Always on edge: The dangers to female couch surfers and their children

Tuesday April 5th is Youth Homelessness Matters Day. As detailed in an accompanying blog, youth homelessness is on the rise due to a range of policy changes. Couch surfing is the predominant manifestation of youth homelessness, although largely hidden. Shorna Moore from WEstJustice has written before about young people’s experiences of couch surfing; today she provides a look into how couch surfing specifically places young women and their children in precarious situations.

These days, many couch surfers are infants and children.

These days, many couch surfers are infants and children.

After recently becoming a mother of a beautiful little boy, I understand the exhausting and often 'hellish' experience of looking after a newborn baby. Hormones, sleep deprivation, feeding issues and the lack of 'self' and independence is hard enough, let alone all the paperwork and personal admin that is required after coming home from the hospital. 

And yet – I have a loving partner, supportive family and a safe and stable home. It is hard to believe that there are young girls in Victoria who are not only having to adjust to motherhood but have no idea where they will sleep the night with their baby. As I have recently learnt through my work on the Youth Couch Surfing Project, there are many young mothers in Victoria who are forced to couch surf with young children, sometimes at unsafe and insecure places. This is a big problem in Victoria, yet you probably don’t know about it because it is also a hidden problem.

Couch surfing is the dominant way that young people experience homelessness, crashing on a friend’s couch to avoid returning to an unsafe or unstable home or being out on the streets, and often moving frequently. During the 2015/2016 financial year the Uniting Care Werribee Support & Housing Youth program assisted 122 clients. This included 53 young parents and a total of 56 dependent children under the age of 12.

WEstjustice legal centre is undertaking an action research project to explore the experiences of young couch surfers in western Melbourne and their couch providers. Legal clinics provided legal advice and assistance to couch surfers aged under 25 at targeted outreach locations including welfare agencies, emergency houses and schools. These clinics formed the basis for further exploration.

The research includes case data from 62 young people who were assisted, as well as in-depth interviews with 6 couch surfers and 6 couch providers, and consultations with over 30 practitioners including lawyers, youth workers, alcohol and drug workers, social workers, school staff, cultural officers, and government representatives. Most notably, 14 young single mothers were assisted by the Youth Couch Surfing Clinic after fleeing their homes from family violence. A total of 24 babies and toddlers were identified through the project including two newborns. The data is currently being analysed and a report will be published in 2017.

Imagine you are an 18-year-old girl who finds herself pregnant. You are currently couch surfing at friend’s houses and you have no family support. You are still an adolescent, but now you must find suitable accommodation to house you and your new baby as well as figure out how to care for your baby with minimal support. What do you do if your newborn baby has colic or screams during the night (like most newborn babies!) and you are staying at a friend’s house? Fast forward 6 months and your maternal child health nurse advises you to implement a structured routine and practice ‘control crying’, while you are couch surfing. A baby that cries throughout the night is a great way of being asked to leave the next morning! Even the most generous friend would have issues having you stay over for more than a couple of nights. Worse – you are aware that Department of Health and Human Services may be forced to remove your child if you do not have appropriate accommodation. This was the case for Anna, a 19-year-old couch surfer in Wyndham.

What about the effects of couch surfing on your child? As documented in the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence Summary report, ‘[I]infants are highly sophisticated in their capacity to process information and very attuned to their environment and whether they feel safe’.  One of the mothers assisted by the Youth Couch Surfing Clinic stated:

"I think my daughter [1 years] knew it was an unstable environment. She would freak out and want to be on me. She was always on edge. She would be more observant and take notice of her surrounding whereas at home she was a lot more comfortable with anyone that walked inside." (21 yrs, couch surfer)

It was of no surprise that all of the mothers seen by the project chose to couch surf instead of spending time in refuges due to the perceived risk of danger to themselves and their children. Negative experiences or perceptions of crisis accommodation options by young mothers was a major deterrent to seeking formal sources of accommodation, even in cases where it was readily available.  Deterrents included the risk of sexual assault and violence, overcrowding, drug use and theft from other young people sharing rooms and facilities.

Equally disturbing were the stories of young girls who had been sexually abused while couch surfing. According to one girl:

"I experienced lots of violence while couch surfing. You can put yourself in positions where there are people you never met before and you can be put in a very awkward position because they were men."

Some young couch surfers were ‘sleeping on couches for sex’ or being forced into more serious relationships in order to keep a roof over their head. The Youth Couch Surfing Clinic heard several stories of young women trading sex for a safe place to sleep. Engaging in this type of survival sex or ‘sex surfing’ also led to sexual abuse and unplanned pregnancies. As one young female couch surfer stated:

“When I was 15, I was dating an 18-year-old boy and he insisted I stay with him when home was too violent. He was nice but I didn’t like him that much and I wouldn’t have stayed there if I was living at home. I felt like I was being forced into an ‘adult relationship’ and I was scared of getting pregnant because I was not on the pill."

In a poorly funded service system, for a single female who is homeless, survival sex may be the only way to survive.

Therefore there is an urgent need for viable accommodation options for young women and their children. This must include appropriate capital infrastructure as well as a coordinated holistic support and care team. The final research report will provide further analysis and recommended actions including:

- Support and assistance to maintain appropriate couch surfing arrangements/relationships

- Targeted service and safe space for couch surfers

- Education and assistance for couch surfers and their couch providers

- Government investment in social housing (including capital and operational)