In 2011–12, 16,300 couch surfing adults (those aged 18 and over or aged 15–17 presenting to services alone) sought assistance from Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS). This report presents an analysis of these clients, providing a profile of their service use over a 4-year period using the Specialist Homelessness Services Collection (SHSC). Couch surfers are among the most hidden groups of people experiencing homelessness. They tend to be a transient group and therefore can be difficult to identify (Moore 2017). The concept of couch surfing acknowledges that homelessness is not ‘rooflessness’; that there are people who may not be sleeping rough but who cannot be considered to be stably housed (Moore 2017). Couch surfing can be a precursor to chronic homelessness, thereby making couch surfers an important group for targeted policies, programs and services.

Couch surfers are much younger than others seeking homelessness services

Around half (8,000 clients or 49%) of couch surfers were aged 15–24 upon their first presentation to services in 2011–12, compared with around one-quarter (27%) of all other adult SHS clients.

More couch surfers were female (9,800 or 60%), which was similar to other adults who sought SHS in 2011–12.

For other demographic characteristics, such as Indigenous status (26% were Indigenous), employment status (9% were employed) and the location in which they were receiving services (55% in Major cities), couch surfers were broadly similar to other adult SHS clients.

Analysis of the service use patterns of couch surfers presenting to SHS in 2011–12 to 2014–15 revealed 3 cohorts of couch surfers

  • Transitory service users (7,300 clients or 45% of all couch surfers) accessed services in 2011–12 only.
  • Service cyclers (7,100 clients or 44% of all couch surfers) accessed services in 2 or 3 years of the 4-year period.
  • Persistent service users (1,900 clients or 12% of all couch surfers) accessed services every financial year from 2011–12 to 2014–15.

Service use increases with increasingly complex needs

Couch surfers showed increasing service use according to their needs or ‘vulnerability conditions’. In this analysis, vulnerability is based on whether someone had ever reported: a mental health issue or mental health diagnosis; having experienced problematic drug and/or alcohol use, and/or having experienced domestic or family violence.

Compared with other adult SHS clients, couch surfers were:

  • less likely to ever report experiencing domestic or family violence equally likely to ever report problematic drug and/or alcohol use
  • more likely to ever report a mental health issue or a mental health diagnosis.

Across the 3 couch surfer cohorts, persistent service users were more likely than service cyclers or transitory service users to ever report vulnerability conditions.

Couch surfers most frequently seek assistance with accommodation, interpersonal relationships and financial issues

Accommodation was most frequently sought by all 3 cohorts of couch surfers.

Couch surfers also sought assistance with interpersonal relationships—particularly relationship/ family breakdown and domestic or family violence. Females were more likely than males to seek assistance with relationship/family breakdown, or domestic or family violence.

The key financial issue across all 3 couch surfer cohorts was financial difficulties—persistent service users were around twice as likely to cite this issue as transitory service users.

Short-term or emergency accommodation most commonly provided to couch surfers

Of those couch surfers needing accommodation services, clients were more likely to receive short-term or emergency accommodation (ranging from 54% of transitory service users to 81% of persistent service users) over medium-term or transitional housing (23% to 59% across the 3 cohorts). Only a small percentage received long-term housing (7% of transitory service users, 13% of service cyclers and 21% of persistent service users).

Despite more than 3 in 4 couch surfers identifying a need for accommodation services, half (8,300 or 51%) did not receive any nights of accommodation during the study period (2011–15). This ranged from a low of 18% of persistent service users, to 41% of service cyclers and 68% of transitory service users. An additional 12% received 1–10 nights of accommodation only.

Many couch surfers experience positive outcomes following SHS support

Couch surfers approaching SHS for assistance are by definition homeless. Following support, 33% were housed: ranging from 18% of transitory service users to 48% of persistent service users, with housing outcomes for 21% of clients unknown.

  • While more than 6 in 10 persistent service users had repeat periods of homelessness during the study period (transitioning from homeless to housed, then to homeless again), almost half (48%) were housed at 30 June 2015. For up to 1 in 7 persistent service users accessing support across 4 years, their housing outcome was unknown.
  • Around one-quarter of service cyclers also experienced repeat episodes of homelessness and almost half (45%) were housed at the end of the study period. For more than 1 in 5 service cyclers, their housing outcome remained unknown.
  • While only 2% of transitory service users experienced repeat homelessness during their engagement with SHS, almost 1 in 5 (18%) were housed at the end of their support. The housing outcomes for around 1 in 5 transitory service users remained unknown.

Linking data sets could provide more comprehensive information

This analysis reports only on clients accessing services from SHS agencies, not all couch surfers.

It also only reports on findings to 30 June 2015. Linking these data to other sources—for example, information on rent assistance, income support or social housing—would provide more comprehensive information on a client’s circumstances, journey and outcomes. In addition, further work on identifying and improving the estimation of homelessness, including youth homelessness, is required to facilitate transparent and reliable measures that will inform effective policy and service responses.