Contemporary Australian youth are facing social conditions significantly different to those of their parents. In particular, young people today are building lives amidst considerable uncertainty about their futures, an uncertainty brought about by social, cultural and economic changes that have made their positions in society more insecure. Nowhere is this insecurity more acute than for young people who experience different forms of homelessness, an experience which many young people deal with by couchsurfing: staying with various friends, relatives, or whoever will take them in in order to avoid the perceived dangers of life in services or on the street. In many ways, couchsurfing is a practice located at the most extreme end of the social insecurity that is influencing young people across Australia. Dealing with this insecurity has serious consequences for the kind of lives that young people are able to build, and the way they view their place in the community.
Indeed, insecurity is one of the biggest themes in contemporary youth sociology. A number of interconnected changes in Australian society have meant that all young people, but particularly those unable to draw upon family resources, are having a tougher time staying afloat. The most important of these changes is the collapse of the youth labour market starting in the 1980’s. Whilst their parents remember a labour market which was able to provide young people with a secure, full time job even if they had left school the second they were legally able, today’s young people face unemployment rates substantially higher than the rest of the population, and those jobs that are available are casual and poorly paid. This has made young people more dependent on their families, and dependent for a much longer time. Families remain the most important source of both material resources, and a place to belong. However, families have also become more unstable, with increasing rates of divorce and the emergence of new family forms. Essentially, without family resources all young people are in deep trouble, but contemporary families are not as stable as they once were.
Seen in this context, couchsurfing (and youth homelessness generally) is an outcome of the insecure social conditions that all young people are facing. Young people who experience homelessness are, for a variety of reasons, unable to continue living with their families, and unable to draw upon the resources that families usually provide. This places them in an enormously difficult situation, especially given that the job and housing markets are slanted against them. Young people who couchsurf are dealing with this by drawing on the generosity of others. They may stay with the friends, relatives, or whoever will provide them with a place to stay. However, this leads to new challenges for these youth. While some young people find warm, supportive environments while they are couchsurfing, others are placed in unsafe situations by their dependence on others.
In my research on the consequences of homelessness for young people’s sense of self, my participants gave me a variety of different stories about what couchsurfing was like. The most common story was of the need to work to be accepted with those they were staying with. One young person, who stayed with the family of a friend of hers, discussed feeling out of place, and like a constant burden on this family. She would go out of her way to contribute to the household, which she described as “staying on their good side so that they don’t kick you out” but nevertheless she felt that her presence in the house was “weird.” Another young person would “dumpster dive” for resources to contribute to the houses he stayed at. Despite this, he also discussed living in houses in which he was physically and verbally abused. Another participant said that while he felt “at home” with those he stayed with, this was because he was able to pay his way, contributing to the household financially. In these instances, young people are both within, and outside of, the households they rely on. They are drawing on them for support, but can never truly feel a part of the family or household who has taken them in. This is a painful experience even for those who find relatively safe places to stay. For young people who have been rejected from their families, they are again on the margins of somebody else’s – a position of enormous insecurity.
These examples also demonstrate the way in which couchsurfing demands enormous energy and strength from young people. Couchsurfing is an instance in which being dependent on others forces young people to become enormously self-reliant. While the home and the family are places in which we are supposed to be able to relax, safe and sure that we belong, young people who couchsurf must work hard to find a modicum of security, let alone belonging. If they do not, they risk dependence on services or literal homelessness. None of these options were attractive to the young people in my research.
In many ways, couchsurfing in an extreme example of the difficult and insecure conditions that contemporary young people are facing. The practice emphasises the importance of family relationships for young people’s survival, and demonstrates the difficult work that is required if disadvantaged youth are to build meaningful lives without family support. In this context, couchsurfing is an active response by disadvantaged young people working to survive in an uncertain world.
Dr David Farrugia
CRN Post-Doctoral Fellow
University of Ballarat