Submitted by: Ed Swan
Would you open up your home and allow strangers from around the world to stay in it for free? A growing band of people in Waltham Forest and around the world are doing just that every day, and many of them have found that in doing so they have gained a sense of community, made new friends, and even met their life partners.
‘Couchsurfing’ or ‘CS’ as it’s widely known, is the main website that connects these people, although there are other similar sites. CS was founded in 2004, and now counts more than 117,000 listed members in London, of which several thousand live in Waltham Forest. CS emphasises inclusivity, and has members from every age and background.
CS members have an online profile, and when they travel to another place, they can search for local CS members, send them a ‘couch request’, and if accepted, the ‘surfer’ can stay over with the host for an agreed time: the rules state that no payment is allowed.
So why do they do it?
Gul Akayya is a 26-year-old IT company owner living in Leyton. She’s been a member of CS since 2006.
“I have met hundreds of people on CS, I joined because I wanted to have friends in the UK, and it has really helped me to find a place anywhere in the world. CS has filled up my social life, I even met my partner at a CS event, this is very common in the CS community,” she said.
Andrew Brown is 39, he has lived in Walthamstow for 30 years and works in finance. Incredibly, he has hosted more than 370 people in his home since he joined CS three years ago.
He said: “Overall it’s been an amazing journey and an amazing experience, out of 370 plus experiences, I could probably name about five that didn’t go to plan. That’s a phenomenal ratio.”
For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when they hear about CS is potential safety concerns, but other couchsurfers in Waltham Forest are, like Andrew, positive about their experiences. “I have never met any negative person on CS”, said Gul.
Twenty-nine-year-old couchsurfer, Aleksandra Czernecka, a software developer from Leytonstone, agreed: “Some people who don’t know CS are a bit scared.
“They say: “strangers in your house, they can kill you!”
“Well I say: “strangers on the street can kill you!””
CS is not completely without controversy though, there have been a small number of reported cases of sexual violence committed by hosts against their surfers, although CS does have security verification features and urges users to pay close attention to the references which appear on every profile.
In 2011, CS became a for-profit ‘B Corporation’, a move which some users felt devalued the anti-capitalist spirit of CS and the hard work of volunteers to build the site. Couchsurfers in Waltham Forest do not seem fazed by the changes, though, and the site continues to grow in numbers.
CS is not only used by those who need a place to stay. 26-year-old couchsurfer Mehdi Chenoufi, who lives in Walthamstow and works as a boating lake assistant, has used the website to organise successful group events.
“In the beginning I didn’t host,” says Mehdi, “But I started by creating events, I did a Banksy tour, where I had 88 attending, and I even met my girlfriend there. I also organised a trip to Thorpe Park and had about 13 attending.”
Couchsurfers in Waltham Forest also make the most of showing the local area to their visitors, who might not otherwise get to see parts of London away from the usual tourist hotspots.
“Everyone has their own style of hosting,” says Andrew, “I prefer to do stuff outside the home, people don’t come all the way to London just to sit in someone’s house. I’ll take the guys to a local pub, like the Hare and Hound, We’ll have a beer or play a game of pool.”
Aleksandra feels the same: “I really enjoy hosting people in Leytonstone, taking them to the pub or taking them for a walk, down to Wanstead Flats or Hollow Pond, they really appreciate the green spaces in the area”.
But is CS really a community? And how does being a part of CS compare to being a part of the real local community?
“I would say that I’m part of the local community,” says Andrew, “I always try to use local facilities and I prefer to spend money locally in local business and keep up to date with things that are happening. But I also feel that I’m part of a CS community.”
Gul feels a bit differently about her place in the local community, but agrees about CS: “I don’t really feel that I am part of the local community here, although I would like to get more involved. But CS is a community that shares a lot in common with each other, especially stories about travel. I think that online communities are the most common and most important communities for young people today, it’s much easier to meet someone online, when you can see their profile, than to go up to someone in the street and introduce yourself.”
Aleksandra agrees: “I think that to be a couchsurfer you have to be open, if you’re not open to other people, can’t accept that they can be different, have different lifestyles, you will not be successful on CS.
“Maybe online communities have replaced local communities for some people. In Leytonstone, I’m not sure what I would do to be a bigger part of the community. It’s easier to organise an event online, whereas to organise something without using the internet, it’s harder to advertise and harder to reach people.”
Helping visitors in London to get off the tourist beaten track and discover new places can only be positive for them and for the local area. While nothing beats the importance of a strong local community, the clear message that comes from everyone involved in CS is that the relationships that are start off from an online project can be as real and meaningful as those that we make with our neighbours.