In the past year, over 39,000 applications for help were made to Scottish local authorities from households at risk of becoming homeless. That risk has risen by 10% over the same period, partly as a consequence of the cost-of-living crisis. It is thought that many more homeless people – especially young people who don’t know that help exists or how to apply for it – go beneath the radar. According to a leading charity Stonewall, almost one in five LGBTQ+ people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, with the highest rates for transgender people at 25%.
A high risk of homelessness
Why is homelessness among LGBTQ+ people so common? There are multiple reasons. Young people in this group, especially if they are transgender, face a significant risk of being rejected by their families and having to move out before they have a means of supporting themselves. In some cases, there is a stark choice between facing violence at home or trying to get by on the streets. Crisis highlights that 77% of young LGBTQ+ people gave ‘family rejection, abuse or being asked to leave home’ as a cause of their homelessness.For others, it’s the local community which presents a threat, while still others simply feel lonely in isolated places, not knowing anybody else like them, and move to cities without good support systems in place.
Moving to cities increases the chances of young LGBTQ+ people finding accepting communities, but historically it has increased the risk of homelessness because of the need to have an established connection to a local area, in order to apply for housing there. In 2017 Scotland’s Homelessness Task Force recommended abolishing this regulation. Since then the situation has improved, but it’s difficult to tell by how much because the Scottish Government – despite the recommendations of experts – doesn’t publish figures on this group.
Too little information
In the absence of specific recommendations from the government, data collection on LGBTQ+ homeless people is sporadic, with some councils seeing it as a priority and others doing nothing. The problem is compounded by a lack of sensitivity training for officials coming into contact with homeless people, which means that individuals may feel unsafe to be open about their sexual orientation or gender, or feel unable to explain if there is no specific question about it when they are asked how they became homeless.
Without this information, experts warn, it is difficult to generate useful action on the problem at a national level. This leads to a lack of targeted initiatives which could help to resolve the issue, and inadequate distribution of resources.
A problem of perception
One advantage that LGBTQ+ people in Scotland have over their counterparts elsewhere in the UK is that Scotland does not automatically prioritise families when it comes to providing solutions, but instead looks at each case on its merits. LGBTQ+ people often fail to seek help, however, because they expect to be seen as a low priority, or because they have had negative experiences in the past when dealing with service providers. Reflecting on research in England, Professor Peter Matthews of the University of Stirling said that even where there was no intentional hostility, providers sometimes said inappropriate things and services were not very inclusive. He stressed, however, that once people came into contact with Scottish services, they were often pleasantly surprised.
“We got quite a few people who had very positive experiences through the system, yes, they experienced homelessness, but then they’d end up in quite highly supportive environments after that. Particularly youth homelessness services, supportive accommodation, where there were some extremely positive experiences of real amazing support by staff that really helped people to transition through a very positive experience.
“One of the recommendations from my research was that there was just a need to ensure that mainstream services were inclusive. I didn’t find in my research that there was a need for LGBT specific services.”
Some people struggle to move away from street homelessness and squatting because it can mean moving away from their support networks, but Prof. Matthews says that’s not as much of an issue as they may assume.
“What did come through in the interviews in my research and also with other research with LGBT homeless people who’ve been in supportive accommodation is they find queer communities within that accommodation. Rather than the homelessness being the thing that glued them together, it was actually their queer identities that were the glue that held them together.”
Long term challenges
One of the biggest problems facing LGBTQ+ homeless people, Prof. Matthews reveals, is making sure that they’re safe in the housing allocated to them.
“Your best route out of homelessness is into social housing and social housing association housing isn’t necessarily in the best bits of cities where young, single people necessarily want to live…We had a trans person who had a transphobic gang attack their flat in an area of Edinburgh and break the windows, and their landlord wasn’t willing to accept it as a hate incident. They didn’t report it as a hate incident. Other trans people were scared of going out at night or would only go out if they were kind of picked up right at their front doors. They didn’t want to walk through where they lived.
“Housing first is often seen as kind of the great utopia of homelessness. Housing first is a good intervention for some people with multiple complex needs who are rough sleeping, but actually, I think the evidence from my project also shows why it could be incredibly negative in isolating people from wider communities that they would get in good quality supported accommodation…for this population, it might not necessarily be the best thing.”
Time for action
Prof. Matthews was not alone in noting that Scotland’s success in getting homeless people off the streets during Covid lockdowns, showing that it could be done again if the political will was there. As we head into winter, for which the charity Shelter Scotland is running a special appeal, its director, Alison Watson, stressed that nobody should have to be without a home.
“People in Scotland believe in fairness and fighting for what’s right, and we believe everyone in Scotland should have somewhere safe, secure, and affordable to call home,” she said. “However, our broken and biased housing system, coupled with the housing emergency that is devastating lives across the country, means that right now that isn’t the case for many.
“It doesn’t have to be like this. The way to ensure that no one is suffering from homelessness in Scotland is for the First Minister to declare a housing emergency in Scotland, backed up with a plan to end it. We need to see action now.”
If you need support or advice regarding any of the issues in this article you can contact the Stonewall Housing charity, who offer support to LGBTQ+ people with unsafe housing environments and/or homelessness.
We need your help!
The press in our country is dominated by billionaire-owned media, many offshore and avoiding paying tax. We are a citizen journalism publication but still have significant costs.
If you believe in what we do, please consider subscribing to the Bylines Gazette from as little as £2 a month🙏