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LGBT+ Commission Inquiry Session: Homelessness

Chaired by Sean Anstee CBE, the second inquiry session of the LGBT+ Commission took place on 14th March. This session focussed on the issues that the LGBT+ community in the UK face with respect to housing and homelessness, bringing together the recommendations of leaders in this field, from civil society, housing providers and local/regional authorities.

This writeup is not intended to be an exhaustive account of all areas covered in the meeting, nor of all the areas that the Commission will focus on regarding LGBT+ housing and homelessness. Instead, this paper seeks to highlight key areas of consensus discussed by our panel, some of the problems in these areas, and the recommendations that were suggested. If desired, the full recording of the session can be found here.

LGBT+ Homelessness

The panel for this on LGBT+ homelessness included:

  • Steven McIntyre (Chief Executive, Stonewall Housing)
  • Moud Goba (National Director, Micro Rainbow)
  • Carla Ecola (Director, The Outside Project)
  • Hayley Speed (Assistant Director of Services, Albert Kennedy Trust)

Data and Monitoring

One of the key themes that emerged from the first half of the session was around the issues of data capture and monitoring. It was noted by all members of the panel that it is very difficult to understand the level of need for LGBT+ homelessness. While LGBT+ homeless people are more likely to fall into the ‘hidden homeless’ category, it was noted that:

“We do know of course that LGBT+ people are overrepresented within homelessness cohorts, and the best guess that we have is that somewhere between 64,000 and 128,000 people every year would benefit from support from organisations like ours. And right now, Stonewall Housing works with about 2,000 people per year. So, you can see that even all of us together are only really scratching the surface of this level of need.” – Steven McIntyre

Considering the data issue from the perspective of provision, other panellists highlighted similar problems:

“People are always asking me for data, they want statistics for this and that and my answer is always zero. There are zero beds, zero provision… it seems like we’re on a wheel, where it’s still just zero. Zero money and zero property is being given to our community to actually deliver services.” – Carla Ecola

Of course, the result of such poor levels of data capture, as well as poor consistency across different local authority areas is that LGBT+ communities lack a firm evidence base to take to commissioning managers and to make firm arguments for change. As local authority budgets have been squeezed over the past 10 years, the need for tight and cogent value for money cases has never been stronger. However, given that third sector providers are facing a similar squeeze on resources, commissioning such research at the local level is often not a viable option.

One of the effects of this is that the LGBT+ community often finds itself having to self-fund services:

“Unfortunately, with [the LGBT+] community, we’ve had to demonstrate the need for it by actually doing it, and going to them and saying, look this is what we’re doing and paying for it ourselves. But we’re already taxpayers, so it’s almost like a double tax, a queer tax. We’re having to pay for our own services, or crowdfund them and shake buckets in bars, just for basic services. How many fundraisers do we all receive from members of our trans community who don’t have access to healthcare?” – Carla Ecola

The reasons for the poor levels of data around LGBT+ homelessness in order to commission appropriate services was seen to have two key reasons by the panel. The first lies with service providers (both third sector and local authority) who are largely very poor at gathering this data:

“[Frontline workers] largely do not understand why it’s important to gather this information. So you know, if I was a service user and you said to me, ‘well can you please tell me whether you’re gay or not?’ My initial response would be, ‘why do you want to know that?’… if you can’t answer that question confidently, then why would I share that information with you?” – Steven McIntyre

Indeed, there is certainly a critical need to ensure that frontline workers know that this information is being gathered to design services that meet people’s needs. It is for this reason that ongoing training was mentioned by several participants as very important for frontline workers to understand the specific needs of LGBT+ people, as well as being able to communicate confidently with LGBT+ service users at the point of access. It is hoped that such training would also help to mitigate the second contributory factor, that of LGBT+ people’s willingness to disclose this personal information for fear of discrimination. Moud Goba noted the particular concerns of refugee LGBT+ people in this area when they present to services:

