2 August 2021 8:32

‘Traumatised, Lonely and Homeless’: A Tale of International Students Survival in Australia

"I get chills and tears in my eyes when I think of those times. I have nightmares and have been seeking counselling from my university.”

International student Ishaan Singh recalls spending nights outside a restaurant in Melbourne’s eastern suburb Carlton with the hope that he might collect enough money to buy at least one meal.

With one suitcase, pillow and a blanket, Ishaan says, the unprecedented wave of COVID-19 left him with no place to live.

“Sometimes, the restaurant customers gave me a dollar or two. When lucky, few even gave me their takeaway food. The restaurant manager noticed me and it was after a week that I told him about my homelessness.” 

Ishaan, came to Melbourne from India in the year 2018 to pursue Bachelors of Information Systems. Being the youngest in the family with two elder sisters to be married off, he relied on his part-time job to take out the majority of expenses.

“My father had already spent all his life savings on my sisters’ marriage and my pre-arrival expenses. I had no courage to ask him for more.”

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It was in December 2020 when he lost his job due to the pandemic and hence, was left with no savings to even pay his monthly rent.

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A Tale of International Students Survival in Australia; Picture by Bhavya Pandey

“For the first three months, I managed with my savings. I dodged between several jobs, from customer service to hospitality, but the inconsistency of the working hours and sudden lockdowns were always there. I didn’t even have the money to lease a new apartment, pay the bond and the advance rent.”

Ishaan said that it became embarrassing for him to repeatedly seek help from his friends as they were also struggling.

“I was left with no alternative but to sleep in parks, over benches and sometimes, even in parking lots.”

“Worst was, to escape from the freezing winds,” he said.

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A Tale of International Students Survival in Australia; Picture by Bhavya Pandey

“I would end up doing drugs every now and then. That helped me stay numb.”

After two weeks of deadly cold, loneliness and hardship, he finally got in touch with Homelessness Support Service. Fortunately, at the same time, a friend agreed to share his room with Ishaan.

“To date, I get chills and tears in my eyes when I think of those times. I have nightmares and have been seeking counselling from my university.”

Ishaan pointed out that the monetary crisis is just one of the multiple problems International students have been facing. Uncertainty still, tops the list.

“Things really hit me hard when I realised I can’t even go back till I didn’t know….. for how long.”

After five months of being ‘homeless’, Ishaan found a stable job. However, to date, he does not have his name on the lease and is living as an unauthorised resident of the property.

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Research headed by the University of Technology Sydney revealed that about 21% of overseas students in Australia fear being homeless, the struggles are considerably exacerbated as a result of the coronavirus.

It also revealed that more than half (54%) of respondents were concerned about paying their rent, and a third (33%) agreed that they frequently skipped food in order to pay for their housing.

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A Tale of International Students Survival in Australia; Picture Source: @CANVA

A research paper “Homelessness and Unemployment: Understanding the Connection and Breaking the Cycle” published by Adam Steen, David Mackenzie and Darcy McCormack explained the interdependent relationship between trends of unemployment and housing instability or homelessness in Australia.

The study made it obvious that the stats revolving around homelessness are bound to rise post-pandemic even more.

The Australian Homestay Network organises housing placements for overseas students in need of temporary housing.

A spokesperson from the network told The Australia Today,

“We have come up with several initiatives to help International students going through unemployment and financial crisis.”

  • Many international students have lost part-time jobs and are relying on relief payments
  • Over 1,400 individuals who were rough sleeping or experiencing homelessness are presently staying in temporary motels in Melbourne’s CBD and inner suburbs, with another 1,250 across the state.
  • $30 million is being provided for homelessness and transitional housing to help more Victorians experiencing or at risk of homelessness receive the safe, stable and secure accommodation they need.
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Picture Source: Supplied

Manorani Guy, Founder of VicWise Australia is among those few individuals who believe that the issue of homelessness and tenancy should be given more attention.

“The issue is not having a place to live but having the feeling of belongingness,” she said.

In December 2020, Vicwise came up with The International Student Tenancy Outreach Program supported by Study Melbourne’s International Student Welfare Program, a Victorian Government initiative where students could reach for confidential housing advice.

Manorani Guy adds:

“In such unfortunate times, students need to be aware of their possible options and resources for help. We aim to help students with legalities and accessibility when it comes to finding a suitable home.”

Not just onshore students, the horror faced by students stuck overseas who came to study in Australia is no less than homelessness.

Hriti Jerath, another student pursuing her Bachelor of Media from Monash University said that it was her biggest mistake to go back to India.

“My parents were really worried when the sudden lockdown was announced last year. I immediately shifted to my uncle’s place, leaving the student accommodation I was living in as it became unaffordable. The impact of COVID-19 had already brought a downfall in my father’s business.”

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Hriti Jerath was just 19 when she came to study in Melbourne and returned back within 9 months. Now, she will turn 21 soon;
Picture Source: Supplied

After a while, as soon as the charter flights were announced, Hriti returned on 31st July 2020. Little did she know, she would remain stranded there.

“The course structure has been made partially theoretical. I have not been able to use the editing software and technical equipment like professional cameras properly. It becomes extremely exhausting to understand the practical aspect of my course theoretically.”

The time difference results in lack of sleep which has led to her health deteriorating.

“There are days when I regret coming to Australia.”

Hriti has recently registered with the Australian government international student return portal, and believes that its high time that Victoria gets International students back.

“I came into an alien land, thinking I would find my happy place there. I am physically here in India but my heart is in Melbourne. My university, my belongings, moreover, my  dreams…..my future is all there. Is feeling lost, not considered homelessness ? 

In a recent poll of 607 students stranded overseas conducted by the Council of International Students Australia (CISA), 93 percent admitted that studying online in their home countries had a negative impact on their mental health.

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A Tale of International Students Survival in Australia; Picture Source: @CANVA

More than a quarter of students reported periodical thoughts of self harm and over two-thirds had self-diagnosed anxiety or depression at some point.

The CISA has recommended that the Australian government devote more resources to developing innovative methods for delivering online education, as well as laying out a timeline for when students may begin planning their return.

A spokesperson from the Department of Education said that students must be in touch with their education provider as they can assist them best with support services regarding their Overseas Student Health Cover insurance.

He also stated that with NSW already initiating the process, the Victorian  government too, is undergoing consultations and is in the process of forming exclusive strategies to combat this multifaceted problem.

“Revealing much will not be in anyone’s favour until things are concrete enough. All we can assure you is that the department is putting in all its effort to ensure student welfare, keeping the public health and safety of citizens into consideration.”

International Student Alliance (ISA) Founder Karan Mehta has been advocating the issue of homelessness for both onshore and offshore students.

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A Tale of International Students Survival in Australia; Picture Source: @CANVA

He told The Australia Today:

“It is high time now that substantial solutions are put into place and grievances of international students are heard.”

Thousands of international students, both onshore and offshore, have been questioning the worth of their psychological strain, house hunting struggles and massive financial investments towards their studies. 

“The irony is that the statistics show some international students as homeless whereas the truth is, all international students are facing homelessness in some way or the other”,

With the interim heads up on the return of international students and onshore students getting relatively little more support, hopefully they shall get their answers soon.

Mr Mehta adds:

“When we talk about home, we do not simply refer to a physical living structure but a place where voices are heard and people are comforted.”

Hopefully, they shall find their ‘home’ soon.

Note: ‘Ishaan Singh’ is the changed name to protect the identity of the student.

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