Worried woman

Hidden homelessness: why so many people are being forced to “sofa surf” in the pandemic

Sofa surfing is becoming a longterm living solution for a growing number of people across the country, and it’s leading to hidden homelessness. Here’s the reality of what that means and how you can get help if you’re worried about your living situation. 

There’s a very specific picture that comes with the Generation Rent label: spoilt millennials who can’t afford to get on the property market because we’re too busy spending money on daily avocado on toast brunches, overpriced negronis, credit card debts and the latest Instagram “It” dress.

But the reality is that, before the pandemic even started, renters were spending 40% of their income on rent (the affordability benchmark is 30%). Basically, it’s near impossible to buy a property without a Bank of Mum and Dad or a government scheme. And, with the 12% gender pay gap still very much a thing, the Women’s Budget Group and the Women’s Housing Forum recently found that there are now no regions in England where the average home to rent is affordable for a woman on median earnings (£19,302).

    Add a nine-month pandemic, the biggest recession on record and thousands of redundancies to the mix, and the reality of what Generation Rent really means is clear: it’s precarious, it’s worrying and it can leave you homeless. And factors such as being in work, having savings in the bank or claiming social welfare often don’t even help.

    You may also like

    Debt crisis: “Why do I live a life I know I can’t afford?”

    New research conducted by The Body Shop has found that 43% of surveyed renters admitted they are only two paycheques away from becoming homeless. A whopping 77% of the young working renters felt they would have little-to-no confidence in government support if they no longer had an income. 

    This supports housing charity Shelter’s recent findings that 98,300 homeless households were living in temporary accommodation at the end of June 2020. That’s a rise of 7% in just three months. The three most common triggers of homelessness during the initial lockdown period were households no longer being able to stay with families and friends (33%), the loss of a private tenancy (11%) and domestic abuse (11%).

    You may also like

    “Why I’ll probably never own a home, or even be able to afford rent when I’m older”

    Take Jen and her baby daughter in Bristol, whose personal circumstances changed for the worse earlier this year. Jen was due to move into a caravan park offered by a friend, but she had to turn to sofa surfing instead because Covid-19 caused the park to shut down. “The stress was unbelievable and the uncertainty was horrible – especially because I also had my little girl to think of. I just felt so guilty that we had nowhere to go,” she says. 

    Single dad Mark in Hertfordshire was also forced to sofa surf before being put into temporary accommodation with his six-year-old daughter Macy. “The worst part was being so far from her school,” he says. “I worried about the longer journey making Macy tired. She is super smart and loves school. But the temporary accommodation meant that she didn’t have the space and quiet she needed to rest and recuperate… I was sitting in that horrible room thinking, ‘Are we going to have to spend Christmas here?’ I lost hope; I felt like everyone had turned their backs on us.”

    Both families have, thankfully, found permanent accommodation through End Youth Homelessness and Shelter. But sofa surfing is the reality for so many people who are becoming a part of the “hidden homeless”. 

    Woman curled up on the sofa looking concerned
    Sofa surfing is the reality for so many people who are becoming a part of the “hidden homeless”.

    “The pandemic has made private renters more vulnerable to hidden homelessness, but particularly young people, who are more likely to work in industries that have been hit by the pandemic, such as hospitality,” Caitlin Wilkinson from renting organisation Generation Rent tells Stylist. “We also hear regularly from those who were living with a partner, but have had the relationship break down due to the pressures of the pandemic, and are now living on friends’ sofas.”

    Caitlin explains that she is particularly worried at the sharp rise in private renters claiming Universal Credit to help with rent payments. The number of private renters claiming UC in England has risen by over a third (36%) to 1.9 million households across the country. Local Housing Allowance, the housing element of Universal Credit, doesn’t cover the cost of average rents, meaning many people are getting into debt. The government caps the total a household can receive in UC too, which makes matters even worse.

    “This is a problem for all, but young people are worst affected,” Caitlin continued. “A recent study by the Resolution Foundation found just 38% of 16 to 29-year-olds receiving housing benefit could cover the rent with their payment – compared with 51% of recipients over 65. Evidence suggests that women are worse affected too – mothers make up 85% of those affected by the benefit cap, and mothers are 47% more likely to have permanently lost their job or quit due to Covid-19.

    Caitlin says that, realistically, there are usually four options for young women who are behind on rent: “Set up savings (if available), rely on credit, forgo another essential, or risk eviction and homelessness. To prevent people from becoming homeless, the government needs to end the benefit cap and ensure that universal credit covers average rents.”

    You may also like

    Private renting in the pandemic: what you need to know about evictions and the “winter truce”

    While the offer of a sofa from a family member or friend can be a lifeline, it certainly should never be a longterm solution to homelessness. If you need information and support, you can contact the following organistions:

    The Body Shop is partnering with End Youth Homelessness to drive fundraising efforts for Housing Fund, which will help provide safety and security for those young renters most at risk.

    Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

    By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

    Images: Getty