“Back home, if I had to hide for so many years… [your sexuality/gender identity] is not something you disclose to state bodies.” – Moud Goba

With such poor levels of data capture, it is unsurprising that securing funding from local authorities, whether this is for training for staff, or establishing LGBT+ inclusive, affirmative or even exclusive services is incredibly challenging for (what are exclusively) third sector providers. This remains the case even though many of the services being provided by LGBT+ homelessness organisations are statutory. But while they are required to be provided by local authorities, they are not required to be provided specifically for LGBT+ people (in spite of the Public Sector Equality Duty of local authorities).  As such, these groups are forced to explore more tenuous avenues of funding from local authorities:

“How we get funding from local authorities is by finding someone who’s queer in the local authority and is also a decision maker, and we talk to them and engage with them and we help them see the importance of our work and then they buy into it… But as soon as the funding gets squeezed, what do you think goes first?” – Steven McIntyre

This is not only the case when budgets get squeezed, but also when that member of the local authority moves on. Noting this, Moud Goba recommended that each local authority have a designated LGBT+ champion to ensure that service design and provision across the council is LGBT+ inclusive:

“If it’s one person who is really campaigning because they are LGBT+ or are passionate about LGBT+, what happens when they leave? What happens to that connection? What happens to that work? So, it actually needs to be something that is continual… if somebody goes, then somebody replaces them.” – Moud Goba

LGBT+ Inclusive/Specific Provision

As a result of this lack of data, it is often the case that the statutory services being commissioned to support homeless people are generally not being commissioned to meet the needs of LGBT+ homeless people:

“There’s this dual negative that people are presenting with. Firstly, around the root of their homelessness maybe being due to their sexuality or gender identity, but also the services being commissioned to support them, statutory services, are not being [designed and delivered] with them in mind… so if people do engage with that system, their experiences can often compound the issue.” – Hayley Speed

The result of this is that, where possible many LGBT+ homeless people who access services tend to opt for services provided by LGBT+ organisations:

“The vast majority of our service users, 97% tell us that they prefer working with people who understand what it means to be LGBT+, who are LGBT+ themselves. And sadly, 84% of the people that we work with have told us that they don’t think they would get a good enough service from an organisation that is not LGBT+. Now, we know that’s not true because of course people are getting good services, because the vast majority of LGBT+ people are working with mainstream organisations… but the difficulty is it’s what they think, and it’s because they’re worried about discrimination.” – Steven McIntyre

Indeed, these perceptions are certainly an issue – if LGBT+ people do not feel that they will receive a good enough service, either due to fear of discrimination, or their specific needs not being met (perhaps around familial estrangement, they may fail to present to services and not access the services they need. This is particularly problematic where LGBT+ specific services are not available. Indeed, as was noted by Hayley Speed, though there are pockets of good practice, particularly in London, Brighton and Manchester, these are few and far between and virtually non-existent in rural areas across the UK. It was this failure that led to the formation of The Outside Project, a by and for crisis accommodation for LGBT+ homeless people, which also runs an LGBT+ community centre:

“[LGBT+ people’s] experience of trauma, their experience of violence isn’t necessarily being counted because of their gender identity or because of their sexuality. It’s not something that a lot of these services recognise or are used to dealing with, or they have their own prejudices themselves… and I think that’s why by and for services like ours are really valued by the community.” – Carla Ecola

However, The Outside Project remains the UK’s only LGBT+ specific homelessness shelter, as there is very little funding available for groups in this space:

“There are so many different organisations all fighting for very small pots of funding that relate to the niche that they work in… so you have a panel like ours, we will have very different services and we all deliver different things, but we would be considered to be the ‘LGBT+ homeless organisations.’” – Carla Ecola

