Friday, December 04, 2020

There Are 600,000 Hardcore American Homeless And Many Millions More Couch Surfing

currentaffairs |  When most people think of “couch surfing,” they picture the adventurous European travels of college students during summer vacations. But the term is also used by homeless people to describe their own efforts to avoid the streets by temporarily staying with friends, family members, or (oftentimes) complete strangers. This type of couch surfing is a sort of purgatory that exists midway between sleeping in the abandoned ruins of factories and the relative comfort of one’s own subsidized housing. If the couch surfer is staying in someone else’s subsidized housing unit (as is often the case, because poor people tend to shelter with people from their own social networks) that is likely to draw intense bureaucratic scrutiny. For both couch surfers and those harboring them, there is risk from landlords, housing authority officials, and caseworkers who (often in concert) have the authority to harass, evict, and even terminate precious subsidies. Couch surfers then become the targets in a high stress game of cat and mouse. For millions of Americans there is no assurance that the bed, sleeping bag, or undersized couch they slept on last night will be available the next day. But in a country where the “official” social safety net exists more in theory than practice, poor people have few other options. 

Couch surfing is a form of homelessness, but the U.S. government refuses to recognize it as such. To appreciate this conceptual failure, one has merely to scan the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2019 Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. The 98-page document begins with a statement by HUD secretary Ben Carson, accompanied by a photo of his sleepy face. The thing that most struck me about this document, however, is that the term “couch surfing” never appeared. Not once. The report mentioned, in passing, that many homeless people stay with relatives or friends prior to becomi00,000ng officially homeless, but “staying with relatives or friends” is a rather euphemistic phrase that does not capture the anxiety and desperation inherent in the struggle to keep a roof over your head when you can’t pay rent. 

The 2019 HUD report on homelessness estimated there are fewer than 600,000 homeless people in America on any given night. However, this is equivalent to concluding that the only Americans who eat are those who are within the walls of a grocery store on “any given night.” The HUD’s numbers refer only to people who stay in an official shelter, or no shelter all. The total would be far higher if the HUD included people who fall under the Urban Dictionary’s definition of a couch surfer, which refers to anyone “who is homeless and finds various couches to sleep on and homes to survive in until they are put out.” It is both concerning and darkly amusing that an extensive, supposedly definitive government report provides less context than an anonymous quip posted to illustrate vernacular speech.