Living from place to place, staying with family & friends is a form of “hidden” homelessness, & it affects millions of people.
The official terms are “doubled up,” or “couch surfing.” Having people you can turn to & live with is a blessing; but even in the most loving of circumstances, squeezing extra folks in a home can be stressful. There will be times (hopefully infrequently) where you’ll feel as if you’re being misunderstood, or treated unfairly. This could range anywhere from the amount of money or resources you’re expected to contribute to the household, to decisions & expectations around meal plans, to childcare, automobile use, to household chores. Issues of privacy, space & shared belongings- or even religious practices & spirituality- might also unexpectedly arise. You could feel as if people are blaming you for things that are not your fault, or for things that are your fault but are out of your control. You could also feel as if people are being impatient with you, or expecting you to automatically know certain customs & routines without careful explanation or time to learn. This can breed feelings of resentment & unease, leading you to feel unwelcome in a place you were invited to stay. To remain genuinely pleasant in close quarters, commit to open (& sometimes uncomfortable) communication, responsible dialogue, productive routines & helpful habits. Below are a few tips to help you survive (& hopefully thrive!) while doubled up with other people.
Do Not Make Yourself At Home
This tip can feel extremely counter-intuitive, especially if your hosts have told you to “make yourself at home.” You might even be in a situation where you’ve had to move back in with parents or relatives, into a space where you previously lived & considered “home”. You will also, no doubt, feel relieved to no longer have to worry about day to day shelter. You might deeply desire to rest, recharge & relax. Do not give in to this impulse. Remember that your stability in the long term is the most important thing. Since that is the case, it is extremely important that you do not wear out your welcome. Here are some tips to help with this:
1) Always ask. People who invite you to live with them might announce upon arrival, “You can have anything you want. My house is your house.” This is fine if you are only staying for one night, but the longer you stay, the more formal you must be. That’s because the longer you act as if you can “have anything you want,” in someone else’s home, the more likely they begin to feel as if you are taking from them. Therefore you always give your host the opportunity to offer their hospitality to you. Ask for what you want (even if you know they would say yes, even if they insist you don’t have to ask.) If your children are old enough to understand these principles, teach them to do the same. It's better for your hosts to be annoyed by your politeness than resentful of your comfort. These small courtesies (Do you mind if I get something to drink? May I have a piece of this fruit? Would it be alright if I watched this particular TV show from 730 - 800? Since no one is in the bathroom, do you mind if I take a shower?) will go a long way toward a long-lasting peaceful relationship with your host.
2) Conserve & contribute to your host’s resources. Be mindful of the invisible expenses your hosts will incur by allowing you to live with them, such as heat, electricity, food & cooking expenses, water, soap & toiletries. These additional expenses are unavoidable, but you can do your best to keep them low:
Electricity: Make sure to turn the lights off when you leave the room. When you are not using plugs (such as a charger, curling irons, hot pot, etc.) unplug them. If your host is generally gone during the day, try not to run draining appliances in their absence, like the TV or game system. If you must watch the TV to entertain your children while you complete other tasks, that’s understandable; but try to only do this for an hour here or there- in accordance with a schedule & intention- not mindlessly throughout the day.
Heat:The Bay Area can definitely get chilly during the rainy winter months, making homes feel cold & drafty. However, resist the urge to turn up your host’s heat. Layer clothes & wear sweatshirts, hoodies & socks instead. Use blankets. If you need more clothing & blankets but cannot afford them, there is a section further along in the booklet with resources for you & your children to get whatever you need.
Food & Cooking Expenses: Using power & gas while cooking is unavoidable, but as much as possible, make a gentle imprint on your host’s kitchen. Purchase your own oils, salt, pepper, spices, butter, milk, eggs, jelly, bread & fruit- as these items are used daily & run out quickly. When you must use your host's items, replace what has been used. Pay attention to the brands they prefer & buy that. If you can’t afford their brands, buy & use what you can afford. It’s natural that at the beginning of your stay, you might not be able to afford to do this. That’s ok- ask for what you need, accept what they offer, & let them know that you are grateful & will replace what you’ve used when you can. Once you can afford to contribute to the kitchen’s ingredients, make sure to let your host know. Ask them if they’d like you to buy them anything in particular? Once you bring your groceries inside, be sure to tell them what you’ve bought & offer to share - returning their gesture of hospitality. Again, if affording food is a struggle, Section 5 of this booklet has several resources for free food / groceries in the Bay Area, so that you & your children can get whatever you need.
Water: Keep showers short; keep the bathroom clean; always turn off the water when you aren’t using (especially when brushing your teeth); if there is laundry on site, do single large loads instead of lots of little ones (to conserve energy & water)
Soap & Toiletries: Don’t use up what you can’t afford to immediately replace; otherwise buy & use what you can afford; only open the cabinets you’ve been directed to open; no snooping!
