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How sofa surfing became the new normal

With demand for housing far outstripping supply, many young people are being forced to live in their friends’ living rooms

It had been a long day for Beth*. She’d been up early and had spent all day on her feet, working at the local hospital on placement. On the bus back, she idly tapped through her friends’ Instagram Stories, eyelids drooping. It was nearing midnight. When she finally made it back to her friend’s house, she eased the key into the lock and tiptoed into the living room, anxious that she’d wake someone up.

Exhausted, she changed into her pyjamas, grabbed a thick blanket, and squeezed herself onto the sofa in the middle of the living room: her bed, for the foreseeable future.

According to one 2016 report, around 35 per cent of people aged between 16 and 25 in the UK had sofa-surfed at some point in their lives. Now, disturbingly, it appears as though sofa-surfing is on the rise: since the universities reopened this autumn, there have been multiple reports of students sofa-surfing across the country, and earlier this year the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) warned that student homelessness could increase because of the cost of living crisis.

Beth, a 21-year-old medical student at the University of Edinburgh, struggled to find somewhere to live for this academic year despite beginning to look for a new place in June. “My friend Lily* and I genuinely applied to over 65 or 70 flats and just had no luck,” she says. “The people that got them were the ones willing to put a deposit down before even seeing the flat.”

Across the country, demand for rental properties is far, far outstripping supply. Naturally, avaricious landlords have leapt at the chance to jack up their rents, with recent data from Zoopla finding that rents are rising at the fastest pace in 13 years. The result is a hellish, vicious cycle, wherein prospective tenants like Beth are either priced out of most of the flats on offer, or else forced to compete with other renters just to live in a poxy, mould-ridden two-bed.

Like Beth, 22-year-old Archie also struggled to navigate the private rental market in its current state. “I had a couple of viewings here and there, but nothing came through. I barely got anywhere as everything was so insane,” he says. “I was sending out dozens of messages a day, to maybe one or two replies.” Recent analysis from Bloomberg found that the number of prospective tenants in London – where Archie lives and studies journalism – has more than tripled to 106,000 since the pandemic lockdown of early 2021, while the number of rooms advertised has declined over that period to less than 15,000.

As the start of term drew closer, both Beth and Archie grew increasingly desperate. In Beth’s case, not only was teaching starting, but she was also required to go on placements in local hospitals as part of her course. Eventually, she was forced to ask a friend, Mia*, if she’d let her and Lily stay at her house. Archie, meanwhile, took up a friend’s offer when they asked him if he’d like to stay with them for a couple of weeks.

This was unsustainable for both Beth and Archie. “We had to do the first three or four weeks of placement while sofa-surfing,” Beth recalls. She says that she and Lily would sleep on the sofa at Mia’s house, and only get to sleep in an actual bed when one of Mia’s housemates was away. “It wasn’t ideal,” she says, explaining that they were living in these conditions while working long hours in the nearby hospital.

She adds that Mia’s housemates had also offered to house their own homeless friends, so the house was often overcrowded. “At one point there were around 11 of us in this flat – which is probably really illegal – but it was the only place to go at the time.”

Living in such impractical, unstable conditions can take its toll on sofa surfers. A recent report from homeless charity Crisis found that four-fifths of sofa surfers reported a downturn in their mental health, with many reporting feeling insecure during their time sofa surfing. “These kinds of arrangements create instability and insecurity in young people's lives,” says Dan Dumoulin, Head of Rough Sleeping Services at national youth homelessness charity Depaul.

“Knowing my housing situation wasn’t secure was just constantly in the back of my mind,” Archie says, adding that he could barely concentrate on his course at the beginning of term as he was “constantly looking for somewhere to live”. This chimes with Dumoulin’s point that sofa-surfing can disrupt every aspect of a young person’s life. “While being forced to sofa surf, young people are often trying to keep up with their studies, or hold down a job, and this can be particularly challenging when you don't know where you'll be sleeping the following night,” he says. “There can also be feelings of shame associated with asking for favours, or feeling like a burden.”

It’s sometimes easy to lapse into thinking that sofa surfers don’t have things that bad – and often, sofa surfers themselves are quick to stress how grateful they are just to have a roof over their heads (Archie says he was “lucky to be able to stay with friends”). And while it is true that sleeping indoors, often in the home of a family member or friend, is incomparable to sleeping rough, the insecurity of sofa-surfing can still decimate a person’s well-being. Unsurprisingly so: imagine surviving off Tesco meal deals because you have no access to a kitchen; foregoing showers because you’re anxious about using too much of your hosts’ hot water; going to bed later than you want to because someone else wants to sit on the couch and watch TV until 1am. It’s dehumanising, to say the least.

It’s often said that food, water, and shelter are the three basic needs a human being has – but arguably, food, water, and a home would be more accurate. Having a roof above your head is one thing, but having a private space where you feel comfortable and secure is quite another. It’s absurd that in the fifth wealthiest country in the world, increasing numbers of young people are being forced to come back from working all day only to bunk with their friends or sleep on grotty sofas.

Thankfully, both Beth and Archie are in more secure situations now – but the fact that they had to sofa-surf at all is a testament to how broken the system is. Because ultimately, it shouldn’t be a privilege to have a room where you can put up some posters, keep a little houseplant, and go to sleep in your own bed – it should be a right.

If you’re struggling to find housing, you can contact your local council. Depaul UK also runs the Nightstop network, which is made up of more than 30 Nightstops in communities around the UK. Nightstop provides safe, same-night, emergency accommodation in the homes of volunteer hosts, and can support young people to find a longer-term solution to their housing situation.

*Name has been changed