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Danger Zones and Stepping Stones: Young people’s experiences of hidden homelessness

Depaul works to provide safe places for young people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness. Between periods of stable accommodation, young people experience varied, complex and sometimes unsafe living arrangements. This report examines these arrangements to find more appropriate policy and service solutions to the problems posed by hidden homelessness.

The temporary living experiences of young people are often referred to using the term ‘sofa surfing’. This research looks at how this phrase is understood by young people, practitioners and researchers in the field of homelessness.

In this report, Depaul also proposes a new model, Danger Zones and Stepping Stones, for understanding temporary living arrangements and makes a series of recommendations – calling on policymakers and practitioners to improve the help offered to young people experiencing homelessness and for further research to be undertaken.

Sofa Surfing
‘Sofa surfing’ was found to be an umbrella term encompassing a number of different living arrangements, with no universal definition.

There were notable differences in how ‘sofa surfing’ was defined in the literature and by young people. We found that young people do not commonly use the term
‘sofa surfing’. While most were aware of the phrase, those who used it appeared to do so to “speak the language” of the professionals rather than because it accurately described their experiences. Importantly, some of the young people interviewed felt use of the term ‘sofa surfing’ could lead to the risks of living in temporary accommodation being underestimated. This report recommends ‘temporary living arrangements’ as a more neutral and lessloaded term for experiences between periods of stable accommodation.

Temporary Living
Depaul’s research found that the breakdown of family relationships was the most common reason for loss of stable accommodation. Young people also fell into temporary living arrangements after choosing to leave home because they had failed to maintain tenancies in supported or independent accommodation. These temporary living arrangements included staying with friends, with family members, in large hostels, in bed and breakfast lodgings (B&Bs), in other council commissioned accommodation and with volunteer hosts such as those who make Depaul’s Nightstop possible.

Our research found young people’s experiences varied hugely from arrangement to arrangement, depending on: the practical circumstances of the accommodation, with whom they had stayed, the likelihood that they would be exposed to harmful influences, and the level of support to which they had access. Staying with friends was found to be the most diverse category of temporary living. Young people described a huge spectrum of experiences in this way, ranging from relatively safe arrangements with close family friends or the parents of school friends to those that are potentially very dangerous such all-night parties or staying with near-strangers. Other categories, such as staying with family or in B&Bs, also encompassed a wide range of experiences – both positive and negative.

However, the young people interviewed reported no positive experiences of staying in generic hostel accommodation. They said they were housed with much older residents and exposed to negative influences such as drugs and alcohol. “It’s mad, total madness,” said one young interviewee.

These experiences support suggestions that a reduction in longer-stay supported accommodation for young people can result in them being housed in generic services unsuited to their needs.

The techniques that young people used to find temporary accommodation varied. Their decisions appeared to be heavily influenced by their sensitivity to the stigma surrounding homelessness, perceptions of how successful the various options would be and the sense of urgency and desperation they felt when looking for accommodation.

All these factors were found to draw young people away from accessing organised services and towards living arrangements that could be dangerous.

While some temporary living arrangements were good for young people, many were found to be harmful. Physical effects included fatigue due to poor and irregular sleep patterns, weight loss, and health issues connected to drugs and alcohol. Significant risks to young people’s personal safety also exist because some living arrangements, for example staying with strangers, could leave them vulnerable to mistreatment and exploitation. “They could have done anything to me,” recalled one young person.

Psychologically, young people were affected by the stress of living in someone else’s home and the associated lack of privacy and also by a strong sense of being
a burden on their hosts. These feelings had a clear impact on young people’s self-esteem. Young people often said that temporary living made them feel “worthless”
or “pathetic”. Evidence was found of young people moving away from potentially beneficial circumstances to avoid “putting out” the people accommodating them.
This led to situations where they felt less of a burden, but were given little support to move into more stable accommodation, leaving them trapped in temporary living.

The research found some arrangements were less harmful and more likely to help young people out of homelessness than others. Supportive environments were
most likely to be provided by smaller accommodation projects, or by friends or family, where: there was a strong relationship between the young person and those accommodating them; the host cared about the young person and their future; the young person did not feel like a burden and was willing to accept help; and the host supported the young person – practically and through knowledge and advice.