Students of the halfway house
When your room mates are former sex workers
It’s two in the morning, in late October. The wind bangs against the office window. The safe house has never felt more secure, but student volunteer Amanda worries. It’s her first night shift and two of the women who live here haven’t come home. Her mind keeps conjuring up scary scenarios. Are they selling their bodies on the street? What if they overdose?
Then, at half past three, the doorbell finally rings. Amanda rushes to open the door and a figure stumbles into her. The woman wheezes and tries to regain her balance. ‘Are you okay?’ asks Amanda.
‘Fine’, the woman says before attempting to ascend the stairs to her room. After several falls, she gives up. The two spend the rest of the night together in the kitchen. They don’t talk much.
Amanda volunteers at the Overweeghuis, which provides temporary shelter to women with a history of sex work. The safe house gives the women a chance to get back on their feet and decide if they want to transition to a more normal life. They’re helped by volunteers who work here in shifts, like Amanda. But two other students, Maya and Lu, live at the Overweeghuis permanently, in exchange for low rent. Each day, they try to provide a sense of stability and continuity to women who have been traumatised by their past.
Maya and Lu have been friends since childhood and always wanted to live together. Lu’s mum heard about the option of students living at the safe house. ‘It was almost like applying for a job’, says Lu. ‘I think they just wanted to make sure we were ordinary students with ordinary student lives.’
Some of the women have traumas, so we can’t just have male friends over
Their initial dream of sharing a home evolved into a bit of a social project. Lu expected more of a family home. ‘I thought we would eat meals together, watch TV and have the whole living room experience.’ But they soon noticed that the women often prefer to stick to their rooms. ‘When we agree dinner will be at six thirty, there is no guarantee that anyone will turn up.’
Maya and Lu have to abide by very strict house rules. The location of the house has to be kept secret, which means they can’t have friends come over unannounced. Male friends are usually a no-go. ‘Some of the women have traumas and having men around the house will trigger them’, says Maya. They can forget having wild student parties at their home, because alcohol is not allowed. And they have to be home for dinner at least five times a week.
Hard first months
The morning after Amanda’s night shift, Maya comes down the stairs and into the kitchen, where Amanda and the woman are still sitting at the table: ‘Coffee, anyone?’
A minute later one of the other residents, Lea, joins the breakfast session. ‘I’m not very chatty in the morning’ she says, as she starts preparing for her new job as a cashier. Less than a year ago, she was still out on the street earning money through sex work, something she had been doing since her drug-addicted uncle sold her to a pimp at the age of fifteen.
Sometimes I would hear screaming and stomping in the middle of the night
For the students, this is a morning like any other. It did take some getting used to, though. ‘Especially the first month or two were hard’, recalls Maya. ‘I remember taking a shower and hearing a woman talking to herself in different voices’, says Lu. ‘Sometimes I would hear screaming and stomping in the middle of the night.’
Lu has learned a lot about the prostitution scene, which she had little idea of prior to moving to the safe house. ‘Until you live here you just do not realise the consequences of being mistreated’, she says. ‘How much anguish and emotional disconnection it causes, and that it affects every aspect of your being.’
It frustrated Maya at first that the women closed themselves off. ‘I felt like I could not help them’, she says. As time went by, she realised that the women come from a world where promises and commitments mean very little. ‘To repair this damage will take a lot of effort. Sitting down at the dinner table together is just the tip of the iceberg.’
British RUG student Catherine, one of the volunteers, had similar experiences. She had a rocky start on the job. With no idea what to expect and instructions to lock herself up in the office and call the police in case something went wrong, she decided to give it a shot.
You realise how your actions imprint on others, in good and bad ways
She felt she could easily relate to the women’s feelings of detachment. ‘I spoke to one of the women, who felt very isolated in Groningen. She had built a life in Amsterdam, where she had friends and family. She wants to go back, but can’t afford it.’
Catherine hopes she can ease their loneliness and seclusion. Yet that is not a given. ‘Some women treat the safe house like a hotel. You come, you eat, you sleep, you leave.’
The students quickly learned to leave their expectations at the doorstep. Fixing a lifetime of maltreatment, abuse and inhumanity will take an enormous amount of effort, and statistically speaking only a fraction of the women are likely to succeed. ‘But the women told us that having us around makes a difference to their lives’, says Lu.
The mood swings and non-conformist behaviour don’t bother them anymore. ‘I was surprised by how quickly I started feeling protective of the residents’, says Maya. ‘We’re all women and we have to look out for each other.’ They focus on the little things: teaching each other quirky Dutch words, playing board games and watching cooking shows together. ‘You realise how your actions slowly imprint on others, in both good and bad ways’, Maya says. ‘It is not about the crops you harvest, but rather the seeds you sow.’
The names in this article have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy.
Photo by Valeska Schietinger