4 Dec 2014

The hidden homeless: Britain’s young sofa surfer surge

Scotland Correspondent

Thousands of young people across Britain have no home and are left moving from couch to couch just to stay off the streets, Ciaran Jenkins investigates the sofa surfing generation.

What’s it like to have no home? To wander around with all your belongings in one bag? To move from one floor or sofa to another? To never know which friend or family member will put you up next, if anyone at all? What it’s like? Ask Alex, who is 20 years old and has lived like this for five years.

“Not good. S*** to be honest,” is his blunt assessment. Ask the same question to any young person who is “sofa surfing”, you’ll get a similar reply.

Craig, also 20, says this: “It’s hell, it’s living hell. Sleeping rough is hell and in all fairness I don’t think sofa surfing is much better.”

Sofa surfing is a phenomenon that has grown largely unnoticed. Whereas homelessness is visible, by its very nature sofa surfing goes on behind closed doors. But in Britain today thousands of young people have no home and are moving from couch to couch just to keep themselves off the street.

It is happening on quite a staggering scale, according to new research shared exclusively with Channel 4 News.

One in five young people, aged 16 to 25, have sofa surfed in the past year because they had nowhere else to go.

The figures are from a survey of 2,000 16 to 25 year olds, the first of its kind, conducted by the polling and research consultancy Comres on behalf of the housing charity Centrepoint.

It’s a problem previously unquantified, which now surely requires urgent action.

Almost half of the young people who have been sofa surfing in the past year, have done so for at least a month at a time.

More: Ten photos of London's hidden homeless

I meet Alex at a hostel in Bradford. He was made homeless five years ago after a family breakdown when he was aged just 15.

He describes a never-ending cycle of searching desperately for somewhere to stay, waking up and starting the whole process again.

“I would get up at 8 and just go out for the day, just to keep myself occupied,” he says.

“I would go around town, go to housing places see if they’ve got somewhere, and if not go find somewhere to stay. Mates, yeah. Just ring em up, if they say no just try again, try someone else. Just keep trying until I got somewhere.”

If you’ve got nowhere to call home you’re always uncomfortable, always unsettled, you’re not safe
Melissa

Did he always find somewhere? “No, I didn’t always find somewhere,” he says.

“I used to sleep in my mum’s bin shed thing. I used to pull the bins out and sleep in there. For a couple of weeks I had to do that. It’s not nice. When you just smell and you want a shower and stuff like that, it’s a low point in your life.”

Martin Gill, from the charity Centrepoint, tells me the problem has been too easily hidden “because of young people’s relative health, fitness and ability to resilient”.

It is also, he says, a matter of attitude, everyone else’s attitude.

“We have probably accepted as a society that it’s ok for young people to sleep on sofas,” he says.

Calling it sofa surfing probably doesn’t help. The name has stuck, but it seems to dress up the reality, which is that young people who are sofa surfing are basically homeless.

I meet Melissa, 21, at a drop in centre for young people in Leyland, Lancashire. She is pushing a pram. Alice May is 11 weeks old, and has never had a proper home.

Melissa no longer sleeps rough, but she does alternate between staying with different friends and family. “It messes with your head a lot,” says Melissa.

“Your emotions and stuff like that, you might not show it, but it does it affects you. If you’ve got nowhere to call home you’re always uncomfortable, always unsettled, you’re not safe, that’s the key safety.”

While Melissa is filling in a housing application, I ask Claire Moxham, a senior support worker at Leyland’s Key Youth Charity, why so many young people are having to sofa surf.

“Some of it is disagreeing with parents, parents split up and have no space for them in that property anymore, and families not being able to afford to accommodate teenagers who aren’t working,” she says.

Melissa will spend the night at her partner’s house. Where will she stay after that, I ask; “Anywhere really,” Melissa replies.

“Friends, anywhere really. It’s not too bad, just normal.”

She points to her baby; “As long as she’s got somewhere warm.”

Sofa surfing the stats

One in five young people (20 per cent) have had to sofa surf in the past year because they have nowhere else to go.

Five in ten (49 per cent) of those who had sofa surfed in the last year spent a month or more sofa surfing with some doing so for over six months.

One in five (21 per cent) of those who had to sofa surf in the last year had nowhere else to go because their tenancy ended or they had been evicted.

One in five (20 per cent) of those who had to sofa surf in the last year reported that they had nowhere else to stay because their parents were unwilling or unable to accommodate them.

One in ten (11 per cent) young people who had to sofa surf in the last year had suffered domestic violence.

Sofa surfing by region:

North East 18%

Scotland 23%

North West 16%

West Midlands 24%

Wales 24%

Yorkshire 17 %

East Midlands 23%

East of England 17%

London 25%

South East 18 %

South West 19%

Northern Ireland 25%