from Emma L. Barratt
When we think about homelessness, we often don’t think about where to draw the line between the houseless and the homeless. Couchsurfers – homeless people who shelter themselves by staying with friends, relatives, or strangers on couch surfing sites – may not come to mind when thinking about homelessness.
However, it is far from a rare arrangement. While exact numbers are lacking, studies over the past five years have found that a shocking 22% of young people in the UK have slept poorly at some point and that 35% have been couch surfers with no stable homes.
The lack of stability, security, and belonging that comes with a home are all recognized factors of negative psychological consequences for the homeless. But since couch surfing is such a common life situation, but one that is so different from sleeping, it is worth investigating the psychological effects of this particular type of homelessness. Now, a new study by researchers led by Katie Hail-Jares of Griffith University in Australia has uncovered a strong link between couch surfing and psychological distress.
In their study, the team included 63 participants between the ages of 15 and 25 who had couchsurfing experience for two weeks or more within the last 18 months. Participants were primarily recruited from social media, educational institutions, remittances, and local homeless services. On average, the participants in the final sample were between 18 and 20 years old and the majority were women (57.1%). Gender and indigenous peoples were overrepresented compared to the total population of Australia.
These participants participated in semi-structured interviews about their couch surfing history and experiences, in which they completed the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10). The K10 is able to take a snapshot of mood over the past four weeks and contains 10 questions that examine anxiety and depression.
The majority of the sample (46%) said they had stayed with one to five hosts. But there was a wide range of experiences; Eight people said they stayed with over 20 hosts during their couch surfing episodes.
K10 values showed that, perhaps unsurprisingly, 70% of the sample reached the threshold for “very high” exposure levels. Another 22.2% were in the “high” distress band and 7.9% were in the “moderate” distress band. No participant scored below these ranges, which is alarming given that the average Australian adolescent usually scores in the “low” emergency range.
Analysis of these values showed that older participants tended to report less stress, while those who stayed with a higher number of hosts experienced more stress. Female, gender-specific and indigenous participants achieved significantly higher values in the K10 than their male counterparts.
The researchers believe that these trends are likely due, at least in part, to the need to screen larger numbers of potential hosts and their living situations for potential threats. This stress is likely to be much higher in marginalized people who are aware that they may be victims of assault, police operations, or other forms of trauma, which could explain some of the demographic differences seen in the data.
The authors also highlight that, although not directly examined in this study, many participants appeared to have stepped out of the existing support systems that gave priority to those under 18 due to the extreme psychological stress typically associated with this housing situation caused.
Although the data collected in this study is informative and allows us to make some comparisons between the general population and couch surfers, the correlative nature of the analyzes makes determining cause and effect difficult here. Other studies have shown the harmful psychological effects of homelessness, and while we can probably assume that much of it is true, it can also be the case that people with high levels of suffering end up in these life situations. Future work may better illustrate the dynamics that are in the game.
– Psychological distress in couchsurfing adolescents: an exploratory analysis of correlated factors
Emma L. Barratt (@E_Barratt) works at BPS Biomedarticles