Just Staying at a Mates: Wearing out your Welcome

Laurie Matthews | Youth Accommodation Association | May 11, 2013

In preparing to write this blog I spoke to a few people to get their perspectives on couch surfing and came away with a wide range of views or experiences. Firstly, my daughter, who lives at home and heads off for week long jaunts to her friend’s places in Newtown, believes couch surfing represents some of her best experiences. They are like childhood sleepovers in primary school. Her experience is purely social with no imperative of survival.

However, the reality for most who experience homelessness is that ‘couch surfing’ is resorted to on the basis of survival. Many of the young people I talk with say that initially, they find relief and comfort at being accepted at a welcoming home, but the comfort is short-lived as friendships and relationships are tested. They say that typically staying in a friend’s bedroom, initially works well, say for a night or two, but soon becomes problematic when the host doesn’t necessarily agree to take on the responsibility of having the young person stay with them for an undefined and longer period of time. It is further complicated when the friend still lives at home with parents.

When parents understand that their child’s friend has taken to staying at their home for more than several nights, they typically will pressure their child to get the couch surfer to move on. Since saying no can be difficult for a young person who knows their friend has nowhere else to go this pressure normally leads to a strain or breakdown in the relationship. With young people being cut off and kicked out since that can sometimes be the easiest way for a host to approach the situation.

Over the years I’ve found that when young people crash on their friend’s couch for lack of other places to stay, they should work out the terms of their stay and be clear about their situation with their host up front. Of course this is asking a lot of the young person, seeing as they are in a difficult position to begin with but it can provide a young person with the opportunity to offer to take part in chores, make their lack of ability to help financially and their situation clear to the host. Open and strong communication seems a deciding factor in whether relationships can outlast an experience of homelessness.

For young people coming to Caretakers Cottage Youth Refuge who have been couch surfing, coming to the service often provides relief to the never ending question of ‘haven’t you found anywhere yet?’  The guilt around imposing yourself where you have worn out your welcome or are not wanted and the self-esteem issues of being dependent when you aspire to a place of your own can weigh heavily on young people’s hearts and minds.

I have found that many who find themselves couch surfing have not been aware of their options or have not wanted to engage with community support services such as refuges. There is also a comforting notion that hosts will help their friends out when they are in need- but this clearly has to be the result of an upfront agreement. Who knows, if communication is strong enough at the beginning, it may result in a young person properly moving in as a flatmate!

On the downside it would seem that many young people find themselves in risky and dangerous situations where they are exploited. It seems, the greater the desperation of the young person, the greater the risk of exploitation, meaning that the most vulnerable are the most at risk of having damaging ‘couch surfing’ experiences.

From those I have spoken with couch surfing is sometimes the only option but rarely desirable as there are considerable costs on friendships and relationships and it is humiliating to throw yourself at somebody else’s mercy. It is great that we have a safety net of a variety of accommodation services however on a day like the one in which I write this blog there are no vacancies at any crisis service in Sydney. Leaving many young people to risk their safety and friendships tonight so they don’t have to sleep on the street. I hope they are able to negotiate a safe arrangement that does not stretch the friendship too far.

© Youth Accommodation Association 2013