Visible homelessness is up. But don’t forget the hidden pain of Britain’s sofa surfers

Francisco Garcia
Photograph: Simon Dack News/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

It’s not often you’re led to consider your own birth in terms of convenience. Over the past few years I’ve led myself to the knowledge that my arrival, in the early 1990s, must have come as a relief for my parents, even if they never framed it that way to themselves.

Their lives were full of cares and stresses – some minor, some not. At the forefront was their housing situation, a blend of precarity and claustrophobia: what we would call “legal homelessness”, then as now. They spent that part of their lives between my grandmother’s housing association flat in Catford, south-east London, and the spare beds and sofas of various friends and family. My birth offered the promise of a modest council flat, a solid enough base for a less immediately difficult future.

There is another term for that kind of dependence on the goodwill and tolerance of others: sofa surfing. At the end of 2019, newly released research from the homelessness charity Crisis revealed the contemporary scale of an issue that has rarely before received serious scrutiny. Their findings are the latest attempt to articulate the realities underpinning what is the most common, and commonly misunderstood, form of “hidden homelessness” in the country.

It’s thought that there are at least 320,000 people currently homeless in the UK, a number most observers believe to be a considerable underestimate. Of that number, there are more than 170,000 “core homeless households” – those experiencing rough sleeping, night shelters or unsuitable temporary accommodation. Of that number, more than 71,000 are thought to be sofa surfing – depending on the kindness of friends, family and acquaintances, often for protracted periods of time when they have nowhere else to go.

Sofa surfing sounds almost benign, but there is nothing soft about its strains and privations. In December, I spoke with twentysomething Lucy at a Crisis at Christmas centre in north London, where she had come to speak on her own prior experience. Her childhood was spent in and out of care, away from an abusive family life. In her final year of A-levels, she returned home, only to leave again when it was clear that nothing had changed. Several nights at a friend’s house turned into six months of precarity, before a lucky break and the chance of something more stable. “You don’t want to be a burden, but of course you are,” she told me. “There’s no way not to live on edge, as you have no idea what might happen.”

Lucy’s story is not uncommon. Of the 114 people interviewed by Crisis, a third reported they had been sofa surfing for between six months and three years. Three-quarters had experienced a sharp decline in their physical health, while over half found that securing – let alone maintaining – work was negatively affected. Eight out 10 reported that their mental health had suffered significantly.

Then there are the intangibles: the deep feelings of shame and inadequacy that come with dependence, the fraying of relationships under the weight of unnatural and unsustainable domestic pressures, and the enveloping sense of insecurity that bleeds into every other facet of life.

‘Over half of people spoken to by Crisis pointed to housing affordability as the key reason behind their starting to sofa surf.’ A young man views listing in an estate agent’s window. Photograph: Alamy

It is all too easy to imagine those in power dismissing the new findings, as they do the grotesque explosion in the use of food banks over the last decade, as a uniquely British impulse to charity – something to be applauded, rather than challenged as a key symptom of an ever more grossly unequal society.

Related: One-third of homeless sofa-surfing forced to do so for over six months

Of course, these are the same people who wish to degrade tenants’ rights even further, and who continue to punish and humiliate those who have the audacity to be poor, or anyone who claims state benefits. It is no accident that over half of people spoken to by Crisis pointed to housing affordability as the key reason behind their starting to sofa surf, while 40% said that their benefits didn’t cover the cost of rent.

It speaks vividly of the current absurdities of the UK in 2020 that the resolution to my parents’ story sounds like a fairytale, less than 30 years on. It seems comically distant, that once – even in London – there were affordable and even social housing options for those without the requisite capital to navigate the private rental market, let alone to dare to dream of home ownership.

According to Shelter, between 4,000 and 5,000 people sleep rough every night, a figure that has more than doubled since 2010. These are visibly destitute people, who attract sympathy or scorn for as long as attention alights on them at all. But we must not forget the thousands who remain locked out of statistics and out of sight.

• Francisco Garcia is a London-based writer and journalist