‘Permanent impermanence’: The reality of sofa surfing in Britain today

Dr Ben Sanders, Senior Research Officer

Too many people suffer the indignity and debilitating effects of homelessness. Crisis’ new research shines a light on one of the most widely experienced form of homelessness – sofa surfing – and serves as a timely reminder that homelessness must remain a top political priority.

71,400 families and individuals on any given night are forced to sleep on friends or family’s sofas or floors. Despite this, it is little understood and often remains hidden from the wider public consciousness.

Based on face-to-face interviews with 114 people with current or recent experience of sofa surfing across 12 locations, the research shows that sofa surfing is very often the only option when rents are unaffordable. Whilst it can be a safer place to stay than the street, it comes with its own damaging consequences.

Having to sofa surf means no privacy, no personal space and being at the behest of other people's routines – you go to bed when they do and wake when they do. It also means living with the insecurity and anxiety of potentially being asked to leave at any time – something I sadly witnessed when one participant took a call during the interview, telling them their time was up.

Sofa surfing is bad for mental and physical health. Living conditions can be poor and dangerous; leaving people exposed to violence and the anti-social behaviour of others. This is all compounded by a lack of access to basic amenities such as a place to wash or store personal items.

Moreover, many people we spoke to did not have independent access and often had to leave the accommodation during the day or when the host had visitors.

This a damaging and undignified way to live a life. It compromises people’s ability to maintain or find a job. Sofa surfing can also be the beginning or part of long periods of homelessness where people move in and out of different forms, which are often insecure and dangerous.

Sofa surfing is not a one-off temporary situation or stepping-stone between home. Rather, a state of ‘permanent impermanence’ characterised the lives of the research participants and can corrode relationships with friends, family and the hosts people are forced to stay with.

Yet these experiences are not inevitable. The people we spoke to as part of the research told us what they needed to end their homelessness – more and better access to housing they could afford along with tailored support for those that need it. In many cases local authorities could have stepped in and stopped homelessness from happening in the first place.

Making sure that everyone has a safe and secure home benefits us all. Yet this will only be made a reality by investing in housing benefit, so it truly overs the cost of rents across the country, and making sure local councils recognise sofa-surfing as a form of homelessness that is eligible for assistance across the board.

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