By Geoff Davis, Specialist Housing Advisor, Stoke North & Staffordshire Citizens Advice Bureau
If you ask the average person to describe someone who is homeless, then most people would conjure up the image of some poor individual huddled against the cold in a shop doorway.
Indeed, street homelessness has received a fair deal of media attention over the last 18 months with many people describing the seemingly inexorable rise in rough sleeping as a national disgrace. Last year, the government announced a new £100 million Rough Sleepers Strategy with the aim of ending rough sleeping for good.
In autumn 2018 there were estimated to be 6,677 people sleeping on the streets but rough sleeping can be seen as merely the tip of the homelessness iceberg. Homelessness can also include people living in temporary or insecure accommodation, those sofa surfing, squatting, staying with family, living in hotel rooms or motor vehicles.
Although the true scale of hidden homelessness is hard to measure, experts believe a “perfect storm” of welfare reforms, a lack of suitable housing and secure work have contributed to a growing number of “hidden homeless”.
There is a distinction between those classed as ‘statutory homeless’ individuals or families who have been identified and accepted as homeless by local authorities which the government has figures for, and “hidden homeless”, those without a permanent place to call home but are not yet recognised by the council and therefore counted in the homelessness statistics.
The Collins English dictionary defines ‘sofa surfing’ as the practice of staying temporarily with various friends and relatives while attempting to find permanent accommodation. They are an individual, or family who have no fixed address of their own. They do not rent or own a property. However they are not sleeping on the streets. Instead, they are staying with friends and/or family and even sometimes, acquaintances who have offered their good will. This quite simply, is how sofa surfing works.
The experience of sofa surfing
If I’m a sofa surfer can I still apply to the local authority as homeless?
Many sofa surfers do not apply for homelessness assistance to the local authority because they are not aware that they can get help.
Whether you can get help will depend on your particular circumstances. The Local Authority will have a duty to assist you if you are homeless or threatened with homelessness within 56 days.
If your friends or family withdraw their permission for you to stay then you will be homeless. If your friends and family tell you that you can stay but only for a few days then you will be threatened with homelessness within 56 days.
It is important that you explain your circumstances to the council and give them the date when you have to leave. The council will probably contact your family or friends to confirm that date you have to leave and negotiate to see if you can stay.
If the council have reason to believe that you are homeless, eligible and in priority need (because you are vulnerable) then they will have a duty to provide you with interim accommodation while they make further inquiries.
If the council refuse to help then ask them for a written decision and get immediate independent legal advice from a Citizens Advice or law centre.