Young Australians Who Couchsurf Experience High Levels Of Psychological Distress

By Emma L. Barratt

When thinking about homelessness, we don’t often consider where to draw the line between housed and homeless. Couchsurfers — homeless individuals who put a roof over their head by staying with friends, relatives, or strangers found on couchsurfing sites — may not spring to mind when considering homelessness.

However, it’s far from a rare arrangement. Though exact numbers are lacking, studies from the last five years found that a shocking 22% of young people in the UK had slept rough at some point, and that 35% had couchsurfed in the absence of having a stable home.

The lack of stability, security, and sense of belonging that comes with having a home are all recognised factors in adverse psychological outcomes in those who are homeless. But, with couchsurfing being such a prevalent living situation, yet so different from sleeping rough, the psychological effects of this specific type of homelessness are well worth investigating. Now a new study from researchers led by Katie Hail-Jares at Griffith University, Australia has uncovered a strong relationship between couchsurfing and psychological distress.

In their study, the team included 63 participants between the ages of 15 and 25 with experience of couchsurfing for two weeks or more within the last 18 months. Participants were primarily recruited from social media, educational institutions, referrals, and local homelessness services. On average, those in the final sample were between 18 and 20 years old, and a majority were women (57.1%). Gender diverse and indigenous people were overrepresented, compared to the general population of Australia.

These participants took part in semi-structured interviews about their couchsurfing history and experiences, during which they completed the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10). The K10 is able to give a snapshot of mood over the preceding four weeks, and includes 10 questions probing anxiety and depression.

Most of the sample (46%) reported that they had stayed with between one and five hosts. But, there was a wide range of experiences; eight individuals reported staying with over 20 hosts during the course of their couchsurfing episodes.

K10 scores revealed that, perhaps unsurprisingly, 70% of the sample met the threshold for “very high” levels of distress. A further 22.2% scored in the “high” distress band, and 7.9% the “moderate” distress band. No participant scored below these ranges, which is alarming, given that the average Australian youth typically scores in the “low” distress range.

Analyses of these scores showed that older participants tended to report lower levels distress, while those who had stayed with a higher number of hosts experienced higher levels of distress. Female, gender diverse, and indigenous participants scored significantly higher on the K10 than their male counterparts.

The researchers believe that these trends are likely to stem, at least in part, from having to vet a higher number of potential hosts and their living situations for potential threats. The stress of this is likely to be much higher in those from marginalised groups who are conscious that they may fall victim to assault, policing, or other forms of trauma, which may explain some of the demographic differences seen in the data.

The authors also highlight that, though not directly probed in this study, many participants seemed to have aged out of existing support systems prioritising those under 18. This strongly suggests the need for homelessness services focused on young adults, regardless of whether they have a roof, due to the extreme psychological distress typically caused by this living situation.

Though the data collected from this study are informative, and allow us to draw some comparisons between the general population and couchsurfers, the correlational nature of analyses means that establishing cause and effect here is tricky. Other studies have shown the detrimental psychological impacts of homelessness, and while we could likely safely assume much of that applies here, it may also be the case that those with high amounts of distress finding themselves falling into these living situations. Future work may better illustrate the dynamics at play.

Psychological distress among young people who are couchsurfing: an exploratory analysis of correlated factors

Emma L. Barratt (@E_Barratt) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest