WE might be familiar with the term ‘sofa surfing’ but do we really comprehend the bitter realities of this form of homelessness? If not, a new report from Crisis seeks to provide some insight into this nightmare existence.
By its nature, as a largely hidden form of homelessness, very little is known about sofa surfing, despite it being the most common form. The most recent figures, compiled for Crisis by Heriot-Watt University, estimate there are over 71,400 families and individuals across Great Britain who are forced to stay on friends’ or family sofas or floors on a short-term basis, as they have nowhere else to go.
As the new report, appropriately titled It Was Like A Nightmare – the reality of sofa surfing in Britain today, sofa surfing can all-too-often be a ‘gateway’ to more familiar forms of homelessness, such as rough sleeping. A key driver is a lack of genuinely affordable housing.
“We know homelessness causes untold human suffering,” said Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis. “Too many people in our society are facing unbearable pressures, forced to sleep on sofas and floors night after night after night. The harsh reality of sofa surfing is clear to see here – people trapped in this situation with no way out and everyday facing the worry that today could be the day they are asked to leave, with nowhere else to go. None of us should be forced to live this way.”
The report shines a light on the detrimental impact such sofa surfing has on the lives of those affected. The toll it takes on people’s mental and physical health, as they face an uncertain future and find their relationships strained, is explored through interviews with 114 people who have endured this form of homelessness first-hand.
An overwhelming four-fifths of people taking part in the research reported a downturn in their mental health because of sofa surfing. Many put this down to the constant pressure of feeling like a burden, tension with their host and the insecurity of their living situation.
A further three-quarters also told of the debilitating impact sofa surfing had on their physical health, reporting issues like extreme back and neck pain, chronic fatigue and the effects of poor diet, with many having no access to cooking facilities.
Sadly, the isolation of sofa-surfing has also been revealed, with three-fifths saying they are seeing their friends and family less. For many this was because they felt ashamed of their living situation and their close relationships fell apart, having overstayed their welcome. Particularly stark instances include mothers who could no longer see their young children.
Key findings from the report include:
- Of those people currently sofa surfing, a third (33%) had been doing so for between six months and three years
- Almost two fifths (39%) have had to move to five or more different places in the past year alone
- Over a quarter (28%) had not had a settled home for over four years or more
- Eight out of 10 (80%) said their mental health had suffered as a result of sofa surfing
- Over three-quarters (77%) reported their physical health had deteriorated while sofa surfing
- Nearly a third (30%) saw friends and family less because they felt ashamed of their situation
- Over half (56%) said that looking for work, securing or maintaining one was negatively impacted by sofa surfing
- A quarter (25%) were unable to access any cooking facilities whilst sofa surfing
- Almost a fifth (17%) had no access to a shower or a bath to wash themselves
- Six out of 10 (61%) did not have the keys to independently access the property
- Over half (54%) stated that issues related to housing affordability were a factor in them starting to sofa surf
- Nearly two fifths (38%) said that their benefits did not cover the cost of rent
For most, the report found that sofa surfing is not a one-off temporary situation, or a stepping-stone between homes – with a third having done so for between six months and three years. Many people interviewed disclosed that they moved from one experience of sofa surfing straight to another, and a significant proportion even went on to sleep rough after their last instance of sofa surfing. Furthermore, it can be the beginning or part of long periods of homelessness where people move in and out of different forms, which are often insecure and dangerous.
The charity says that by failing to help people in this situation early on, it means we are allowing people to sofa surf long term, making it harder to leave behind for good the longer it continues. The constant insecurity can make it even harder for people to move on, as over half of people interviewed told how sofa surfing had negatively affected them searching for and maintaining employment.
This research also seeks to explore the root causes that push people to sofa surf in the first place. A key driver for over half was found to be a lack of affordable housing, with nearly two-fifths stating that their housing benefit hadn’t covered the cost of their rent, leaving many with mounting financial pressures and more vulnerable to sofa surfing.
One participant in the research, Danielle, 28, from Barrow, was forced to sofa surf after leaving her partner who was physically and verbally abusive. Despite going to the police and local council for help after one brutal assault where she was left with a broken nose, Danielle was not deemed a priority for emergency housing as the council stated she had made herself ‘intentionally homeless’ by leaving the tenancy she shared with her partner.
Talking about her time sofa-surfing, Danielle said: “When the council refused to help me out, I had no idea what to do. I had no family nearby who I could stay with. One friend let me stay on her bedroom floor for a few weeks while I began to go through the court system to try and get off the tenancy I shared with my ex-partner. Another friend then said I could stay on his sofa, but it was only a one bed flat, and it was massively overcrowded.
“He was a nurse, working day and night shifts, and I was still a student in the day while working at a cinema in the evening, so I would often be asleep while he would be trying to eat his breakfast, and vice versa. It was really difficult – even things like getting dressed in private was impossible. Because I was going through a lot of trauma at the time, I was just constantly crying and angry. Having to stay like this ruined our friendship for a while.
“I don’t know what would have happened if he hadn’t put up with me. I’ve thought about it quite a lot, but honestly there was no Plan B.”
Sparkes added: “This research acts as a shameful reminder to the new government that tackling homelessness must be treated as a top priority in the coming months to ensure more people are not forced into this situation. We know homelessness can be ended in the UK – but this will only be made a reality by investing in housing benefit, so it truly covers the cost of rents across the country, and making sure local councils recognise sofa-surfing as a form of homelessness that is eligible for assistance across the board.”