This summer, Pride events up and down the country have marked the half-century since the introduction of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales. It is an anniversary celebrating progress and liberalisation – the widespread adoption of equality, and a symbol of how far British society has changed in 50 years.
Yet every day thousands of LGBT people are still subjected to suspicion, discrimination and violence, many living in fear. For them, the reality of prejudice is still all too real.
Among the most prevalent outcomes of LGBT people becoming homeless were sexual exploitation and mental health issues
Young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender comprise up to 24 per cent of the youth homeless population, each at a cost of £24,000-£30,000 to the state. Last year the Albert Kennedy Trust, an organisation that supports young LGBT people, or those living in hostile environments, estimated that 150,000 were homeless or at risk of homelessness as a result of intolerance.
The study found that the main reasons were parental rejection, abuse within the family or being exposed to aggression and violence. Among the most prevalent outcomes of LGBT people becoming homeless were sexual exploitation and mental health issues, alongside homophobic bullying and alcohol abuse.
Stonewall Housing, which offers specialist advice and support to LGBT people of all ages, say that two thirds of young people who access their services state their housing problem is directly related to their sexual orientation or gender identity. And yet crucial services are being cut.
“In 2016, we saw the closure of two key delivery partners – Pace and Broken Rainbow – and we saw our own funding cut,” says Lucille Power of Stonewall Housing. The organisation has established a relationship with L&Q housing association in London.
But compounding the difficulties young LGBT people have accessing information because of the diminishing numbers of organisations offering support, many may also be reluctant to disclose details about their private lives to local government bodies – and homelessness organisations.
A spokesperson for Stonewall told The Big Issue that charities and agencies working to tackle homelessness should be equipped to meet specific needs of homeless LGBT people.
Activist Brandi Lee Lough Dennell, of Glasgow-based LGBT Youth Scotland, works with young people to better identify the reasons behind and the impact of homelessness. Her organisation’s studies echo the Albert Kennedy research, concluding that homeless LGBT young people are less likely to seek help or support than non-LGBT peers.
She says: “It’s really important that LGBT people feel comfortable and confident coming out to housing and homelessness services. They might fear a discriminatory response, or have fear of being accommodated in gender-inappropriate spaces when accessing temporary accommodation.
It’s really important that LGBT people feel comfortable and confident coming out to housing and homelessness services
“We know that trans young people are fearful of being accommodated in the wrong places. We also have experience of trans young people who have been accommodated but experience discrimination from the staff or fellow service users. And then when they secure tenancy they may experience it from neighbours.
“In terms of prevention, if young people who are at risk of becoming homeless don’t know what their rights are and the services don’t ask about their sexual orientation or gender identity, the young LGBT person might feel there’s no need to reveal that information and the housing authority might miss key details.”
There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
Power says new thinking and fresh approaches are urgently needed: “In order to provide the best possible support for young people we need to work with the community to find innovative ways to support homeless young people.”
Scottish LGBT youth
LGBT Youth Scotland set a Youth Commission up in 2016 with 100 young people from across seven local authorities. The results were revealing. “Some organisations were named as ones they would never go to, and large numbers expressed concerns about accessing their local council because they were concerned about being judged or not being treated as a high enough priority,” explains Lough Dennell.
“Open-plan areas make some feel intimidated, especially if the reason they’re homeless is about discrimination they’ve been experiencing. They might not feel comfortable talking about it in an open-plan office.
“While it’s certainly worth celebrating 50 years since decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, it’s worth noting that Scotland’s decriminalisation date was as recent as 1980.”
- PREJUDICE – NOT PRIDE?
LGBT young people are more likely to find themselves homeless than their non-LGBT peers, comprising up to 24% of the youth homeless population, each at a cost of £24-30k to the state. They are highly likely to have experienced familial rejection, abuse and violence. They are significantly more likely to experience targeted violence, sexual exploitation, substance misuse, and physical and mental health problems than other homeless youth.
This disparity could go some way towards explaining why London’s homeless community historically included a significant number of people from north of the border. In the experience of Alex Lavin, an outreach worker for London-based rough sleepers charity Borderline, which helps homeless people with roots in Scotland, many conceal their identity for years on the streets.
When you’re rough sleeping you want to put a degree of protection around yourself – so may not reveal your sexuality
“One person I worked with confided that they wanted to transition but I was the only person they had told,” he says. “I think there’s a perceived fear, real or not, in revealing your sexuality as something other than heterosexual. It’s not that the rough-sleeping community are any more homophobic than any other group in society but when you’re rough sleeping you’ll want to put a degree of protection around yourself. There can sometimes be a certain machismo.”
The findings of the Albert Kennedy Trust report point to a need for future research with more thorough geographical mapping, community outreach and awareness programmes for organisations such as housing associations.
Lough Dennell says: “We as an organisation have been delivering training for the last 10 years to those who ask for it. Awareness-raising needs to take place within education and community development organisations.”
Words: Paul English | @PaulEnglishhack