Stonewall Housing’s Steven McIntyre: Our service users face homophobia daily

Stonewall Housing was set up in the wake of the Dennis Nilsen case to help vulnerable LGBTQ young people facing homelessness. As 'Des' airs on ITV, the charity's chief executive, Steven McIntyre, explains why they still face additional risks

“Young people who are vulnerable are being abused by people who take advantage of that vulnerability – and I think Des has done a really great job of highlighting that. And I want people to know that this still happens.”

Stonewall Housing was set up in 1983, which was around the time these horrific crimes were taking place. A group of LGBT people saw that kids were coming out and then getting kicked out of home, ending up on the streets of London with nowhere to go. These ‘elders’ in the community knew they could be really vulnerable and wanted to do something about it.

So they set up this collective, which was about finding somewhere safe for young LGBT people to go. And that’s exactly what they did. They found safe homes for them, took them off the streets and made sure there were some good, positive adult LGBT role models for them.

The alternative for some of the young people was to sleep on the streets or exchange sex in return for somewhere to sleep or food to eat. We call that transactional sex – putting yourself into a vulnerable position to make sure you have somewhere to stay.

Kids were also arriving from across the UK where being gay just wasn’t an option back then. They were hoping to lead this glamorous gay life in London but when they got here, they didn’t have any money or anywhere to live, they didn’t have any food and they were in a very vulnerable position.

One young man told me recently that in his hostel, somebody scraped a homophobic word into his bedroom door

That’s where we came in. We said to those young people, there’s an alternative. You don’t have to go down this route. Being gay doesn’t mean having to have sex with people you don’t want to just to have somewhere to stay.

Since then, we’ve worked with about 30,000 people. Over the years, LGBTQ+ people have always been overrepresented in the homelessness population. We estimate that of all homeless young people, 24% are LGBTQ+ – and the estimate is that only around 4% of young people are LGBTQ+. Why do so many end up homeless?

I want to tell you a story: Here we are in 2020, in London, one of the most cosmopolitan, accepting cities in the in the world. But last Friday, a young man came out to his mum and she kicked him out of home right away without any discussion. He spent the weekend sleeping rough. Someone found him sleeping in Hyde Park, took him in and put him in contact with us. We found them somewhere to go that same night.

We have a team of advisors and our job is to make sure that both the young person and the local authorities understand that the local authority has a responsibility to find them somewhere safe. We call it advocacy. So we advocate on behalf of young people to get them somewhere safe to go. We work with organisations across London and have some of our own supported accommodation.

I would love to create new supported accommodation for people across the whole of the UK. Because we need it. We work with 1200 people every year, which is far too many. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

We ask our service users why it is important to them to have specific services for LGBTQ+ people. And without exception they talk about how they’re not able to be authentically themselves when they access ‘mainstream’ support services, and how they experience homophobia on a daily basis. One young man told me recently that in his hostel, somebody scraped a homophobic word into his bedroom door. He would listen to see if anyone was outside before leaving his room every morning. It’s desperate.

Just because your past has been dark, that doesn’t mean your future has to be. It can be really bright

All our staff are LGBTQ+, some have experience of homelessness, so when people talk to us, they don’t have to explain what it’s like being gay or lesbian or a trans woman on the streets and living with this additional vulnerability. We understand already. So it makes a huge difference to have an LGBTQ+ specific service.

We’ve seen a big increase in calls since lockdown started. I worry that young people who’ve been living in situations where they’re not accepted, where they had to hide their identity, or where they’ve been living with abuse are getting to the point where they can’t take it anymore.

Sofa Surfing is the other thing. People are losing patience with lockdown, never mind having someone sleeping on your sofa for months. I’m also hugely worried about the end of this eviction ban. We are already seeing more young people who are street homeless.

Young people who are vulnerable are being abused by people who take advantage of that vulnerability – Des does a good job of highlighting that. And I want people to know that it still happens.

So if you’re one of those family members who’s going to kick someone out of home because they’re gay, this is one of the issues they might have to deal with.

The message I want to give it is that it’s quite simple, really. To fix this, all you have to do is be accepting of your loved ones, celebrate who they are and celebrate their identity. Provide them with unconditional love. That’s it.

I’m not necessarily worried about people falling into the hands of serial killers. But I do worry about young people going home with adults that aren’t safe because they don’t have anywhere else to go. We are there to tell them there is an alternative. And just because your past has been dark, that doesn’t mean your future has to be. It can be really bright.

I would like to end with the voice of our service users, the people that talk to me. Someone recently told me that they thought Stonewall Housing had saved their life. And the reason I say that is not to be dramatic, but to show how, even just a little intervention from someone who is authentic and really allows them to be themselves can make the world of difference to people.

Steven McIntyre is Chief Executive of Stonewall Housing. He was talking with Adrian Lobb

  • Des airs on ITV on 14-16 September at 9pm