How do we ensure homeless services are safe spaces for LGBTQ+ staff and service users?

Thursday, 3 August 2017 - 5:41pm

Addison Barnett, Coordinator of St Mungo’s LGBTQ+ Network, discusses the links between LGBTQ+ issues and homelessness. 

Rainbow flag

What links LGBTQ+ issues and ending homelessness?

In the homelessness sector, we often work with people when they are at their most vulnerable and mistrusting of help. We have to make sure that everyone, no matter their gender identity or sexuality, can access our services and feel safe.

77% of young homeless LGBTQ+ people believed their sexual or gender identity was a causal factor in being rejected from their home. LGBTQ+ people demonstrate a higher likelihood of being substance dependent and are twice as likely as heterosexual people to have suicidal thoughts or to attempt suicide. 48% of trans people under 25 and 35% of trans adults have attempted suicide.

After the UK referendum vote, hate crimes including violent attacks towards LGBTQ+ people increased by 147%. This means our services must actively address homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, and create environments where people of different sexualities and gender identities feel that they are in the right place to step forward in their recovery.

Service users (and homelessness sector staff) are affected by hostility, discrimination and even abuse because of their sexuality or gender identity. This can range from ignorance and exclusion; to active discrimination such as same-sex couples being refused services from housing providers, or transgender clients being asked unnecessary and personal questions during assessments.

A question that many LGBTQ+ people ask themselves when they enter any support service is “is this a safe space for me?”. For those who are more vulnerable e.g. people sleeping rough, are destitute, or substance users, this plays an even more pivotal role in how they will respond. The challenge for services it twofold: 1) how do we make sure our service is a safe space, and 2) how do we ensure service users know this? If an LGBTQ+ person doesn’t know your organisation or service is safe, why would they even come through the door?

Five ways homelessness services can be safer spaces for LGBTQ+ people:

  1. Visible commitment to LGBTQ+ inclusion. Service users need to see overt, visible indicators that your service is a safe space. Imagine your service is being accessed for the first time by an LGBTQ+ service user. Would they see local LGBTQ+ services advertised? How would they know that LGBTQ-phobic language from other service users (or staff) will be challenged?
  2. Model best practice in your workplace. Attend training, share ideas, and if you are a manager or service head, be willing to lead from the front. Involve clients – how can they help co-produce an environment that is safe for everyone? Embrace a learning culture: we live in a society where LGBTQ-phobic language, ideas and stereotypes can be the norm, and it is easy to use them without thinking. Challenging stereotypes may mean learning new language or terms to use or unlearning old ideas you may have had about the LGBTQ+ community.
  3. Interrogate your own assumptions, be aware of our own ideas and beliefs and be willing to unpick them. Because of these unconscious prejudices and misunderstandings bisexuals, trans and queer people often face more discrimination than lesbians and gay men. As with any service user work, the best approach is to be led by the service user.
  4. Seek training from the experts. There are many LGBTQ+ inclusion trainers, local forums, support charities and local groups to tap into. Connect with them, invite them into your service and learn from their expertise. Taking clients and staff to a local Pride can be a great day out for the service. Everyone is welcome and smaller events are less intimidating than larger Pride events such as Brighton and London.
  5. Seek out specific guidance for working with transgender and gender non-conforming people. Transgender people, especially trans women, are often the most marginalised and attacked group within the LGBTQ+ community. While awareness about lesbian and gay rights has improved significantly in the last twenty years, trans people still face open discrimination, harassment and abuse.

I am proud to work in the homelessness sector, and I genuinely feel lucky to be surrounded by such a diverse and person-centred practice. However, as a bisexual trans man, I have experienced ignorance in unexpected places, and we cannot rest on our laurels. If we are to be genuinely person-centred then we must ensure that everyone, including LGBTQ+ service users, feel safe to be themselves within homelessness services.

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Addison Barnett

Street Legal Project Manager

Addison Barnett is the Coordinator of St Mungo’s LGBTQ+ Network, which provides support, advice and best practice to LGBTQ+ staff and allies across the charity. Now in our 14th year, the network was recently awarded Stonewall Staff Network of the Year 2016.