Challenges of couch surfing
Imagine not knowing where you will sleep tonight. Or what you will have to eat. Will you and your belongings be safe while you get some much-needed rest?
Dina Shaw, a Salvation Army youth worker for the Youth Outreach Service (YOS), deals with young people every day who live this reality – young people who are homeless, but are still working toward years 10, 11 or 12 accreditation at the YOS Lawnton Flexi-School.
“We come across a lot of young people who don’t know where they are going to be staying each night,” she says. “It can be an ongoing struggle for survival.”
While YOS works with young people to find secure medium or long-term accommodation, there are often long waiting lists and many obstacles to maintaining a tenancy, including mental health issues, lack of life skills or addiction.
Dina says that while “couch surfing” is often better than sleeping rough on the street or in squats, just because a young person might find a roof over their head and a couch or floor to sleep on for a short period, it does not mean they are safe and secure.
“They have to continually call different friends and acquaintances to see if they can get somewhere to stay for that night and that can be really stressful, not having that security,” says Dina.
Many, she says, are forced to sleep in unsafe environments. “Often young people are desperate to find somewhere to stay, so don’t necessarily stay with people they know really well. So there is always a risk of it turning to more sinister stuff like sexual assault or theft of their possessions.
“Also,” continues Dina, “while some people in the household might have known they were sleeping there, other people might not, and those people can get quite aggressive or violent if they find someone in their house they don’t know or don’t want.”
In a bad couch-surfing situation, it can – and often does – get darker. Dina explains: “When someone says, ‘You can stay if you do some work for me’, whether that’s selling drugs or whatever it is, and you are desperate to survive, you might just be willing to do anything you can.”
With the vast majority of young people experiencing homelessness no longer in contact with family, and many struggling with emotional and mental health issues, friendships become extremely important. However, Dina says, “Some stay so long they end up losing some of their good friendships and having to then end up with people who aren’t so trustworthy.”
And most simply, she says, it can become extremely hard to organise life or think straight with no anchor point.
“There is no security, no sense of home. It’s not just a matter of having a roof over your head; it’s a matter of having that security, a place to live, food to eat. It is such a stress to have to deal with basic survival issues – never sure where you are going to be at the end of the day.”