In the past nine years, George has lived in around 50 places – ranging from a friend’s sofa to someone’s spare room and from a youth hostel to the streets.
When he was 16 family problems meant he had to move out and, since then, his life has been filled with instability and uncertainty.
For a long time George – not his real name – was living out of a suitcase.
“Since I was 16 I have lived in so many places – it has really shaped me. It has shown me how temporary accommodation is,” he said. “I came back to Swansea in January this year and, since then, I have lived in seven different places.
“It has definitely impacted me moving around so much.
“Everything feels temporary to me – I know something will happen and I will have to move. I am very unwilling to put down roots or long-lasting commitments.”
This is the reality of hidden homelessness – a term used to describe unrecorded homelessness or forms of homelessness that are not very visible and which may or may not be recorded officially. Other forms of hidden homelessness include people living in overcrowded accommodation or living in their cars.
A report by homelessness charity Crisis published in August 2017 estimated there were 3,100 sofa surfers in Wales in 2016 – a rise of 1,400 households from 2011. This compares to 300 people sleeping rough or 900 people staying in hostels or shelters.
In George’s case he said while growing up he had a difficult relationship with his parents and, when his parents got divorced when he was 16, the family unit broke down and he ended up having to leave his home and sofa surf.
George, who is now 25 and living in the Swansea area, would stay somewhere for a couple of days before having to move.
Sometimes people would let him stay for a couple of weeks but for a year he stayed at many friends’ houses until he turned 17 and the council started supporting him after a friend’s mum got in touch with them.
“There is no stability when you are sofa surfing – you don’t know how long you will be able to stay somewhere,” he said.
“When I started sofa surfing I was in a very dramatic situation so people could see that I really needed the help. You don’t want to feel like you are imposing yourself on someone but you worry because you don’t want to be on the streets.
“It was a very rocky time. When I decided to leave my parents I didn’t realise I would be gone forever.
“I knew something had to change and I do not regret it.”
George, who now works as a receptionist, said when you are moving around so much you can you pick up on signs in people’s behaviour or attitudes that they want you to move out.
He said people have the best intentions but, if it is impacting their lives, their generosity isn’t going to last. Sometimes people would drop hints and, on other occasions, they would have a conversation with him.
Most of the time people were quite happy to have some company, he said, and it wasn’t hard to convince people to let him stay for a few days. Depending on how long he was staying somewhere for sometimes he would be ask to contribute towards costs, he said, but he would cook his own food so he didn’t have to rely on them.
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George was mostly sleeping in sofas or spare beds. He never had to sleep on floors but there were a couple of nights in between places that he had to sleep rough.
“That was very scary and cold,” he said. “It was just for a couple of nights in Swansea and in Pontardawe.
“When I was sofa surfing I knew that rough sleeping was always a possibility for me – I knew that I wasn’t that many steps away from being on the streets.”
When he slept rough he always looked for places that were very hidden which meant he was never attacked. However he didn’t have a tent so he would just put more layers of clothes on.
George said he wasn’t sleeping on the streets often enough for him to invest in a tent. “For a long time I was living out of a suitcase . It is impossible to collect possessions when you are sofa surfing. Even now, I am always ready to move in an instant.
“Not long after I moved out of my house the house was repossessed so a lot of my possessions got lost anyway.”
In the suitcase there were clothes mainly but he has also had a box with very important gifts and things he wanted to keep.
“I have a teddy bear I was born with and that has gone with me everywhere,” he said. “It is funny the things we get attached to and give sentimental value to.”
A housing charity’s view on sofa surfing
Jennie Bibbings, campaigns manager at Shelter Cymru, said sofa surfing was a very common form of hidden homelessness.
Ms Bibbings said it was very hard to get accurate statistics around sofa surfing but the charity get a lot of people who are in very precarious situations making contact with them.
“People end up sofa surfing for all sorts of reasons but relationship breakdown is the biggest cause of homelessness in Wales,” she said. “The second one is end of tenancy.
“Your landlord can end your tenancy without giving any reasons under a section 21 notice. They have to give you two months notice but they don’t need to give any reasons.”
Ms Bibbings said being homeless had a huge impact on people, adding the vast majority of people that go to Shelter have some sort of mental health issues and their housing situation can lead to a mental health crisis.
She said more needs to be done to improve the housing market so it can meet people’s needs more effectively, adding there was a massive need for one- or two-bedroom properties.
“If you look at Merthyr, they have around 400 single people on their waiting list but they have 40 one-bedroom properties become available in one year,” she said. “Privately rented accommodation is completely unaffordable in Merthyr and this is the same in other parts of Wales.”
Ms Bibbings said there wasn’t enough social housing in Wales and there was a lot of discrimination towards people who are on benefits who want to rent privately. The amount of money needed upfront is prohibitive to a lot of people, she added.
When George went to university in 2013 all he took was one suitcase. At university he would keep his room plain, with no decorations, and used to look at other people’s rooms and think how full of stuff they were.
Now, when he privately rents, he doesn’t decorate or put anything up on the walls so he is ready to leave at any time.
Since January he has privately rented two properties, stayed at several friends’ houses, and moved back to his mum’s house, where he is currently living at the moment. However the relationship with his mum isn’t easy so he is hoping to find somewhere else to live by the new year.
In the past nine years George estimates he has lived in more than 50 places. He has sofa surfed across south Wales but mainly in the Swansea area.
George said: “Before I felt like I was living quite a sheltered life while now I have met lots of different kinds of people. It has made me tougher.
“The past nine years have been a rollercoaster. There has been a lot of uncertainty.”
All this uncertainty from such a young age meant that he wasn’t able to finish his A-levels because of stress.
“My attendance to college dropped – it was too much,” he said. “School was not working for me so I got a job in a bar when I was 17.”
After a year sofa surfing, aged 17, George went under the care of the council. It wasn’t until he was put in touch with the council that he started to claim benefits and prior to that he didn’t have any money.
When he was 18 he was put in a Coastal Housing property in Uplands for a year, which he described as “awesome”. During that time he had three friends staying with him who were also sofa surfing.
He said if he could go back in time he would learn to manage his money faster and would not spend time with certain people as he thinks some people took advantage of him.
At 21 he did an access course to go to university but studying was a shock to him.
“I was not prepared for university,” he said. “I was used to always being on the defensive and, when I entered an environment where it wasn’t necessary, I couldn’t cope.”
But it is not all doom and gloom – he graduated in 2017 and he is now hoping to go back to university to do a master’s degree.
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