeping rough or in temporary accommodation.

“All London students probably walk past a dozen rough sleepers in grim situations so it feels fraudulent to say ‘homeless’”, she said, “But I can see how easily someone could have become ‘properly’ homeless in my position”.

LS asked Sarah whether she felt her university has neglected its duty of care to her.

“Absolutely,” she explained. “Duty of care is so vague that it’s so easy for [universities] to wiggle around. They hide behind small print knowing they have power. They could have helped out by liaising with halls [but] they couldn’t give a shit.”

Coming to terms with her situation affected her work: “moving during exam time isn’t great work-wise. It’s different to revising in your own place. You’re the lucky guest trying to fit in with someone else’s flatmates.”

With the administrative issue resolved, Sarah is now exploring her options to repay the financial debt owed to her family. The advice she was given by her university was to work full-time whilst studying, or to tell her family that her studies had to come first.

As the ‘loan’ was supplied people she trusts, Sarah plans on putting university first, but she said: “Can you imagine if I had to tell a less reliable person that they had to wait for another few months or even an extra two years [for their money]?”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government told LS that they were investing £1.2bn to tackle “all forms of homelessness.”

They also said: “We are providing students with the highest ever amounts of funding to support their living costs, which they can use towards paying for their accommodation.”

Sarah’s name has been changed in this story to protect her privacy.

If you are affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, ULHS advises students to seek help from their universities. There are also charities across the UK that can offer help and support: Centrepoint; Shelter; Albert Kennedy Trust (AKT).

Will is London Student's Features Editor. He has recently completed a BA History at SOAS, and you might find him hiding in a library around Bloomsbury.

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