It’s not just an extended sleepover with friends – the realities of couchsurfing

Youth Homelessness Matters Day (YHMD) is a national campaign that aims to influence youth homelessness policy. This year it will be held on Wednesday 18 April. We have created a set of infographics and fact sheets with the most recent data which can be downloaded here.

When we talk about ‘youth’ or ‘young people’, we are specifically talking about people aged 12-24,. The latest ABS data counted 28, 000 young Australians as homeless on Census night in 2016.  In most instances, they do not have a home because they are escaping conflict and violence. Previous research found that 70% of young people who became homeless left home to escape family violence, child abuse or family breakdown (Rosenthal, 2006).

Young people who are unable to live with their family  find it almost impossible to find a home because of the housing affordability crisis in Australia. Youth Allowance payments plus Commonwealth Rent Assistance leave a young person with just $267/week to pay for housing, transport, food, bills. Consider the fact that a room in a sharehouse is $150-$250/week, and it’s easy to see why young people are couchsurfing in their thousands. Last financial year, more than 10,000 young couchsurfers presented to homelessness services seeking hp.

Shocklingly, Fairfax recently exposed the huge numbers of University and TAFE students who are experiencing homelessness.

The vast majority of young people experiencing homelessness are hidden from view in refuges, couch surfing situations and sleeping in cars with their family, but their experience is very real. 

Envisioning couch surfing as an extended sleep-over with a friend has contributed to the perception that it is a ‘safer’ form of homelessness, or even not a form of youth homelessness at all. 

Preliminary findings from a Queensland-based research project blows these misconceptions out of the water. The research suggests that couch surfing can be just as damaging and traumatising as rough sleeping for young people.

The research, conducted by Brisbane Youth Service and Griffith Criminology Institute, found that young couch surfers had higher rates of both suicide risk and rates of self-harming behavior. Additionally, couch surfers were twice as likely to describe their mental health as poor than the young people sleeping rough. Couch surfers were also found to have equivalent rates of drug  and alcohol use, but were less likely to perceive their substance use as problematic. The Guardian examined the research in this article and you can read our media release here

Being coerced to provide sex for a place to sleep – survival sex
Worryingly, the research found that young people couch surfing were far more likely to be women or LGBTIQ . Seventy per cent of couch surfers in the study were found to be young women.
These findings suggest that we need to better understand the realities of what young people experience while couch surfing. It is possible that some young women and gay youth are exchanging survival sex for a place to stay and there may be multiple other psychological stressors in play in couch surfing environments.

The policy implications of this study are significant. It reinforces to the sector that home is much more than a bed and we need to be consistently working towards stable and safe accommodation options for young people.

Couch surfing should be viewed with the same seriousness as other forms of homelessness, and needs specific policy responses, with a particular focus on affordable accommodation for young people on low incomes who can’t live at home.

Young people’s homelessness may be easier to ignore because it is hidden, but this Youth Homelessness Matters Day, we are calling on all levels of Government to stop ignoring a national epidemic. We need a national youth homelessness strategy, and more broadly, we need a national housing affordability plan to tackle the shortage of affordable housing that underlies all homelessness.