New research has revealed that young couch surfers may actually be worse off than those sleeping rough.
Today is “Youth Homelessness Matters Day” – yep, it’s really a thing; which is really sad when you think about it. So a bunch of Youth Homelessness Experts (yep, they’re really a thing too – doubly sad) are gathering together in Melbourne, to discuss the issue.
On the agenda are the alarming preliminary findings from a Queensland-based research project that were published in the Council to Homeless Person’s Parity magazine, which suggests young people who “couch surf” (i.e., choose to spend the night on someone’s couch, rather than in a hotel – often due to it being a cheap accommodation option) can be at risk of equally damaging and traumatising experiences as those who sleep rough.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data shows that 30,585 couch surfers sought assistance from homelessness services last financial year, with one-third of them being aged between 12 and 24 years.
The research was conducted by the Brisbane Youth Service and Griffith Criminology Institute, and looked at the experiences of 864 young people, aged 12 to 25 years old, who were experiencing homelessness over a 12-month period. It focused on the mental health of two groups: couch surfers and rough sleepers.
The results indicated that young couch surfers had higher rates of both suicide risk and rates of self-harming behaviour, with couch surfers being twice as likely to describe their mental health as poor, compared to those sleeping rough.
The research also found that although couch surfers and rough sleepers self-reported similar rates of recent drug and alcohol use, couch surfers were less likely to label their current use as problematic. Couch surfers also reported that they received the lowest levels of support from community-based organisations.
Combined, these two findings could suggest that couch surfers are less likely or feel less able to seek help from the services they need.
“Envisioning couch surfing as an extended sleepover 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. This research blows that misconception out of the water,” said Jenny Smith, CEO of Council to Homeless Persons.
Alarmingly, the research also found that young couch surfers were far more likely to be women or LGBTIQ; in the study, 70 percent of couch surfers were female.
Rhianon Vichta is the Research and Evaluation Coordinator for Brisbane Youth Service. She says, “These findings suggest that we need to better understand the realities of what young people experience while couch surfing.” For example, it is possible that some young women and gay youth are engaging in survival sex (i.e., being coerced to provide sex in exchange for a place to sleep or stay), and there may be multiple other psychological stressors involved in couch surfing environments.
“A home is much more than a bed and we need to be consistently working towards stable and safe accommodation options for young people,” she added.
Katie Hail-Jares, post-doctorate researcher from Griffith Criminology Unit and co-researcher with Brisbane Youth Service, pointed out, “Our research should not be interpreted as a call to turn young people out onto the streets, but that each young person’s situation needs to be treated individually, rather than assuming that any roof is better than no roof.”
The Council to Homeless Persons says 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.
“Early intervention is critical in preventing young people from falling into a cycle of homelessness that can last a lifetime. Young people aged 12 to 24 years make up 24 percent of our homeless population, but are most often hidden from view, so easier to ignore.”