Hidden homelessness is an ever growing problem in the United Kingdom. There are 71,400 families forced to sofa surf at any one time. Hidden homelessness includes sofa surfing, squatting and other forms of insecure accommodation. For young people especially, sofa surfing has become a huge issue.
It is thought to be the largest form of homelessness. Data suggests that 35% of all young people have experienced sofa surfing at some point in their lives. The research estimates on any given night, a minimum of 216,000 young people are sofa surfing.
Why is this?
In 2013, the UK government introduced Universal Credit. This supposedly simplified the welfare system by combining six benefits which were “means tested” along with working tax credits into one single monthly payment.
Here’s the problem. Anyone under the age of 25 receives £342.72, whereas someone over 25 gets £409.89. It means that two individuals, in exactly the same circumstances, with the same bills to pay would get two different Universal Credit amounts, even if one is just a year older.
Now let’s add housing expenses to the equation. In the UK, if you are under the age of 35 with no children, you cannot claim the full amount of your housing costs. You are only allowed a “shared housing rate”, which is based upon renting a room in a shared house.
In Scarborough, someone under the age of 35 receives roughly £285 per month for the “shared housing rate” whereas someone over 35 can claim roughly £375 per month for a one-bedroom flat. (The amount increases for additional bedrooms.) Note: this amount depends on where in the country you live and is calculated using the lowest third of local market rents. For example, the rate in central London is higher due to more expensive housing costs. The shared accommodation rate is roughly £668 per month, with the one bedroom rate for people over 35 being roughly £1,280 per month.
Let’s go back to Scarborough for some quick math.
So, if a 23-year-old rents a one bedroom flat in Scarborough and then loses their job, they cannot claim all of their housing costs. In addition, the rest of their housing costs have to come out an already lower amount of universal credit.
For example, let’s say their rent (without any bills) is £400 a month. They can claim £285 a month for housing. This means the other £115 has to come out of the £342.72 Universal Credit. That leaves £227.72 to pay all remaining bills, any transport needed and food for the whole month.
This, along with the initial 5-week wait to be able to claim universal credit means young people in this country are well and truly hung out to dry.
Young people should be able to access a more equal amount of financial support for housing, one that is reflective of the cost to rent and which doesn’t leave them more likely to end up in insecure accommodation or worse, homeless.
When I first realised I was homeless and was sofa surfing, I didn’t want to ask for help from the local council, or from local charities who I knew could help me. Admitting you need help also makes your situation more real. It means you have to stop living in denial and face up to the facts.
“I can’t admit I’m homeless – Even to my best friend.”
It’s also humiliating admitting you have nowhere to live and no money in your bank account. For many young people who have nowhere else to go, that’s the hardest part. They won’t ask for help for fear of the unknown and fear of looking like a failure. They also don’t know what it will mean for their future or where they might end up staying.
“It takes away the embarrassment if you’re sofa surfing. Nobody wants to be labelled homeless so it makes it easier if you’re staying with mates.”
According to Centre Point, 55% of young people who had sofa surfed felt like they could not tell anyone they were homeless. In keeping their circumstances hidden, young people can avoid the deep rooted feelings of shame. But this also means avoiding any help that may be available to them, whether they know it or not. Often, they may think there are people in worse situations than themselves, so they are not deserving of help, even if it is available.
Let Down by Services
90% of those who had ever been in the care of a local authority or had a social worker as a child said that they had sofa surfed. This shows that the system is not working. If young people who are under the care of the authorities end up sleeping on friends’ sofas then something is fundamentally wrong.
Many of the young people I met during my time homeless expressed feelings of being let down by various systems. These systems are in place specifically to either prevent youth homelessness or help young people who find themselves homeless.
One young person I spoke to told me about her experiences:
“I was let down by services in the past. When I was 16 I was told I should get pregnant so I could get a roof over my head. I don’t trust professionals now and it feels safer to sleep on my best friend’s sofa.”
“I stayed in a hostel for a while but I didn’t feel safe. There were lots of arguments, fighting and drugs so I left. I’ve been staying with a few different friends since. It’s hard to go to college and stuff when you’re sleeping on a sofa. You can’t really sit and get on with your work and actually concentrate.”
I also spoke to Mikey, who is currently sofa surfing, about his experiences:
“When we grow up feeling unwanted and unloved then we never feel we have a home. Our adult life reflects that struggle.”
“I felt very misunderstood and judged in places I’ve stayed. Isolated, alienated and unwanted.”
Feeling let down by services leaves young people questioning many aspects of their lives, their sense of belonging and their sense of worth. Nobody should have to face homelessness. But when a young person has no other option they should not be left feeling even more let down.