A Couch is Not A Home – New screening tool helping support young couch surfers

Jun 23, 2021

A targeted Risk Screening tool available to workers engaging with young couch surfers has been developed by Brisbane Youth Service (BYS) through an evaluated trial of a dedicated Couch Surfing Hotline and Support Service.

The trial run by Brisbane Youth Service and funded by the Queensland Mental Health Commission (QMHC), commenced service delivery in October 219 and wrapped up in December 2020. The service was targeted at responding to the needs of:

  • Young people who are couch surfing as a form of homelessness
  • Family members/carers of young people who are couch surfing
  • Community members who are providing “couch” accommodation to young people

Just over 200 young people, family members, couch providers and services were engaged through the trial, with approximately 35 young people actively supported by the service through brief intervention and case management.

The aims of the service were to:

  • Provide support to and increase engagement with couch surfers who are at risk of mental health issues, problematic AOD use and self-harm and connect them with relevant services;
  • Identify options and, where possible, enable families to better support young people at home or in alternative safe accommodation;
  • Support couch providers to enhance the safety and wellbeing of young people staying with them, and stabilise couch surfing situations, if safe to do so, until alternate safe and sustainable accommodation can be sourced.

Additionally, the evaluated trial, aimed to generate and share learning about how to improve service delivery responses for young people who are couch surfing and challenge assumptions that couch surfing is a safer option than rough sleeping.

Couch surfing has been identified as a precursor to chronic homelessness, occurring in the very early ‘in and out of home’ stage, when young people are still at school. It involves frequent movements between temporary living arrangements, including in the homes of friends, friends’ parents, extended family and strangers. The concept of couch surfing acknowledges that homelessness is not ‘rooflessness’: there are people who may not be sleeping rough but who do not have safe and stable housing.

BYS research and specialised intervention has shown that young people who are moving transiently between houses without a stable home, are a concerningly vulnerable population. Previous research has demonstrated that there are a wide range of serious risks associated with couch surfing for young people (AIHW, 2018; McLoughlin, 2013; Hail-Jares, Vichta-Ohlsen & Nash, 2020; Uhr, 2004).

Young couch surfers report disproportionately poorer mental health, increased risk of suicide and self-harm and less connection to professional and community support than young people in other forms of homelessness or housing insecurity (Hail-Jares, Vichta-Olsen and Nash, 2020).

Young couch surfers, were found to be highly vulnerable to both being suddenly cast out and to physical, sexual and financial exploitation at the hands of their hosts, despite frequently contributing financially.

Temporarily couch surfing cannot always be avoided, particularly in highly disadvantaged or non-metropolitan areas where safe crisis housing services are not available or are inadequate to meet demand. This makes it critical to sensitively assess the impact of couch surfing arrangements and environments and, where possible, provide stabilising support until alternate safe and sustainable housing can be accessed. 

Using the risk screening tool with the trial participants demonstrated significantly decreased risk patterns at the pre- and post- intervention measures of young people’s couch surfing risks. 42.5% of young people identified being as high or very high overall risk level at intake to the service which reduced to 3.5% (one young person only) post support. 50% of young people who were found to be at a medium risk level, mental health issues and a lack of support for mental health were found to be key risk factors.

Critical questions asked were around the expectations of staying, and the mental health impacts of couch surfing. These assessments showed that young people’s mental health was a significant concern while couch surfing and, as such, required specialist responses to stabilise their safety while couch surfing and alternative housing options were sought.

Knowing that there are support services that are both available and responsive to the wide range of risks experienced by couch surfers can significantly improve young people’s safety and capacity to manage their own risks, identify their own support needs and strengthen their support networks.

To assist services and support workers to better respond to the needs of young couch surfers, services need to start asking critical questions that are informed by awareness of the complexity of couch surfing beyond the assumption that “at least it is a roof over your head” (McLoughlin, 2013).

The questions in the new screening tool provide a useful guide to start those meaningful conversations with young people, with their family, with couch providers and other service providers and, at the same time, increases service capacity to provide effective practice responses.

Rather than continuing as a stand-alone couch surfing service, BYS will be integrating the learning from the trial and the risk screening process into their existing homelessness services.

In February 2021, BYS held a webinar for the wider youth homelessness sector to share learning from the couch surfing service trial and their broader quantitative and qualitative research about couch surfing.  Titled: “A Couch is Not a Home – Let’s change the way we look at young people couch surfing”, the full presentation is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQSJGiMeqSQ.