This week TV soap Coronation Street puts ‘hidden homelessness’ under a much-needed spotlight, as character Sean Tully – middle-aged, gay and desperately trying to find work after being laid off from his factory job last year – ends up sofa-surfing.
As one of the least visible forms of homelessness, largely unaccounted for in official statistics and practically uncountable, being brought to national attention by a soap titan like Corrie is an important step in raising awareness of its existence.
Rough sleepers on the streets are only the tip of the iceberg in Britain’s escalating homelessness crisis, and – as Sean’s story will show – the lines between losing your flat, sofa-surfing and sleeping in a doorway are catastrophically fragile.
“A lot of people are only one payday away from being homeless,
“The one thing we took very early on from speaking to Shelter when we started researching this storyline is that it can happen to anyone,” explained Corrie story editor Lindsay Williams. “He’s just an ordinary person who had lost their job, used up several favours with friends and was too proud to admit how desperate the circumstances he was in were. Even when he did admit it he had nowhere to go. He just ran out of options eventually.”
As a stopgap for people facing the crisis of having no roof over their head for the night sofa-surfing is on the rise: Crisis reports a 53 per cent rise in sofa-surfers from 2011-16, while a BBC/ComRes survey last year found that nine per cent of people under 25 had slept on a floor or sofa for over a month.
“A lot of people are only one payday away from being homeless,” pointed out Stephen Rowley, head of support at Manchester homelessness charity Barnabus. “We see everybody come through our doors, from entrenched street homeless to people who just don’t know how to ask for help, they are very proud, never offended or have taken substances.”
Antony Cotton, the actor who plays Sean, had by coincidence experienced working with a homeless person; a lad he knew years previously reached out to him in desperation when he became homeless and hit rock bottom.
The actor brought him to Barnabus. The charity secured temporary shelter then supported housing, helped him work through his multiple issues and move into employment in the building trade. When Cotton later discovered his character on Corrie was to become homeless, he got back in touch with Rowley.
“He came in when he heard about the storyline and said I cannot believe what they’ve told me, it was uncanny. He’s a lovely fella, he went out of his way for this guy.
This guy met him years ago, reached out to him out of the blue, and Antony just jumped to it.”
If the journey into homelessness can develop with shocking rapidity, the difficulties people face in trying to find help and access services can be insurmountable, especially with increased digitisation.
This was exactly the situation that Williams wanted Coronation Street to show. “Someone like Sean just doesn’t know what to do – he’s never been in this situation, never known anyone in this situation personally, he’s suddenly stuck. Where does he go, who does he contact?” she says. “As his story progresses it’s the homeless community itself that begins to help him, shows him how to cope, where to go for help.”
Rowley said support is available, but because each person has complicated needs they are often difficult to unpick and prioritise, and can even work in conflict when each issue is tackled individually by disparate organisations. “Each project working with homeless people is specialist in one thing, but people have complex problems and multiple issues. Services look at the one problem coming through their door, but these guys have a sackful of them,” explained Rowley.
“From the beginning we knew we wanted to show the complexities of how someone becomes homeless,” added Williams. “It was always going to be a story that built up over several months, since the factory shut tiny things have multiplied. It has been building slowly, now this is the point where things escalate.”
While every person’s experience of homelessness is unique – as regular buyers of The Big Issue know – there are underlying common factors. Rowley said that Universal Credit is playing a significant role in the current leap in homelessness – and it is going to get worse.
“I believe we are just at the beginning of seeing its effects,” he said. Under Universal Credit, rent benefits are paid directly to recipients rather than landlords. “If someone is having a bad month and doesn’t pay rent, it can easily escalate to six months’ arrears and thousands of pounds of debt.” That carries with them, making it tougher to get another tenancy because they have a record of arrears and debt.
But Rowley is hopeful that Sean’s story on Coronation Street might help raise awareness and help people see that, especially in the current climate, almost anyone can find themselves at risk of homelessness.