“At the start of 2019 I was living a relatively normal existence and then suddenly my whole future was in the gutter. My father came home unexpectedly and caught a male friend and me ‘at it’ and within 48 hours he’d chucked me out of the house,” says Michael, a former homeless queer teen, who agreed to speak to Pride Life.
“Of course, I didn’t want him to find out that way and in my heart I believe I should have told him. But he’d made the odd homophobic remark about LGBTQ+ celebrities in the past, so I was scared to do so. In the end, even though I was only 16, my dad (it’s a one-parent family) said I couldn’t stay because I might ‘corrupt’ my two younger brothers!” he continues.
Ultimately, Michael wound up as a rough sleeper – those who have to bed down in the open air (on the streets, in parks) or in stairwells and cars – for seven months.
Unfortunately, his case is just one example of the growing number of British LGBTQ+ youths (15 to 25-year-olds) who are becoming homeless. In fact, according to Jo Bhandal, Campaigns, Policy and Research Lead at akt (formerly the Albert Kennedy Trust), a charity that works exclusively within this area, “almost a quarter of young homeless people are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender”. This is a grossly disproportionate amount, considering only 5%-10% of the general populace identify as LGBTQ+. One must wonder how this disturbing disparity has arisen. After all, it’s the 21st century, and Britain prides herself as being a modern progressive state where the queer community and other minorities (black and disabled, etc.) are respected and treated equally, such as in the eyes of the law.
In order to tackle the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the ensuing recession, the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition elected in 2010 introduced a string of austerity measures in an attempt to resuscitate the British economy. Over the next decade this policy strategy was maintained. This meant that coupled with central government severely reducing funding to homeless charities and various housing associations, local councils had their capacity to aid citizens like Michael lessened due to stringent budget cuts. Inevitably, this had a dramatic effect on the numbers of rough sleepers who, like individuals sofa-surfing or staying in squat, can be hidden homeless – as in not part of any official statistics and not receiving support). According to the government’s own statistics in 2020 there were 2,690 in England, an increase of over 38% since 2010. The Labour Party and several aid organisations such as the homeless charity Crisis and the Salvation Army have commented the way this figure is calculated: the “single-night snapshot”, substantially underestimates the true total of those bedding down in open air. Indeed, although the government said there were 4,677 individuals sleeping rough in England in 2018, data obtained from the council using the Freedom of Information Act revealed it was over five times that amount.
Inevitably, the homelessness situation has been markedly exacerbated by the Covid pandemic. The government adopted various measures – the “Everyone In” scheme and halting evictions from the private and social rented sectors, etc. – to try and mitigate any disruption. According to Jo, although, in general such a policy response has been quite good, Combined Homelessness And Information Network (CHAIN) statistics point out that the number of rough sleepers in London grew by 3% between April 2020 and March 2021, which is a rise one can expect to have been replicated all over the country. Thus, it seems, it’s the poorest and most vulnerable who take the hardest hit financially. Those who were on furlough or lost their jobs, careers or businesses; people who found it even more problematic to get access to welfare; or individuals that have seen a decrease in their benefits, as happened with Universal Credit. “The social system has been shredded,” says Jo. Furthermore, as any support put in place for the virus has been removed, more and more of the general public are at risk of losing their homes, especially as households are now in the midst of a spiralling cost of living crisis. Ultimately, the increasing pressure and stress put on families up and down the country will result in more individuals ending up without a safe place to stay. But why does this phenomenon particularly affect the LGBTQ+ youths in our community?
According to Claire Linacre, Development Manager at Stonewall Housing, “We know that one of the key reasons why LGBTQ+ young people are disproportionately affected by homelessness is because of unaccepting parents, care-givers or siblings. Many of the youngsters we support have come out, or been outed without their consent, and immediately faced a lot of hostility from the same individuals who are supposed to support them. This animosity can involve vicious verbal and financial abuse. We also see cases that involve physical and sexual violence. In these situations their homes are no longer safe and they decide they need to leave, or they’re told they can’t stay there anymore.”
“From the moment I came out to my folks at 17, both began to hound and belittle me,” says Darren, who spent a four-month period sleeping rough during 2021. “They are very religious and made it clear that God would not approve, and that I was a disgrace to them as well. They also became even more controlling – I wasn’t allowed to bring any friends back and the only time they’d let me out of the house would be for school, where I was also getting harassed. [This isn’t uncommon, as a 2017 Stonewall Housing study indicated that 45% of pupils suffered from bullying on account of being LGBTQ+].Eventually the atmosphere got so toxic I walked out,” he continues.
