• Couchsurfing is a new form of homelessness. (Getty Images )
Many couch surfers are young teens of refugee background who have fallen through the cracks.
By
Nicola Heath

9 Aug 2018 - 10:15 AM  UPDATED 8 Nov 2019 - 11:53 AM

Adi*, a gay male from Iran, fled his home country when he was 17 years old. In 2012 he arrived in Australia by boat as an unaccompanied minor and spent seven months in detention on Christmas Island.

Adi was then released into community detention. He spent 13 months couch surfing, constantly moving from house to house. He struggled with mental illness and survived a number of suicide attempts before he was granted permanent residency in 2014, after finding support from a youth homelessness service and finally secured stable accommodation. 

Adi’s story is described in Couch Surfing Limbo, a 2017 report by community welfare group WEstJustice examining the experiences of 62 young couch surfers in Melbourne’s west who visited the organisation's couch surfing clinic between 2014 and ‘15.  

A couch surfing teen may not fit the stereotype of what a homeless person looks like, but couch surfing is a common form of homelessness.

A couch surfing teen may not fit the stereotype of what a homeless person looks like, but couch surfing is a common form of homelessness. According to the 2016 Census, more than 17,000 Australians were temporarily staying in another household and recorded no usual address; of them, 16 per cent were aged between 12 and 24.

“Couch surfing is a widespread problem in outer metropolitan areas such as Wyndham, however, it is essentially a hidden problem with little research or statistical evidence,” says Melissa Hardham, Director of Policy and Community Development at WEstjustice .  

Adi was one of 10 former refugees who attended the clinic – a group that is six to 10 times more likely to experience homelessness than the rest of the population. Hardham said this was due to a variety of reasons including the effects of trauma suffered in their home countries, relocation stress, disrupted family relationships, housing overcrowding and a lack of knowledge of services and limited capacity to communicate. Many are unaccompanied minors exiting detention with no real accommodation or stable housing in place. 

The path to couch surfing 

Young people resort to couch surfing for all sorts of reasons. Some, like Adi, come from a refugee background. Many kids are escaping a home life that is unsafe due to violence, family conflict or abuse. Some are separated from a parent who has moved into crisis accommodation in response to domestic violence – “either because they are too old, or they prefer to remain close to their friends and school,” explains Hardham. 

A lack of infrastructure, she says, means there is a “severe shortage of youth refuges in the outer urban areas [and] very few options for alternative safe accommodation.” 

Others, particularly young mums with babies, have a negative view of crisis accommodation, where they fear they’ll be “exposed to violence, sex assault, overcrowding, drugs and theft of personal possessions.” 

Economic factors also play a role. High rates of youth unemployment and limited access to Centrelink payments can make it difficult for young people to support themselves when living out of home. “If the young person qualifies for youth allowance, it’s often insufficient to fund independent living costs,” says Hardham. 

Why couch surfing is a problem

Many couch surfers are young people who have fallen through the cracks. “There are very few legal organisations providing outreach services to this vulnerable cohort, particularly those aged between 15 and 17,” says Hardham. They’re “not yet afforded the right of being an adult but not given same level of protection as younger children.” 

The lack of stable accommodation can affect a young person’s mental and physical health due to a “lack of access to health services and absence of Medicare card, poor hygiene, unhealthy diet and living conditions, [and] the lack of funds for medication and treatment,” she says. “Several people assisted by the couch surfing project reported that their mental health declined once they began couch surfing.” 

It’s a practice that can lead to the “lack of belonging and feeling like an imposition resulting in low self-worth” and increased substance abuse. It can also compound trauma for those who are fleeing violence or abuse but encounter similar behaviour at the place they’re staying. 

It’s a practice that can lead to the “lack of belonging and feeling like an imposition resulting in low self-worth” and increased substance abuse. It can also compound trauma for those who are fleeing violence or abuse but encounter similar behaviour at the place they’re staying. 

A couch surfer lacks legal protections and can be evicted at any time, an event that may see them lose what few possessions they own. Limited financial resources may lead to petty crime and fair evasion – how do you get to school if you can’t afford a bus ticket?

As couch-surfing kids disengage with school and accumulate infringements, they are more likely to commit crimes and enter the youth justice system. In the hope of helping kids avoid this fate, WEstjustice makes numerous recommendations in its Couch Surfing Limbo report, including calling on the state government to provide youth-appropriate emergency accommodation, improving transitional support for kids moving out of out-of-home care and providing free public transport for school kids who are couch surfers or affected by family violence. 

For some couch surfers, their story has a happy ending – they end up finding stable accommodation. The outcome is not as rosy for others, whose couch surfing experience means they “become more deeply entrenched in cycles of disadvantage,” says Hardham.

*Not his real name. 

Nicola Heath is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter: @nicoheath or Instagram: @nicola_heath.

If this article has raised an issue for you or you/someone you know is in need of support, Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website. Advocacy organisation Homelessness Australia has assembled a list of services, divided by state, here.contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

If you have experienced sexual assault or domestic and family violence, you can also receive counselling, information and support through 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).


What happened to the teenagers of homeless youth refuge The Oasis? Find out in Life After The Oasis on SBS On Sunday November 10 at 10:30PM.

Or catch up on original doco The Oasis on SBS On Demand:

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