Supporting the LGBT+ community through homelessness – Caryn Nicolson

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It’s a chilling fact that there are far too many people in Scotland who are homeless or at risk of being so. Let me pull out a few uncomfortable numbers from the annual update on homelessness by Scotland’s chief statistician, released in August and covering 2019-20:

  • There were 36,855 applications for homelessness assistance.
  • There were 31,333 households assessed as homeless or threatened with homelessness – an increase of four per cent on the previous year.
  • At 31st March this year there were 11,665 households and 7,280 children in temporary accommodation; respectively six and seven per cent up on the previous year.

These figures are unacceptable. However, as chief executive of a registered charity that works to end homelessness, I’m primarily concerned not with numbers but with individual people and families. Besides, statistics never tell the full story, as we at Frontline Fife found when we commissioned a research study into one group of people who have gone under the radar in terms of housing support: the LGBT+ community.

I had long been concerned that both the scale and needs of these people were being overlooked and misunderstood, leading to some being made homeless. Sadly, that suspicion has been confirmed in what we hope will be an influential report that has shed new light on the isolation, stigma and exclusion experienced by LGBT+ people.

The report, by Dr Briege Nugent, an independent research consultant and honorary research fellow at the University of Salford, underlines that there has been inadequate recognition of LGBT+ as a vulnerable population in relation to accessing housing. Many of these people are quite simply disadvantaged because of their sexual identity.

Why is this so? One sad and simple reason is that LGBT+ people are often rejected by family and partners for ‘coming out’, leading to them being made homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Consider some of those people Dr Nugent interviewed. Brian was born a female but struggled with his gender identity. When he was 17 he told his parents how he felt; they asked him to leave home. After six months of moving from one friend’s sofa to the next, he begged his parents to let him return. They agreed but for six months Brian self-isolated in his bedroom, leaving only to use the bathroom. Feeling low and lonely, he barely ate. Eventually, he saw his GP and he’s now in the process of transitioning.

Then there’s Neil, a committed father of two who lived with his girlfriend for eight years until he told her he was bisexual. She told him to leave and moved to another part of the country with their children. Neil, whose father also turned against him, initially took to sofa surfing before moving in with a man who became abusive. Neil, who was bi-polar, became suicidal moved out. At the time he was interviewed for Dr Nugent’s research, he was staying with another friend.

Both these cases reflect the fact that ‘LGBT+’ and ‘homeless’ are labels that provoke stigma and prejudice. There’s clearly a great deal of work to be done to address this. In 2019/20 Frontline Fife gave 3,146 young people across nine schools the opportunity to gain skills to equip them to make informed decisions about leaving home. However, LGBT+ education is available in very few schools. People experience confusion and apprehension when they ‘come out’ and are confronted by a basic lack of understanding in society at large. Those working in various support services need to recognise that this is fundamental to safeguarding potentially vulnerable people.

Thankfully, our research found that there is among support workers and policy makers an acceptance and welcoming of those with LGBT+ identities. However, the study concluded that staff awareness training was essential at all stages in the delivery and design of homeless support. Formal training would empower frontline workers and LGBT+ people develop meaningful client/worker relationships on an equal footing.

Dr Nugent’s research, though thorough, was in no way intended to provide a definitive picture of the scale of this problem. We need to get a handle on that now. There’s a clear need for current homelessness data collection to be reviewed as soon as possible to include the opportunity for clients to be identified by gender/sexual identity.

At present, people or those who experience housing crisis as a result of ‘coming out’ are recorded as having ‘Asked to Leave’; it’s one of the main reasons cited for homelessness and, as a general term, it is hopelessly inadequate. In Scotland in 2018-19 one-quarter of all homelessness applications cited ‘Asked to Leave’ as the main reason for becoming homeless. Yet I am certain that in each case dedicated frontline staff would have known why this was the case and what preventative measures could have been put in place to reduce the risk of homelessness in the first place.

Progress has been made in using lived experience and community knowledge to help inform local decision-making. However, I am convinced that the potential for frontline workers to inform long-term, evidence-based strategies for tackling homelessness and be valued as an integral part of the bigger picture remains relatively untapped.

Linked with this, of course, there is also a clear need to expand the assessment of housing needs to meet the particular needs of LGBT+ people.

So let’s get to work now to right some wrongs, and a good place to start would be for policy makers, service providers and those who have a lived experience of this issue to get together and start a dialogue on how best to bring about inclusive services which take into account the needs of LGBT+ people.

We cannot allow anyone in our communities to continue to be denied the housing support and provision available to others, simply because of stigma, prejudice and ignorance.

Caryn Nicolson is the Chief Executive Officer of Frontline Fife