Couch surfing myths exposed: study

Gemma Najem
AAP

Young couch surfers report suffering worse mental health than street sleepers, yet they are not prioritised by homelessness services because of myths they don't qualify for urgent help, a study has found.

The Brisbane Youth Service's preliminary findings have revealed couch surfers - who are relying on other people for temporary accommodation - report a greater risk of suicide and self harm and were twice as likely to rate their mental health as "poor" than those sleeping on the street.

The Brisbane study, which involved 808 youth aged between 12 and 25, found there were more couch surfers (27.8 per cent) than rough sleepers (13 per cent).

Couch surfers were more likely to have attempted suicide or experienced suicidal ideation (39 per cent) compared to rough sleepers (28 per cent), with both groups reporting similar rates of substance use.

Commonly referred to as the "hidden homeless", these youth often slip through the cracks of community based organisations, who prioritise those who spend their nights on the street, says Brisbane Youth Service researcher Rhianon Vichta.

"There are a lot more targeted support services for people who are sleeping rough, teams out on the street, people providing emotional support," Ms Vichta told AAP on Friday.

"Someone who is couch surfing is highly isolated."

Women and people who identify as LGBTIQ made up the majority of couch surfers, with women accounting for 70 per cent of couch surfers and 26 per cent identifying as LGBTIQ, while men were more likely to sleep on the streets (60 per cent).

Anecdotal evidence showed these populations were more likely to engage in "survival sex" as an exchange for keeping a roof over their heads, Ms Vichta said.

The youth worker said the findings challenge the myth couch surfing is safer than rough sleeping, and policy makers needed to focus on more than "getting youth off the streets".

Across the homelessness sector there's an assumption in policy and practice that if a young person has a bed they're not entitled and they are not a priority, she said.

"That's an assumption that needs to be challenged," she told AAP.

"We're talking about a bunch of pretty unhappy and unhealthy young people crashing in wherever they can - it might be with a drug dealer, a group of people living together where there's heavy drug use and violent behaviour and people find a corner to crash in.

"It's not as pretty a picture as one would think," she told AAP.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged 5 to 25).