Abstract: Couch Surfing, Social Networks, and Support Services Among Youth Experiencing Homelessness (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Couch Surfing, Social Networks, and Support Services Among Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Laura Petry, MSW, PhD Student, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Monique Holguin, LCSW, PhD Student, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Chyna Hill, MA, Student, University of Southern California, Woodland Hills, CA
Eric Rice, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Background and Purpose: Among the estimated 3.5 million youth experiencing homelessness (YEH) in the U.S. each year, nearly half “couch surf” in unstable or unsafe living situations (Morton et al., 2018). “Couch surfing” can serve as a precursor to more entrenched homelessness (Curry et al., 2017), with similar antecedents such as family conflict, overcrowding, behavioral health problems, aging out of foster care, and poverty (McLoughlin, 2013). Among YEH who predominantly stay on the streets, “couch surfing” is a common experience as youth leverage their social networks to arrange temporary places to stay (Tyler & Schmitz, 2014). However, despite their prevalence, YEH who “couch surf” have historically been excluded from many federally-funded housing programs and few studies have considered their unique vulnerabilities, circumstances, and service needs. This presentation will explore differences between YEH who “couch surf” and who stay on the streets or in shelter services with respect to social network engagement and use of services that can contribute to stability.

Methods: A sample of 1,047 YEH was collected 2011-2013 from drop-in centers in Los Angeles, CA. YEH provided self-reports of current living situation, coded into “couch surfing” (staying with relatives, friends, sex partners temporarily), staying outside (streets, parks, beaches, automobiles, abandoned buildings), or shelter (emergency shelter or transitional housing). YEH reported on network support, coded as number of street-based peers providing support, number of family members providing support, number of home-based peers providing support, and number of service providers. YEH also reported on service utilization, days in past month using housing placement services and food services. Correlations and multivariable regression models were conducted in SAS 9.4.

Results: Most youth (62.9%) reported staying outside, 23.5 % reported “couch surfing”, and 13.8% were in shelter. YEH who “couch surf” reported significantly more support from street-based peers, home-based peers, and family. Multivariable regression models showed that compared to street-staying youth, both couch surfing (p<.01) and sheltered (p<.001) youth reported more days using housing placement services. Moreover, more connections to street peers (p,.05) and home-based peers (p,.05) were both negatively related to using housing placement services, whereas connections to staff was positively associated (p<.001). Relative to YEH staying outside, “couch surfing” youth reported less use of food services (p<.01) but no difference with sheltered youth. Connections to street-based peers (p<.001) and family (p<.05) were both positively associated with food services, while connections to home-based peers (p<.001) was negatively associated.

Conclusions and Implications: Findings indicate that YEH who “couch surf” receive greater levels of support from a greater diversity of connections, and that these relationships significantly impact service utilization patterns relative to YEH living on the streets. Differences in accessing housing placement services suggest the relative stability provided by even temporary accommodations may enable YEH who “couch surf” or stay in shelters to connect with housing opportunities more readily. Further, the influence of street-based and home-based peers on housing and food services may point toward a preference among “couch surfing” youth to utilize their social networks to meet basic needs over more formalized social supports.