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'Sofa surfing' rises in Ipswich as hidden homeless desperately try to survive

PUBLISHED: 06:01 08 October 2019 | UPDATED: 15:45 09 October 2019

From left to right, Ipswich Housing Action Group (IHAG) chief executive Halford Hewitt, Selig (Suffolk) Trust business manager Julia Hancock and Phyl Chigome, service manager at Christchurch House, which is run by Orwell Housing Association. All are involved in an event at Ipswich Cornhill on Thursday, October 10 to mark World Homelessness Day. Picture: ANDREW PAPWORTH

From left to right, Ipswich Housing Action Group (IHAG) chief executive Halford Hewitt, Selig (Suffolk) Trust business manager Julia Hancock and Phyl Chigome, service manager at Christchurch House, which is run by Orwell Housing Association. All are involved in an event at Ipswich Cornhill on Thursday, October 10 to mark World Homelessness Day. Picture: ANDREW PAPWORTH

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'Sofa surfing' rises in Ipswich as hidden homeless desperately try to survive

The town has made great strides in cutting the number of rough sleepers in recent years, with 30 organisations forming the Ipswich Locality Housing Partnership (ILHP) to rally round those most in need.

But homelessness workers have now come across increased numbers of people "sofa surfing" - sleeping in friends' spare rooms or living rooms - who have been made homeless due to family breakdown and mental ill health.

They say approximately 1,200 people at any one time in Ipswich are trying to find shelter - even though there are only 360 beds available, with most of those occupied for 12 months on average.

And they fear the very nature of "hidden homelessness" means that many more people might be suffering under the radar, completely out of view of support workers who could help them.

Halford Hewitt, chief executive of Ipswich Housing Action Group (IHAG), warned that rough sleepers seen on the streets are just the "tip of iceberg" when it comes to homelessness.

He estimated that the ratio of hidden homeless or sofa surfers to rough sleepers could be as many as 40-1.

And Julia Hancock, business manager of the Selig (Suffolk) Trust - which runs Ipswich Winter Night Shelter - said that while the numbers of woman sleeping rough are not especially high: "That makes me worry about where they are and what economy they are having to become part of.

"How do they ask for help to get out of it?"

Why is 'sofa surfing' rising?

Many of those affected, she said, might be people who have good jobs but have found themselves homeless because of a relationship breakdown.

Lots of those people, she believes, stay hidden under the radar because they are ashamed to ask for help or believe someone in their situation shouldn't need to ask for it.

She added: "Depression is a huge factor. When you're depressed, you shut down and you're far less likely to reach out for help.

"I think a lot of young people sofa our because their options are so limited.

"Most young people stay at home with their parents but if that relationship breaks down, that's when they become sofa surfers."

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Phyl Chigome, service manager at Christchurch House - which is run by Orwell Housing Association and provides supported housing for 16 to 21-year-olds - said the controversial Universal Credit benefits system was also causing problems.

The system was brought in by the government to simplify benefits into a single payment.

However those who don't keep up with requirements such as looking for work or attending appointments can face hefty sanctions.

That, Mr Chigome fears, could be counter-productive - as those who have sanctions imposed often then fall out of the support system and become invisible sofa surfers.

What is being done about it?

To tackle it, Ms Hancock believes: "One of the most effective things is joint working."

Sharing intelligence between organisations such as Selig and the borough council "stops people falling between the gaps", she said.

And Mr Hewitt the more groups like IHAG could make contact with those in difficulty, the better.

"We all know the key thing that changes people's live is positive relationships," he said.

However he also warned: "The bottom line is that there's not enough accommodation.

"A lot of people are not going to be able to afford to buy anywhere and there just aren't enough places to rent.

"You need a reference, you need a deposit and a lot of people can't rent because they are on Universal Credit."

World Homeless Day event

To help raise awareness of the problem, campaigners are preparing to hold a major event in Ipswich's Cornhill on World Homelessness Day on Thursday to highlight the plight of people faced with the most desperate situations.

There will even be a car decorated as a home for the event between 9am and 5pm, to highlight how some homeless people are forced to live in their cars.

Different organisations will have stands to showcase the work they do, with people who have used those services present to talk about how the support benefited them.

"All the different organisations are coming together to try and raise awareness about what there is available," Ms Hancock said.

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