Neil Morland
March 24, 2021

Making hidden homelessness visible

With more than half a million people ‘sofa surfing’, it’s important that the issue of hidden homelessness is visible in strategies and services.

National data identified 2% (541,000, roughly equal to population of Manchester) of households had someone living with them in the last 12 months who would otherwise be hidden homeless, with almost one-third ‘sofa surfers’ had dependent children living with them[1].  The number of people experiencing hidden homelessness in London is forecast to be 13 times higher (as many as 12,500 per night) than the number of people experiencing street homelessness[2].

People who experience hidden homeless are those without a place to call home, but nevertheless has somewhere stay. They can often be hidden from official statistics and not be in receipt of support[3]. They are a distinctly different cohort from people experiencing street homelessness, as they are not sleeping rough. Nor are they living in supported housing or local authority temporary accommodation. Instead they are ‘sofa surfing’, a commonly used term to define anyone who has made short-term arrangements to stay somewhere, sometime with friends as often with strangers, but where they have no rights of occupation.

Young people aged 16-24 years are most likely to be affected by hidden homelessness, particularly people who identify as LGBT[4]. People who have experienced hidden homelessness report financial and/or sexual exploitation as a common occurrence. Typically, they haven’t received homelessness assistance from a local authority and are fleeing domestic abuse. Only one in five young people affected present to a council, meaning the majority of sofa surfers remain hidden from public services[5]. A recent survey[6] identified 71% of ‘rough sleepers’ in England had previously ‘sofa surfed’ before experiencing street homelessness.

This evidence shows that tackling hidden homelessness is the key to ending street homelessness. To make progress on preventing ‘sofa surfing’, national and local plans need to feature specific priorities and actions that respond to the causes of hidden homelessness. Having an accurate understanding of the current and future likely levels of hidden homelessness will be essential to informing a robust strategic approach, along with sufficient resources to deliver agreed actions. A hidden homelessness strategy will need to feature a range of activities to prevents ‘sofa surfing’, helps people to obtain accommodation and provide support to stop a reoccurrence of hidden homelessness. Foremost amongst activities tackle hidden homelessness should be a concentrated effort to increase the number of ‘sofa surfers’ that approach services for assistance.

Research has shown that young people[7] (aged 16-24) will tend to stay ‘sofa surfing’ rather than access services. A reason for this is that many of them don’t know where they to go for advice and assistance and even when they do have this knowledge, they’re not always confident about using services, due to fears of being judged or misunderstood, by both employees and other users of services[8]. Others may be in exploitative relationships which restrict a person being able get help from services.

To begin tackling hidden homelessness, organisations will need to attempt identify ‘sofa surfers’ who are not accessing their services and take appropriate action to remove barriers to access. Raising awareness of what services are available for those at risk of hidden homelessness and how and when to access these services, will need to done in a way that is relevant to the targeted audience. Involving people with lived experience of hidden homelessness will help organisations to make appropriate decisions about where to locate services, what time they should be available and how to structure them. This should make it easier for ‘sofa surfers’ to contact services by telephone, in person or over the internet. Adopting comprehensive service standards and making people aware of them, will promote the values of an organisation and help sofa surfers overcome concerns they might have about them being subject to criticism about themselves or their circumstances when using services.

Removing barriers to accessing services also involves making sure the information provided to people at risk of hidden homelessness, is easy to read. It should be developed in consultation with people who have lived experience, so that it meets the needs and expectations of the intended beneficiaries. It is also crucial to have well trained employees that are knowledgeable about LGBT issues, and have good awareness of causes and effects of exploitation and domestic abuse.

Scale of hidden homelessness vastly exceeds the levels of street homelessness. The experience of ‘sofa surfing’ is as equally harmful as that of rough sleeping. The prevention of ‘sofa surfing’ should feature prominently in any plan to tackle homelessness. Services need to become more accessible to those who are experiencing hidden homelessness.

[1] English Housing Survey 2018-19 sofa surfing and concealed households – fact sheet Published 9 July 2020 From MHCLG
[2] London Assembly HousingCommittee. Hidden Homelessness in London September 2017
[3] London Assembly Housing Committee. HiddenHomelessness in London September 2017

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Understanding the Multiple Vulnerabilities, Support Needs and Experiences of People who Sleep Rough in England. Initial findings from Rough Sleeping Questionnaire. MHCLG December2020

[7] Young and Homeless. Homeless Link, 2018

[8] Findings from peer research carried out by LGBT Youth Scotland’s Youth Commission: Housing and Homelessness. https://www.lgbtyouth.org.uk/national-programmes/youth-activism/youth-commission-housing-and-homelessness/