When I was eighteen and hanging out on an estate back home doing not very much, I had a friend who always carried a rucksack round with him. We’d be round someone’s flat and he’d stay there when we all left for the night. I didn’t think much of it at first, but gradually as I got to know him better, I found out he was homeless, aka a ‘sofa surfer’. Odd nights, when his mother wasn’t drunk (there was no known father), he would stay with her, the rest of the week, wherever he could find a friend. He didn’t come from a stable background, like I did, but that wasn’t why he was homeless.
It is a common misconception that homelessness is down to the individual’s misfortune, whether self-inflicted or not. Yes, there are such factors as drug misuse, crime, family breakdown that result in the person becoming homeless. But it doesn’t mean they have to remain out on the streets, or more commonly and less obviously, in B&B accommodation or a friend’s spare room or sofa.
Mike Jenkins’ poem Sofa Surfin, written in the vernacular, shows how easily it can be for many people to end up with nothing. “Ee’ve kicked me out/it woz a stewpid argument/’bout a juke-box/’Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’.” And with homelessness comes bureaucracy, “Ever tried ridin the waves/of forms an offices,/find an answer in impossible paper?/Ever tried goin under,/I mean drownin alive/below all yewer memrees?” People find different ways to deal with their situation, as Ian Duhig’s poem Jungle showed in a previous feature on PP. But often it can end badly, “I stood on-a board/f moments before bein dragged down/t the subway, like an underwater tunnel/where I could ardly breathe.” Sofa surfin is the hidden away, unaccounted for, story of homelessness, where friends and distant family are called on because of the lack of affordable housing, a cruel benefits system and the exploitation of landlords. (more…)