A night on the sofa? It’s no great hardship –  it’s just a place to crash.

But if it becomes long-term – that is a very different story.

Years ago, I spent a few weeks sofa-surfing in London.

I had to move out of the flat where I was staying. Because of that I was effectively homeless – in that I had nowhere to live.

Some friends offered to let me sleep on their sofa – and for this I was hugely grateful. Through their kindness I had a safe, secure place to stay.

What a relief!

This was only ever going to be temporary stop-gap. But it meant I could continue in my employment, because now I had somewhere to sleep. And somewhere to store my belongings – albeit in bags and suitcases.

Thankfully, through word of mouth and personal contacts, I was soon able to find somewhere affordable to live – to rent.

Even now I can still remember the panic, anxiety and fear of that time. The hopelessness of having nowhere that I could afford. Of suddenly being left high and dry.

It felt like the rug had been pulled from under me.

Until then, I hadn’t realised how precarious my life was – as a renter – in a big city.

Unlike other people.

Homelessness can happen to almost anyone.

And it can happen very suddenly –  especially in big cities where rents are sky-high, flatmates move on and circumstances change.

If your landlord chooses to sell-up, or raise the rent, your options may be very limited. And dangerously downward.  

Like me, you could end up relying on the kindness of friends.

But for how long?

As a sofa-surfer you are always worried that you will outstay your welcome, contravene their tenancy agreement or strain or lose the friendship.  And then what?

That’s when you realise just how vulnerable you are.

recent survey by the Simon Community in Northern Ireland revealed that most people are only 19 days from the breadline.

That is because 42 per cent of households in Northern Ireland have no savings.

So, in a climate of uncertainty when/if people lose their jobs, and there is no back-up plan, or  contingency. People may have nowhere to live.

Long-term sofa-surfing is recognised as homelessness. 

Sofa-surfing means you may have somewhere to sleep, but nowhere to live.

You might not be able to use that address for official documentation. And, while you may to be living on the streets, it is precarious situation. Sofa-surfers are vulnerable. 

The Guardian highlights the rise in rough sleeping – which has more than doubled since 2010.

They also point to research that indicates:

12,300 people in Britain were sleeping on the streets last year, with a further 12,000 spending the night in cars, trains, buses or tents.

They say that is only the tip of the iceberg

To have to rely on friends, who themselves may be living in overcrowded, or cramped accommodation is difficult.

This is may be the place where you sleep, but it is not your home.

You can never forget that you are a ‘temporary’ visitor. The sofa is only ‘yours’ when everyone else has gone to bed.

When your only ‘bed’ is a sofa it means you have no personal privacy and probably nowhere to store your belongings.

You have to try to be ultra-tidy, unobtrusive and undemanding; staying out as much as possible so as not to get under people’s feet. You are on your best behaviour and cannot relax; ever-conscious that you have nowhere else to go.

Global nomads who use Sofa-surfing / couch-surfing websites may be happy sleep short-term on a stranger’s sofa – no strings attached.  And yet there are some horror stories of couch-surfing when it all goes wrong. But, there is no ‘adventure’ in having to sleep on a friend’s sofa – for 3 years.

It all comes down to the kindness of family and friends.

There are good people who are prepared to give someone refuge when the only spare space they have – is the sofa. For them, it is inconvenient to have your living room occupied every single night, your space invaded.

How does one night on the sofa become a month… a year or longer?

The Guardian claims that one million people are now living in overcrowded conditions. The problem seems to lie with people who are reliant on the state – or landlords. That is, people who do not own their own homes and who may be close – or on – the poverty line.

Any solution to the problem of private rentals will require a massive intervention. A major fix to maintain the flow between supply and demand.

In Helsinki, the BBCreports how the Finnish government has tackled homelessness with a joined-up approach. They are able to accommodate rough sleepers quickly and efficiently. They give them support to deal with addiction, or to learn new skills so they can find work.

When someone is homeless in Finland the aim is to provide them with a home, rather than temporary accommodation.

Here, we live in a different world.

The Simon Communityin Northern Ireland.

Welcome Organisation in Northern Ireland

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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