Sofa surfing describes a situation in which somebody who is homeless will stay informally with family, friends or acquaintances. Often, they stay with different people for short periods of time before moving elsewhere. This commonly involves staying on people’s sofas, hence the name.
Sofa surfing is a form of homelessness, but at first glance it may seem less problematic than rough sleeping. That can be true – you are inside, you probably feel a little more comfortable and a little bit safer. However, it often precedes rough sleeping, and even when it doesn’t, it can have harmful long-term effects of its own.
Deborah, who works in our Somewhere Safe to Stay Hub in Croydon, regularly supports people who have sofa surfed. She explains why the experience can be such a problem.
“It slowly erodes connections with the people in your life. It is difficult living in that kind of informal way, even with friends and family. The person never has their own privacy or space, and it places relationships under strain, leading to conflicts.
Not only that, but many people who sofa surf don’t tell other people what is going on. This creates distance, and over time people drift apart as a result. This can only go on for so long because people are forced to keep moving to new places. Eventually, if they can’t find their own place, they end of up on the street. By then they have distanced themselves from family and friends that they would have asked for help, making them even more isolated.
Somebody came to the Hub recently who had enjoyed a very successful career, until they burned themselves out and ended up losing their job and their home. They didn’t feel that they could tell the people closest to them, so all they could do was sofa surf for a bit until they ran out of options. If they hadn’t come to the Hub, they would be on the street.”
Sofa surfing makes people pull away from those around them at exactly the time when they need support. Not sharing what is happening to them can create a vicious cycle – they get closer to rough sleeping, but less and less likely to tell others.
Another issue is that people who are sofa surfing are rarely identified by outreach teams because they are difficult to spot. This means that they do not get connected to support services. Often, they only reach organisations like us when they have become rough sleepers.
There is no easy solution to this. However, one thing we can all do is have more open discussions about homelessness in order to help reduce its stigma. If you know somebody who appears to be sofa surfing, let them know you are there for them, and that you can offer support if needed. Being understanding and empathetic when people are going through crisis can make a huge difference.
You can find out more about different forms of homelessness here.