A HIDDEN MINORITY
As of November 2022, the number of people registered as homeless in Ireland reached the highest on record - 11,397 without a home. Adding to the causes for concern about this issue is the immense cohort that remains statistically underrepresented - the LGBTQ+ community. Joe Drennan reports.
The exact amount of queer people in need of or accessing homeless services is unknown, due to a lack of research in an Irish context. As well as that, LGBTQ+ folk feel the need to disguise their identity for their safety while in emergency accommodation- and some feel they can never reveal their identity at all. This makes the community all the more difficult to reach, and therefore assist.
A new three-year plan aims to end homelessness for young people aged 18-24. The Youth Homelessness Strategy report highlights the key roles that prevention and exit strategies play, while also outlining the need to improve emergency accommodation for service users. The LGBTQ+ community was recognised as a disproportionately represented cohort in youth homelessness, so specific needs, including barriers LGBTQ+ people face while accessing homeless services, were accentuated within the strategy.
Adam Spollen, Policy Officer with FOCUS Ireland, lead the elements of the Youth Homelessness Strategy pertaining to the queer community. Discussing the need for LGBTQ+ people to be represented in tackling the problem, he shared “it is an intersectional issue. People need to be aware of the needs of the various communities that are affected by homelessness. And the service providers need to be capable of addressing their needs.”
FOCUS Ireland commissioned the first piece of research on Irish LGBTQ+ homelessness. The 2020 report revealed a lack of consensus among policymakers and services provider representatives about the scale of queer people affected by homelessness. In fact, Canadian research from John Ecker estimates that members of the LGBTQ+ community could make up anywhere between 8 to 37 percent of the total youth homeless population.
There are a few reasons why this figure proves so difficult to attain. The most concerning is the reluctance of service users to disclose their LGBTQ+ identity over fears to personal safety. One such example is of a young gay man living in an emergency accommodation in Dublin who revealed in an interview with GCN, he wasn’t comfortable to be out as gay. “I feel like a lot of people who are accessing the hostels have to hide themselves, just in case someone says something to them, or they get bashed.”
The need for LGBTQ+ people to hide their identity while accessing emergency accommodation was highlighted in the Youth Homelessness Strategy. These concerns aren’t groundless, as a service user described an incident where he was attacked for simply turning on the light.
“I came into the room, and I turned on the light switch. A guy jumped up off the bed, picked me up by the throat and slammed me into the wall. He was screaming at me, saying things like ‘You don’t know who I am,’ So after that, I just called the freephone again and asked them to put me into a different hostel.”
Due to concerns for his personal safety, the source has lived in several different hostels since the start of this year alone. He said that “in some of them there’d be people doing drugs in the room and drinking and stuff. You’d be in rooms with five, or six other people. They could be starting fights in the room, anything like that. I’ve been in five or six different hostels. I had to keep getting on to the freephone, and they’d just put me into a different one.”
Regarding specific services for LGBTQ+ people, he said, “I don’t believe there are services out there that help if you’re from this minority group. I don’t know any of them. The only thing I know is what I’m labelled as, and that’s homeless.”
The support worker helping this young man added, “I’ve had many people come in and they’re afraid to say that they’re gay. It’s the fear of being bashed or picked on, and it’s really frightening for them. They’re going through enough, some of them might be thrown out of their homes because of being gay. Then they come in for help and then they’re targeted again.
“There’s been a few times over the years where people have disclosed this information and it took them a long time. I’ve had people from Trinity College that I’ve worked with end up with alcohol addiction because they couldn’t tell their families they were gay. I’ve seen too much of it over the years. I don’t think there are enough services to help them.”
There are two particular programmes run by FOCUS Ireland that prioritise the needs of queer people. These are the Extension Service, a drop-in facility in Dublin’s City Centre, as well as Caretakers, which caters to young people under the age of 18 experiencing homelessness. In the centres, staff are trained in LGBTQ+ awareness and they recognise the specific challenges that our community can face while accessing services.
The Youth Homelessness Strategy has highlighted the need for these types of staff training . Talking about the Extension Service and Caretakers, Adam Spollen added, “The work that’s being done by the staff there serves as a model for what we want all services to be like. But that’s just two services in a huge myriad within Dublin and within the country. So, in terms of visibility of services, it’s next to none.”
Fortunately, the buy-in for the Youth Homelessness Strategy has been unanimous. Service providers have acknowledged the dire situation for LGBTQ+ people, with prevention and exit strategies being recognised as the key to solving the ever-growing issue. Included in these strategies are family mediation teams, which are employed to resolve familial matters that can lead to relationship breakdown and subsequent homelessness. This is a crucial method of prevention since FOCUS Ireland’s research in 2020 highlighted evidence linking coming out within intimate family spheres with becoming homeless. Another method is employing tenancy support workers with awareness of LGBTQ+-specific issues like discrimination in the private rental sector. This has been identified as something that affects the trans community at a disproportionate level.
Above all, anti-discrimination stipulations within homeless service provider policies are critical. Spollen explained that emergency accommodation policies shouldn’t settle for a general anti-discrimination ethos: “It needs to be stronger than that. It needs to be part of the culture; it needs to be discussed openly. The way I’d put it is that it needs to be made clear to anyone who’s using this service that the service exists for the safety of its service users. So, making it clear to a service user that this is a place of safety for you, but it’s also a place of safety for the LGBTQ+ people that are also using it.”
The humanitarian issue of homelessness in this country can be credited to one problem above the rest – a lack of empathy. Though this may seem to be a trivial way to denote the origins of such a complex societal challenge, there is a unanimous call among service providers and users that a lack of empathy lies at the heart of it. Sources accessing homeless services interviewed for this report are in agreement with one another that they are stereotyped and depicted by society in the same way. Not many outside of the homeless sector can see the achievements of these people, despite their challenges. One such example is the young gay man interviewed earlier, who has overcome near-unfathomable difficulties to better his confidence and self-esteem, resulting in his being presented the Gaisce award, the most prestigious youth award in Ireland.
Asked about his own views on the human emergency of homelessness in this country, he concluded, “I just hope it gets better.”