Respect Your Host’s Wishes!
Everyone has rules in their home, either stated outright or implied. These rules could make universal sense (no smoking!), or they could exist only in the context of the house (don’t leave the screen door open longer than five seconds or the cat will get out!) Whatever the rules are, follow them. If you aren’t sure whether something is ok, ask first.
Admit Your Mistakes & Learn From Them
Accidents & misunderstandings are impossible to avoid when living in someone else’s home. Dishes can get broken, remote controls lost, paint scuffed, garbage disposals clogged. You could do something even more egregious, like eat the last bit of food meant for someone else. You could accidentally let the cat out, or your child could damage something they weren’t even supposed to touch. The list of ‘don’t’ can be long & mysterious in someone else’s home. The best way to remain on your host’s good side, is to confess the truth of the matter immediately, apologize, & state your intention to fix/ replace what you can. Then use the incident as a learning experience, learn the lesson & move on. Whatever you do, don’t hide your mistakes or fail to mention them. Your host will always figure it out, or notice the problem. If you haven’t told them first, it will only exacerbate their frustration & erode their trust.
Be Forthcoming About Your Timeline (& Stick to it!)
The very fact that you’re needing to “double up” with someone, means your future likely feels uncertain. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky few who know exactly how long they need to stay with their host (only three weeks until my apartment is ready!); but the unsettling truth is that most folks have no idea at all (I’ll need to get a job & save up before I can move). Regardless of your uncertainty, it's better for your host's peace of mind (& therefore your own stability) that you try to give them a timeline. Obviously you have to get a feel for your host’s comfort level, but I recommend starting with three months. This gives you a month to get settled into a planned routine; a month to reap the benefits of your routine, & a month to check-in, gather your resources, & either leave or negotiate for more time.
The following tips will help your host be more receptive to your request:
Your timeline should come with a detailed plan.Before you approach your host to ask for time to live in their home, you should know how you will use that time. Do you need to get a job? Do you need to figure out welfare & other resources? Do you need to figure out daycare? Do you need peace & quiet to pursue work-from-home opportunities? Do you need to register for school? Be ready to explain to your host exactly what you plan to do with the time they are giving you.
Your timeline should come with a promise of contribution. Your contribution doesn’t have to be financial; or if it is, it doesn’t have to be significant. Your host likely wants to make sure you save as much money as possible, so that you can get back on your feet. Still, it's important to offer something- even of non-monetary value- such as taking on household labor & chores, or a percentage of your future paycheck and / or government benefits.
Show confidence in your plan & timeline. Your hosts might ask about your back up plan, in case three months (or however long they give you) isn’t enough time. Whatever you do, don’t say something to indicate you’ll simply ask for time. Instead, say, I will exhaust all my efforts & pursue every resource to get back on my feet. I will do everything I can, & I will communicate with you every step of the way. (Or something like that)
If You Need More Time, Ask In Advance. Don’t play the waiting game with your host. Be upfront about your progress. If you’re trying your best to gather resources & leave by your deadline- but you begin to realize you’ll need more time- give your host at least two weeks advance notice before your move-out date to ask for a month extension. Even if you need to keep asking for more time, do it. Don’t ever take your host’s hospitality for granted.
Keep Yourself Busy & Productive
Following this tip can feel difficult, especially considering the circumstances. Perhaps you don’t have a job, or you’re pregnant, and/or taking care of small children. Perhaps you're feeling depressed about your situation, which can drain your energy. You could also be surrounded by people who are not busy & productive in the slightest, & you could feel pressured to join them in their inactivity. This is all understandable, but there is danger in allowing yourself to get too comfortable in someone else’s home. Even if the bill payer/ home owner seems cool with it, they might secretly feel that it's unfair that you get to rest (“lay around”) & enjoy their amenities (yes, even if you’re obviously not feeling your best). Resentment is often an unfortunate & unavoidable side effect of extended generosity, especially if it's done out of pity rather than charity. On the flip side, you could be too busy; feeling run ragged & put to work by folks who expect you to do whatever they ask, because you live in their home or in some way benefit from their resources. Below are some tips to help you remain busy & productive without getting caught up in the agendas & requirements of your hosts. For your long term benefit, you want to be motivated, not led. Maintaining as much of your own autonomy & prioritizing your own goals & agendas will go a long way toward preserving your mental health while living in someone else’s home.
Get up early.It’s important for you to spend some time in the morning, marshaling your energy & intention, without the energetic interference of others. Use this time to pray, stretch, get in the bathroom & shower quickly before everyone else; etc.
