Sofa-Surfing: a bed without a home

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person sleeping on grey sofa

A night on the sofa? It’s no great hardship –  it’s just a place to crash. But, when or if, that becomes long-term – say, three years, then that is a very different story…… 

Years ago, I lived in London and spent a few weeks sofa-surfing. I lost the place where I was staying and my budget didn’t stretch to a B&B/hotel. I was effectively homeless, in that I had nowhere to live. Luckily, some friends let me use their sofa – for which I was hugely indebted. And, thankfully, I was soon able to find somewhere affordable to live. 

Homelessness can happen to almost everyone. And it can happen very suddenly –  especially in big cities where rents are sky-high. If your landlord chooses to sell-up or raise the rent your options may be very limited, and dangerously downward.  

You could end up relying on the kindness of friends who have sofa. But for how long? You are always worried that you will outstay your welcome, contravene their tenancy agreement, strain or lose the friendship  – and then what?

That is when you realise just how vulnerable you are – or have become.

But is that of any concern to anyone else? 

The Simon Communityin Northern Ireland think it is. A recent survey revealed that people are only 19 days from the breadline, because 42 per cent of households in Northern Ireland have no savings. So, in a climate of uncertainty across retail, manufacturing and local government when, or if, people lose their jobs there is no back-up plan; no  contingency. And then what?

Long-term sofa-surfing is recognised as homelessness. 

You may have somewhere to sleep, but you have nowhere to live. You might be able to use the address for official documentation – or not. And, although not on the streets, it is precarious situation to be; one that makes people vulnerable and anxious. 

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.

But they say that is only the tip of the iceberg…. 

To be reliant on friends, who themselves may be living in overcrowded, or cramped accommodation is hard. This is may be the place where you sleep, but it is not your home and the sofa is only ‘yours’ when everyone else has gone to bed. You can never forget that you are a ‘temporary’ visitor.

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 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, not relaxed; ever-conscious that you have nowhere else to go.

Of course, there are sofa-surfing websites for adventurous types who are happy to travel the world sleeping for free on a stranger’s sofa – no strings attached.  To be clear: there is no ‘adventure’ in having to sleep on a sofa for 3 years. Far from it.

We should also think of the kindness of family and friends who are prepared to take someone in when the only spare space they have is the sofa. It is bothersome to have your living room, occupied every single night; your space invaded. It can’t be easy to take on someone long-term – but also, not easy to turn them away.  

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, and where the problem seems to lie is with people who are reliant on the state or landlords. That is, people who do not own their own homes and who may be already close to the poverty line.

In Helsinki, the BBCreports how the Finnish government has tackled homelessness with a joined-up approach; accommodating rough sleepers quickly and efficiently, and giving them support to deal with addiction, or to learn new skills so they can find work. They still have homeless people, but the aim is to provide them with a home, rather than temporary accommodation.

We live in a different world.

Nuala Rooney PhD


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Nuala Rooney PhD, is a creative professional and award-winning author, currently developing new approaches to design innovation and spatial research through storytelling. With unique skillsets, developed as a design educator in Higher Education institutions in UK and Hong Kong, her interest lies in exploring 'home' as a human centred space.

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