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Not Safe, Not Sound: Life in temporary accommodation for people who identify as LGBTQ+

  • 5 min read |
  • Posted by Signe Gosmann
  • On 30 June 2023

Even nine months was too long, it was just horrendous

For this pride month, we have been looking into LGBTQ+ and homelessness. Research from Stonewall shows that almost one in five people who identify as LGBT have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. The number is even higher for those who identify as trans. Given that the current LGBTQ+ population in the UK is estimated to be somewhere between 3% and 5%, these numbers are significant.

To get a better understanding of their particular experiences in temporary accommodation, we interviewed four people who have experienced homelessness and identify in different ways as not straight. We also spoke to five service providers of LGBTQ+ homelessness services.

This is the second blog to come out of this research. The first focused on the experiences of entering into the homelessness system. Not all do; many will choose to sofa surf or stay in unhealthy or dangerous situations, while others don’t make it past the first hurdle when approaching the council for help.

For those who do, mainstream temporary accommodation, or TA, is by far the most common outcome as there are very few LGBTQ+ specific refuges.

What is Temporary Accommodation

TA is accommodation that houses multiple individuals and families, often with shared facilities such as bathrooms and kitchen. This may be a hostel, an HMO or a B&B, populated by a mix of people with varying needs, from substance misuse and a history of violence to families with children who lost their home as their landlord wanted to sell up. Some are single sex, but the majority are mixed.

Most people who end up in TA have experienced some kind of trauma, whether that is due to domestic abuse or the experience of losing your home. TA is provided to give respite from a difficult situation while waiting for a stable home. Unfortunately it doesn’t always feel like respite; many suffer with physical and mental health in TA and end up staying for extended periods of time in this kind of accommodation.

Few local authorities are able to provide details on the number of LGBTQ+ identifying people they have placed in TA. The latest official statistics based on H-CLIC data gathered when households present as homeless do give an opportunity to record the sexual orientation of the lead applicant, but almost a quarter of applicants 'prefer not to say,' and there are no records pertaining to gender identity. Despite the overrepresentation of LGBTQ+ people in the homeless population, service providers are under-prepared to work with people from the LGBTQ+ community.

Queer Experiences of staying in TA

“It was a very traumatic experience, as a gay person I just felt even more vulnerable

While it in some ways has become easier to live openly as an LGBTQ+ identifying person since the Sexual Offences Act legalised homosexuality in 1967, homophobic and transphobic discrimination is still rife. This is not least the case in temporary accommodation. Speaking to people who work in LGBTQ+ homelessness services, we were told that spending time in mainstream TA can be particularly detrimental for people who identify as LGBTQ+, as they can face mental and physical abuse due to their identity.

Of the four LGBTQ+ identifying people we interviewed with experience of staying in TA, two identified as trans, one as a lesbian woman and one as a gay man. Two live with a physical disability, which was not considered when they were placed in TA. All four had mental health issues of varying degrees and severity. Each of them had experiences that were particular to them, but there were some common themes.

“It was mainly older men and I just felt so insecure”

None of the people we spoke to had an easy time in TA. At the extreme end, one trans identifying person was sexually assaulted while in a hostel. Less extreme, and yet devastating in its own way, three of the four people we interviewed experienced verbal abuse, and all four felt they needed to be hypervigilant due to their gender or sexuality as they didn’t feel it was safe to live openly.

“People think we are like sex toys, we can do anything. It is not safe being homeless in a hostel, living with many people”

Hiding Your Identity

It just feels like you’re not there really because you’re just putting on such a completely alien persona that the person you really are is not there, like you’ve been erased

When confronted with homophobia or transphobia in the general public, many will understandably choose to hide their identity or hope to be able to remove themselves from the situation. When it is experienced in the family home, it is traumatising and often leads to homelessness. Once homeless, safe options are almost non-existent.

“It’s not a nice thing for anybody to hide their identity, it’s the most painful thing. It’s like we are living for other people... you lose yourself... It starts anxiety, depression and it leads to trauma. Once you are traumatised, it is very hard to recover”

In TA, where you have to live alongside those who may harass you, sometimes sharing bathrooms, it is difficult to remove yourself and so most people who identify as not straight try to hide their identity. All four interviewees spoke of the pain of not being able to live openly, and the effect it had on their mental health. For some, it became an extension of what they had experienced in the family home, the very situation they had left in order to feel safe.

“I lost everything back home because of my sexuality, but still I am trying to be open”

Much of this is known anecdotally. One service provider told us of a situation with a trans client being assessed by a housing officer who advised against TA, as they knew it to be a transphobic environment.

How the situation can be improved

I was in the closet for so long that I never wanted to have that insecurity again where I can’t be who I am

Nobody should have to live with the fear of being abused or harassed for who they are. Where women fleeing domestic abuse can go to a women only refuge, although all too often there isn’t enough space, people identifying as LGBTQ+ experiencing homelessness have even fewer dedicated spaces across the country.

What is needed is for the LGBTQ+ community experiencing homelessness to have access to LGBTQ+ specific TA, and for housing officers and the wider, mainstream support sector to be trained in LGBTQ+ issues around homelessness so they are able to provide appropriate support and signpost on to specialist services. The lack of training and understanding can result in staff being queerphobic, and not prioritising intervening in incidents of discrimination from other service users.

Further, we need more research into what it is like for this community to be placed in TA so we can design appropriate services and turn anecdotes into evidence. Local authorities also need to design data collection processes that count members of the LGBTQ+ community, allowing them to describe their gender and sexuality as they choose, so we can begin to understand the true scale of how this community is affected by homelessness. It is far too easy to turn a blind eye to things we don’t know about.