Create a daily routine for yourself. (See Part 5 for free/ cheap things to do) A daily routine will help maintain a feeling of stability, for you & your children. Part of your routine should include reading something that will benefit you mentally, financially, physically and/or spiritually; going outside into nature, even if it's just for a short walk; taking your children outside for some fresh air & physical activity; & regular nap times & meal times. You should also include consistent chores that you will identify & commit to.
Communicate your schedule & duties to your host. Ask your host if you can talk to them, & then explain your basic daily schedule. Ask if that works for them? Does it interfere with anything they have going on? Tell them the chores you’ll do. Ask them if they have anything else you can do that might make the function / flow of the household go easier. Be proactive! If you come in the door with structure, responsibility & accountability, resentment might never become an issue.
Ask about / Be open to your host’s expectations of you, & be clear about what you’re able & willing to do. Beyond the duties you’ve volunteered, your host may have other expectations of you. They will likely come to you with their expectations, but some people have trouble being direct about their needs & expect those around them to figure things out. Since you’re the guest, you might have to take the lead. Ask your host, What do you require of me? What are your expectations of me? It might be helpful to write down what they say, so that you can always refer back without having to ask again. And if they mention anything you don’t feel comfortable with, speak up for yourself; also, don’t refuse their requests without offering an alternative. For example, if they say they expect you to go to church every Sunday but you don’t want to, say something like, I’m happy to go two weeks out of the month, but I’d also prefer to spend two Sundays a month studying (or something like that). Just remember communication is key!
Clean up behind yourself & your children constantly.It's important to tread as lightly as possible in your host's home, so they feel good- or even neutral- about you being there. But if you’re messy, or disorganized, or you don’t clean up behind yourself, or you leave your belongings scattered about, your host will begin to feel negatively about your presence. So even if your host/s aren’t the neatest folks, make sure you & your kids are. It's important to maintain a high standard of living, especially in someone else’s home. Being diligent about cleaning will also help you avoid bugs that love leftover food, crumbs, filth & sticky treats, like ants & roaches. When we stayed with our hosts in San Francisco, I did a lot of eating in our bedroom because of growing resentment & negativity around the fact that we were no longer welcome. The feeling of not being wanted & also not having anywhere to go, made me feel desperate & ashamed. I wanted to hide. However after a few “hidden” meals in our room, a trail of ants appeared. They were very hard to get rid of, & only made our host want us to leave even more. Learn from my mistakes!
Create an evening routine for your children & get them to bed as early as possible.Maybe your hosts will want to relax quietly in the evenings; maybe they will want to hang out & entertain visitors. In any case, they should have the option of doing whatever they want as adults in their own home. Make sure your children have played & been active during the day, & have a good dinner, so that they will sleep well & your hosts can carry on. This is especially true if you & your kids sleep in a common area like the living room, since it can be hard to sleep in a common area unless you’re really, really tired. If there are other children in the house, try to get your kids on the same routine as theirs so that everyone goes to bed at the same time. You don’t want your kids up when the host’s kids are down. On the flip side, if the host’s let their kids stay up late, or if they have an inconsistent schedule, don’t follow suit. Regardless of your host’s choices, your kids will need routine, stability & early bedtimes.
Spend the time before you go to bed planning your tomorrow, intending to wake up with direction & intention for the day.Also take time to reflect on the day & how you’re feeling. Living in someone else’s home can feel lonely. You might feel isolated from others, & also unsure how much information you can share with the people around you. Consider keeping a private journal, where you spend time holding space for yourself & sharing your thoughts & feelings with the page. This will free up your energy so that you can remain energetically flexible & light in your environment.
Ask for Feedback / Check-ins
Even in the best of circumstances, living in someone else’s home will require some trial & error. Your hosts will have certain things they want to say about their preferences, or desires, or observations of you, or certain annoyances they have. Most people do not like direct confrontation or unpleasantness, which means most folks are prone to saying the nice things to your face & saying the complaints & criticisms behind your back. You might be this way as well- its human nature. We all do it. No one is wrong or right in these situations; people are who they are. But in a “doubled up” situation, unchecked, this habit leaks a fake-nice toxicity that poisons the air. Therefore it’s important to address any issues head on, & encourage honest feedback to your face. This will make everything easier. To protect yourself & your host from this fate, periodic check-ins are necessary, so that your host can safely & productively dispel any negative energy that might have gathered. This is where you can ask them, How’s this going, me living here? Is there anything you want me to do that I’m not doing? Anything I’m doing you want me to stop doing? How can I make things easier / flow better for you? These meetings are also a good time to reiterate how much you appreciate your host's hospitality.
Dealing With Difficult People Even if you do everything “right” while living in someone else’s home (which includes trying your best, being communicative, being responsible, accommodating & keeping your word) there are some folks who aren’t going to accept you or want you around no matter what you do. Click below to learn the Do's & Don'ts of living with difficult people.