In early 2020, MRS launched a competition for a research proposal that would help further society’s understanding of homelessness in the UK. Walnut Unlimited won the competition and went on to produce a ground-breaking piece of research revealing the prevalence and impact of a less visible form of homelessness, ‘sofa surfing’.

While homelessness is mainly portrayed as people sleeping rough or housed in temporary hostels, the most common form is, according to the Crisis Homeless Monitor: England 2021, sofa surfing. “Research and policy interventions seem to focus on the more visible groups at the detriment of those who are hidden... This is particularly surprising considering sofa surfing is numerically the largest form of core homelessness.” (Fitzpatrick et al., 2021)

Sofa surfing is having to stay on someone’s sofa or floor on a short-term, insecure basis because there is nowhere else to go. Emotionally draining, logistically challenging and sometimes dangerous, this research explored the experience of sofa surfing through the eyes of those who have lived it.

Hidden Homelessness – 2022 report by Walnut

In September 2022, MRS hosted a webinar with Hannah Kilshaw and Drew Still from Walnut Unlimited along with Neil Preddy, architect of the overall project, to reveal the full results of the research and discuss the research process as well as looking at the key issues facing those who find themselves sofa surfing.

Hidden Homelessness – Powerpoint Presentation of research findings

Hannah Kilshaw, Research Director, Walnut Unlimited, summarises: “While every experience is individual, our findings suggest a need for improving awareness and support for those who experience sofa surfing and those that host them, particularly around prevention and early intervention.”

Jane Frost CBE, CEO of MRS, said: “It’s essential to appreciate the implications of this ground-breaking research. Understanding this demographic is an incredibly important part of supporting people who are homeless. The importance of this research cannot be overstated, especially considering the rise in the cost of living. MRS is proud to have supported the project, which has also given younger researchers vital experience, helping their future careers.”

Neil Preddy, Vice Chair of Oxfordshire Homeless Movement, welcomed the research: “The report helps us to understand this issue better and points to practical actions we can take, such as early intervention to prevent issues from escalating. It also highlights the systemic factors, like high housing costs and insecure tenure, that are the underlying cause of sofa surfing.”

Key research findings

Sofa surfing is often the result of a combination of factors: 62% cited relationships, 61% financial, 59% housing and 30% health. Participants reported a variety of challenges to accessing support. 36% said waiting lists are too long, 34% said there was a lack of awareness of support and 34% said there was a lack of access to support.

Many people experiencing sofa surfing do not consider themselves to be homeless. This is despite the many similarities with other forms of homelessness in terms of the challenges that sofa-surfing presents.

The research has also shown the cyclical nature of sofa surfing with nearly seven in ten hosts having experienced sofa surfing themselves.

Approach to the project

Walnut Unlimited began the research with a period of desk research and expert interviews to refine the focus and definitions of the research, as well as the design and objectives for the study. This was followed by a large-scale online survey of people who had experienced sofa-surfing or hosting.

The survey attracted 551 responses. To bring depth to the quantitative findings and bring the stories of those who have experience sofa-surfing to life, Walnut Unlimited carried out 20 in-depth interviews with people who had experienced sofa-surfing, hosting, or both.

Representatives of homelessness charities advised on the approach to the research project, which ends with clear advice for policy makers, support services, society and the research sector.    

Walnut Unlimited is part of fully integrated agency group UNLIMITED


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