Sofa-surfers and merry-go-rounds: the hidden problem of multiple complex disadvantage

When I was younger, before family life precluded the time and energy for volunteering, I loved my Wednesday night shift at a local homelessness charity.

Wiping tables, serving teas, and chatting to people who came in for food was the joy of my week.

I dodged thrown cutlery and cowered from fights that started in an instant and ended in a song.

I received more marriage proposals (and indecent ones) than a woman blessed with my distinctive features expects. It was alive, raw and energising.

But I was a tourist in a foreign land.

Sofa surfers and merry-go-rounds

The charity didn’t ask questions of anyone who needed the service – anyone who presented could receive a free hot meal, clean clothes, take a shower.

There was diversity. Young and old, male and female, street homeless and vulnerably housed, people who were mentally and / or physically ill, people who were just plain lonely.

But I began to notice themes in the people who came to the charity. Veterans, ex-prisoners, people who were obviously mentally unwell.

There were heartbreaking numbers of young people – especially boys – many displaced from the family home by a new partner for their parent.

They’d sofa-surf between friends’ couches until their luck ran out, and then the real problems could start; homelessness, addiction, stints in prison, unemployment.

These boys were often at the beginning of a cycle that long-standing clients had been merry-go-rounding through for decades.

Lost boys not ‘bad lads’

On the surface, the young people were easily the hardest to love.

Tracksuits, hoodies and crew cuts. Tempers sharpened by hardship, senses often dulled by drugs.

You were reminded of ASBOs, photofits, grainy CCTV images. The boys and girls you’d cross the street rather than meet. I’d avoid their gaze and their corner of the dining hall.

But I came to learn that these were not bad lads, they were lost boys. Not the lovable rogues of Peter Pan, but children often abandoned first by their parents and later by the state.

‘Looked after’ in the most tenuous sense of the word, until they were no longer anyone’s responsibility but their own, then turned out into the world.

I was only a little older myself and still clinging onto the dual parental strings (apron and purse) to guide me through early adult life. Still flying home to our suburban nest for the multitude of scrapes life continued to throw my way.

If I still needed support to guide me through life, what hope for them?

‘No one helped me get where I am today...’

It always surprised me how people would respond when I said I was a volunteer for the charity. Often people said I was wonderful (that wasn’t why I did it, honest) and I’d humbly explain that I got more from it than I put in (yes, I’d have wanted to poke me in the eye too, retrospectively).

But other people were perplexed, even outraged, that there was an entirely volunteer-led organisation providing support to people they perceived to be feckless and undeserving.

‘No one helped me get where I am’ one professional friend told me proudly, as though he’d personally forged the forceps that pulled him into the world. ‘Everything I’ve got, I’ve got through hard work and determination’.

Let’s take a closer look at that shall we?

  • Born to parents who nourished your infant brain with love, contact and learning; access to books, wholesome food; felt safe and valued and loved

  • Sent to school, fully fed and correctly clothed; encouraged to do homework in a safe and suitable space

  • Taught how to speak nicely, give and gain respect; learned to oil the cogs of social advancement

  • Nurtured through exams with positive reinforcement, top ups of tea, and all the stationery a boy could need to order and index his thoughts

  • Supported through the university application process – there was never any doubt you’d go

  • Went away to study without any need to consider the cost of halls and books and food

Yes, you worked extremely hard. But you can’t say no-one helped you along your way.

Compare that life to the lives of the people I encountered at the homelessness charity and you’ll see a very different experience of life; life where adverse childhood experiences and trauma make negative outcomes feel inevitable. For example:

  • Born to parents who wanted you but were too caught up in their own problems to offer you adequate love or support

  • Went to school hungry, teased for wearing clothes that hadn’t been washed

  • No books at home, no quiet places to study, no-one to help with homework; you fall behind

  • Your dad passes away unexpectedly

  • Mum begins to misuse substances to block out the trauma, and you have easy access to them in the house

  • Undesirable influences take advantage of your mum. They have access to your home and criminality becomes normalised. They begin to involve you in criminal activity

  • You want to find work but can’t because you’ve got no qualifications and bit of a reputation locally; you hit rock bottom in your mental health

  • Arguments at home mean you have to leave. Your friends sympathise but can’t put you up forever...

It helps me to picture helium balloons in your hands versus stones in your pockets: the helium balloons of advantage lift people over obstacles and help them take flight; the stones of disadvantage weigh people down and make it hard to move onward or upward.

We're all just three knocks from homelessness?

I often hear people say that we’re all just three pieces of bad luck away from homelessness, and I understand where that concept comes from. We could lose our job, miss our mortgage payments and end up losing our home.

But for a lot of us, there is a safety net that would catch us in those circumstances. A parental loan, a roof over our heads until we find a new job, a new job being achievable within 6 months.

The people I encountered who have become homeless weren’t people like me. The middle class girl who now feels guilty about the borderline-voyeuristic volunteering of my youth, my touristic experience of the extremes of human hardship.

The people I’ve met are people who have experienced significant trauma and face such a complex mix of interconnected disadvantages that it makes it extremely hard to prosper or to bounce back from adversity. Instead of being caught and cradled in a safety net, they become trapped in a web of problems.

This is called multiple disadvantage

Support tailored to people facing multiple disadvantage is so important. It enables people to tackle the wide range of difficulties they face and untangle knotty issues that hold them back, such as mental ill-health, addiction, homelessness and offending. These problems are so interconnected that just tackling one doesn’t help improve the overall situation.

However, current systems aren’t designed to help people with so many interconnected needs. And people who experience multiple disadvantage can be bounced from one service to another, without receiving the holistic help they require.

Thankfully, this issue is being addressed now through the development of more joined up services for the most vulnerable people in our community.

And the people who have experience of the system are being trained to work in the sector and shape how services are delivered in the future. A true embodiment of the sentiment that there should be ‘no decisions about me, without me’. These ‘experts by experience’ are the key to removing the barriers to better services.

In North East England, Fulfilling Lives Newcastle Gateshead are at the forefront of this work.

Fulfilling Lives is an eight-year learning programme looking to improve the lives of people with complex needs and build a trauma-informed approach within the services that support them across Newcastle and Gateshead. It is one of twelve programmes linked together across England funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, looking to influence the system nationally.


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