Originally delivered as a speech at the Young Local Authority of the Year 2016 public speaking competition by the representatives of Leeds City Council on Thursday 19th February 2016.
We make assumptions about homeless people. There might be people in this room that would stand up and deny that, but these assumptions are culturally produced and lie thick across our grey matter. Even if you aren’t making them, you will hear them from the mouths of others: lazy, drug addict, dangerous, mentally ill. The reality, of course, is that people become homeless for a large number of reasons. The way we speak about these reasons reveals us, as do the things we don’t say. Something that often escapes the assumption of grumbling pedestrians passing by the homeless is their sexuality or gender identity.
Queer is an umbrella term that can be used to define anyone that identifies as something other than heterosexual or cisgender. It indicates that someone exists outside of these social norms of gender and sexuality without specifying an exact gender identity, or with whom that person forms relationships. Queer is a fluid label that can help to create a bond for members of the entire LGBTQ+ community. Queer is still seen as controversial by some, because of its history as a slur, but it has since been reclaimed by many members of the LGBTQ community.
Of the young homeless people in the UK, the Albert Kennedy Trust estimates that one in four of them identify as queer. This isn’t simple demographic representation. One in four homeless young people aren’t gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans* because it mimics the rest of the UK community. The number of queer homeless youth is disproportionate to the known percentage of queer people in the general population. According to the 2014 Integrated Household Survey, more than 90% of 16-24 year olds identified as straight, with less than 3% openly identifying as L, G, B or T.
So what is the reason for this discrepancy? Leeds City Council, in its recently released ‘Housing Equality Improvement Priority Areas’ report, claims that, of people using homeless accommodation services in England, over 60% are young people made homeless due to a “relationship breakdown” with family and friends. One origin of such relationship breakdown is a child, peer or partner being something other than heterosexual or cisgender. Homophobia and transphobia mean that family acceptance and safe homes are not guaranteed for young queer people.
We are now coming out earlier and earlier than our contemporaries. Where people would come out in mid-life or in their 20s and 30s, young queer people today are coming out at 12 and 13. While this is a positive indication of social cues that affirm queer identities, it means that young people, who are forcibly expelled from their homes, or under threat from family members, are too young to live independently.
Young queer people are also likely to have already exhausted the usual social safety nets of school, friends or foster care. Gay and trans* youth face bullying and marginalisation from peers in schools and in foster care, and are too frequently met with misunderstanding or further discrimination from adults in those environments. The Metro’s ‘Youth Chances’ survey identified that over 40% of young queer people had suffered from harassment and a further group of more than 20% had been physically assaulted because of their orientation or gender identity.
Salt in the wound of this lack of support at home or in school is the absence of targeted material from shelters or local government programmes — something that became clear to us early on in our research. Though there are social support groups available to the young queer population of Leeds, these have proved very difficult to find and, as stated, contain no explicit mention of homelessness concerns. This contributes to the notion that homeless queer youth are unwanted and unprotected. Even where services exist, and can be accessed successfully, queer people may still end up fleeing due to discrimination or harassment. Where public services are the only thing standing between young people and living on the streets, this is not only dangerous: it is an invitation to homelessness.
In the ‘Housing Equality Improvement Priority Areas’ report, Leeds City Council recognises youth homelessness as a key issue for our housing services. The document speaks on how we have let young people down, how we must do more to reach them, but it says nothing about queer youth. Queer identities are not recognised as a priority marker within the housing needs assessment, or included explicitly in documents focused on homelessness. The authority signposts third-sector organisations working to resolve domestic violence and sex trafficking within the queer community, but does not refer to any Leeds-based services that tackle homelessness. Leeds City Council has also only recently introduced equality and diversity training for all staff, which raises questions about the preparedness of front-line services interacting directly with vulnerable queer people.
While we appreciate that many staff may have joined the authority before queer issues had come to the fore, these are barriers we must overcome — and quickly. We cannot assume that our messaging is reaching queer people: without an explicit focus on the particular needs of that demographic, it is unfair to expect them to feel safe in approaching our services. In 2006, Michelle Wang, a lesbian woman from Chicago, was turned away from a homelessness shelter after she told staff about her orientation. In 2014, a shelter run by the Salvation Army refused housing for a transgender woman on the basis of her gender identity. When stories like these exist, we must be proactive in reaching out. As Michelle Wang commented, “Too often, vulnerable people are too occupied with meeting their immediate needs to exercise their rights.”
While the situation for young queer people may seem dire, there are some institutions that are getting it right. Manchester City Council, for example, has worked with the LGBT Foundation to build a homelessness service specifically committed to examining the threat of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic behaviour as part of a needs assessment. Councils everywhere should be doing the same.
Not only that; local authorities must also tackle LGBTQ homelessness at its source by running programmes for family acceptance, and working closely with schools to support and protect queer students. Front-line staff must be trained in equality and diversity to prepare them for conversations around sexuality and gender identity, and queer youth must be named as a priority in housing policy. For too long we have overlooked or ignored the welfare of our queer citizens: it’s time for a change.