Around the issue of designing not only services, but long-term strategies for LGBT+ homelessness, a question was raised by Cllr Sharon Thompson (Cabinet Member for Homes and Neighbourhoods at Birmingham City Council and Chairperson at the West Midlands Combined Authority Homelessness Member Advisory Group). The question related to the approach of preventative measures; attempts by local authorities to ‘design out’ homelessness and what this might look like for the LGBT+ community. However, there was a degree of consensus across the panel that, given the current level of consideration LGBT+ people tend to receive in such services, there is a need for them to be ‘designed in’ before they can be ‘designed out’:

“We have to recognise first of all that we’ve got an LGBT+ problem and that there is this cohort of people whose needs are not currently being met… then we have to put in the work to really help all of our frontline staff to understand the additional vulnerabilities and issues that people who are LGBT+ face when they are also facing homelessness. And the best way I think, to do that is to make it a requirement.” – Steven McIntyre

Taking a Holistic Approach

Another key theme that arose in the discussion was the need for more holistic approaches to the issue of LGBT+ homelessness. Speaking about the work of Micro Rainbow, Moud Goba outlined the importance of properly considering the intersectional issues that arise with service users, and the specific challenges that LGBT+ refugees may face. Across the world, just under 70 countries still criminalise homosexuality, 11 jurisdictions offer the death penalty, and six of them still implement it. As a result of this, at least 2000 LGBT+ people claim asylum in the UK per year. However, as a result of the multiple identities – that of being LGBT+, a refugee, and specifically a refugee from a country in which LGBT+ people face significant discrimination and harassment, these people often face a series of particular challenges:

“The usual spaces where refugees get support, the sort of safety networks where they get technical support, or where other refugees are getting support is not available to them. For example, when I was a new migrant in the country, a refugee, before my sexuality was discovered, I could rely on the Zimbabwean community to help me… but once your sexuality is discovered, you’re pushed out from those spaces. So, you miss out on a lot of technical support that really helps refugees to settle and integrate into the new country.” – Moud Goba

Where people may face multiple disadvantages, such as being LGBT+ and an ethnic minority there is also the risk that the issue of trust in disclosing personal information outlined above is only compounded. For instance, a black, female passing, non-binary person accessing a homelessness service may already fear discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity and, if they do present, not wish to add to this risk by telling staff about their gender identity.

 A further component of a more comprehensive approach to LGBT+ homelessness is ensuring that housing support is only one part of a broader package that is available to service users. Whether this is achieved via integrating other services into existing provision within the homelessness service, or establishing links to other organisations, this is crucial for addressing the wide and varied needs that LGBT+ service users may present with. For instance, gay and bisexual men who have sex with men are disproportionately likely to contract STIs, the LGBT+ community is also more likely to suffer from mental health issues and is overrepresented in drug use statistics. Accordingly, LGBT+ services users would benefit from links into primary care providers, sexual health services, drug and alcohol services and other local provision that is itself LGBT+ inclusive.

Key Recommendations from the Panel:

  1. Systematic data collection and monitoring – Ensuring that service providers and local authorities are collecting reliable data on sexual orientation, gender identity and trans status is a critical first step. This will require attention on the service provider side (training to ensure that staff clearly understand why it is being collected, and are able to communicate this), and in building trust with LGBT+ service users so they feel comfortable disclosing this (perhaps via active outreach in culturally relevant settings and publicly displaying the inclusivity of the service).
  2. Designing ‘in’ LGBT+ people – LGBT+ specific needs, as well as the intersectional needs of people who are LGBT+ are rarely considered in the design of statutory services, and it is often left to third sector providers to fill this gap, meaning that LGBT+ people outside of London, Manchester and Brighton are often underserved. Requiring that homelessness services be audited for their LGBT+ inclusivity by local authorities would be an important step to address this.
  3. Resources – Many members of the panel work for organisations providing statutory services, however, are forced to self-fund or crowdfund for the basics. Funding that does come from local authorities is often insecure, and when budgets are squeezed, it rarely lasts. Given that LGBT+ homelessness organisations are currently barely scratching the surface of need, it is critical that they are funded appropriately to deliver their services without being forced to hop between small pots of short-term funding.

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