Other young queers have felt the need to up and leave as they have suffered similar experiences. For instance, being frightened to express their LGBTQ+ identity. Or their relatives publishing private material about them online, such as images and videos, or saying they’ll be outed. Losing their homes and cutting ties with their most fundamental bond, their family, is absolutely devastating for people who are some of the tenderest members of our community; especially since it’s due to something beyond their control: gender and sexuality.
Once they’ve been catapulted into a life of destitution, for a plethora of reasons it’s imperative they get out of it as soon as possible. “I woke up in a shop doorway [in Central London] to find a guy rifling through my jacketpockets. As soon as he saw I was awake, he punched me in the face two or three times and ran off. It was the middle of the night and there was nobody else around, so I was pretty shaken up,” stresses Michael. It’s not a surprise he was viciously attacked, as Crisis findings from 2019 disclosed that rough sleepers are 20 times more likely to suffer violence than those not in that situation.
Another troubling issue that confronts down-and-outs is addiction. A 2021 akt investigation (the LGBTQ+ Youth Homelessness Report) highlighted that 29% of young queer people said they started taking drugs because they were homeless, and 22% conveyed they began drinking for the same reason. Often such substance misuse can be a coping mechanism, as individuals endeavour to come to terms with any number of concerns: the fraught nature of their current predicament; previous mental, physical or sexual abuse; family breakdown; confusion about their sexuality; and emptiness, isolation or boredom.
“I used to pick up guys in bars and clubs just so I had a roof over my head”
With such a range of factors against them, it’s understandable that these LGBTQ+ youngsters exhibit higher than normal signs of poor mental health. And the overall consequences of being exposed to such a dehumanising, rootless existence is writ large in a 2019 Office for National Statistics (ONS) data comparison: between 2013 and 2018 in England and Wales, the average age of death was 43 years for females and 45 years for males among the homeless, and 76 for men and 81 for women in the general population.
But to break away from an environment that readily leads to a potentially early demise, isn’t easy. “I got so desperate, I’d do almost anything not to spend a night on the streets,” says Michael. “I used to pick up guys in bars and clubs just so I had a roof over my head. Once, an acquaintance told me about this semi-detached house in North London that was unofficially acting as an LGBTQ+ hostel. A fiftysomething already staying there appeared quite sincere and said he could maybe help me. However, his idea of assistance was trying to pimp me out to his similarly aged mates.”
Although he resisted, a lot of queer youngsters in his position have no choice but to turn to prostitution or crime as a means of survival. Others are often sexually exploited, perhaps attempting to fill the void left by their families, landing up with manipulative or abusive –usually older – adults, many of whom see them just as a way to satisfy their carnal desires.
Recent research (2021) by Homeless Link, the national membership charity for organisations directly engaged with down-and-outs in England, revealed that a limited access to information and a poor level of knowledge of services meant 25-and-unders were at an increased risk of ending up homeless. According to the akt report, on average only a third sought assistance from their local authority if they had no fixed – or were at risk of losing their – abode. And, even if those individuals are aware of possible welfare and benefits or housing support, they are usually reluctant to approach the relevant agencies. This might be because it doesn’t feel comfortable divulging private information, the process is intimidating, or there’s been a bad experience when contact has been made in the past.
“More than half of the people who come to us have faced some kind of discrimination or harassment while accessing services. And over 20% have been subjected to misgendering or dead-naming – referring to a trans person by the name they were given at birth. Indeed, in relation to the prejudice aimed at the young LGBTQ+ homeless, by almost every metric, trans and black and people of colour from our communities have encountered the most bigotry,” explains Jo.
Luckily, Darren’s salvation from having to bed down outside was through the New Horizon Youth Centre in northwest London who referred him to Stonewall Housing; while Michael’s escape was courtesy of akt. Nonetheless, a multitude of other queer youngsters are not so lucky. They see their life chances eroded or completely curtailed by the wretched dog eat dog nature of trying to subsist on the streets. One wonders, then, what measures could be taken in order to begin to eradicate a problem that’s incontestably a blight on society.
“If we’re to see a significant reduction in the amount of LGBTQ+ people experiencing homelessness we have to tackle three key issues,” says Clare. “Firstly, more work needs to be done to ensure LGBTQ+ individuals don’t face discrimination or unnecessary red-tape when presenting as homeless to their local council – which is why we’re campaigning for all housing professionals to be properly trained in LGBTQ+ housing issues.
“Secondly, we must urgently raise awareness of LGBTQ+ homelessness and the fact that these numbers are rising, not falling (at Stonewall Housing we’ve seen a 35% increase in the quantity of referrals since 2019).
“Lastly, we desperately need more affordable housing across the UK – which would particularly benefit vulnerable communities.”