Mental Health Awareness Month: Supporting LGBTQIA+ Youth Experiencing Homeslessness

As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, Politics Editor Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin explores the impact of homelessness on mental health, and how we can better support queer youth experiencing housing instability.

ILLUSTRATIONS Aude Nasr

Content warning: mentions of homophobia, transphobia, abuse, gender dysphoria, and mental health issues.

Many of the conversations around Mental Health Awareness Month centre ways to support those experiencing mental health issues, either through encouraging individuals to self-regulate and to ask for help, or through raising awareness of the ways in which mental health support services can better serve the public. While discussions around these topics are paramount in providing crucial care, there is often a lack of focus on addressing the surrounding interlinked factors that have a significant negative impact on people’s mental health. One such factor is homelessness – and it disproportionately affects LGBTQIA+ individuals.

Countless studies have indicated that queer youth are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health issues. According to new research by Just Like Us, an LGBTQIA+ young people’s charity, young queer people are three times as likely to self-harm and twice as likely to contemplate suicide than non-LGBTQIA+ young people. Along with societal stigma, discrimination, and gender dysphoria, the mental health of queer individuals can also be impacted by familial rejection and subsequent housing instability. In fact, a staggering 92 percent of young people surveyed by LGBTQ+ youth homelessness charity, Albert Kennedy Trust (akt), said that being homeless had a negative impact on their mental health. Not only can unsafe or inaccessible housing create stress and anxiety amongst young people, but it can also bring about relationship problems and feed into feelings of loneliness and low self-esteem. Moreover, noisy, crowded, uncomfortable, or chaotic sleeping conditions may lead to disordered or unsatisfactory sleep patterns, leading to worsening mental health.

Along with societal stigma, discrimination, and gender dysphoria, the mental health of queer individuals can also be impacted by familial rejection and subsequent housing instability.

Young people face a unique predicament in coming out of the closet, wherein their safety and security are, more often than not, dependent on their family’s acceptance of their identities. Unfortunately, a significant proportion of queer youth do not receive adequate support from family and risk being thrown out of their home or having to leave for the sake of their safety – LGBTQIA+ youth currently account for 24% of the UK’s youth homelessness population. Along with rejection, which in itself is severely harmful to queer youth’s mental health, far too many individuals also face abuse, discrimination, and abuse from family – experiences that can lead to and sustain homelessness, thus exposing individuals to further violence and exploitation. According to the LGBTQ+ Youth Homelessness Report, compiled by akt, only 13 percent of LGBTQIA+ youth surveyed felt supported by parents or stepparents while homeless, and almost two thirds (61 per cent) felt frightened or threatened by their family members before they became homeless.

Reported figures are even more alarming for people of colour, people of faith and trans youth. Only 12 percent of youth of colour felt supported by extended family, compared to 18 percent of white respondents, and only 8 percent of young people of faith felt supported by their extended family, compared to 19 percent from non-faith backgrounds. Moreover, while one in six (16 per cent) of LGBTQIA+ young people who were happy to answer were forced to do sexual acts against their will by family members before they became homeless, this number rises to 17 percent for trans youth.

92%

of young people said being homeless had a negative impact on their mental health.

13%

of LGBTQIA+ youth surveyed felt supported by parents or stepparents while homeless.

2/3

of LGBTQIA+ youth felt frightened or threatened by their family members before they became homeless.

This report puts the voices of queer young people who have experienced any kind of homelessness – from sofa surfing to rough sleeping – at the heart of the research. However, despite the importance of gaining a more mainstream awareness and understanding of this issue, this is the first research of its kind in the UK, tells Matt Horwood, the Director of Communications and Campaigns at akt.

“This is very indicative of the fact that queer youth homelessness is seen by so many people – from Parliamentarians and the media, to the general public – as too marginal an issue, or is questioned as to why it should be treated differently than broad youth homelessness or broad homelessness generally”, he adds. “What we are trying to get across with this report is that being young and being queer means that your experience of homelessness, as well as your trajectory to becoming homeless, is specific and needs to be addressed as such.”

“Being homeless doesn’t feel good…”

Faz – a trans Muslim person of Pakistani-Iranian heritage – used akt’s services in 2015 after experiencing homelessness aged 23. Following the death of both his parents, Faz experienced severe gender dysphoria, depression, and left the family home to seek out a comfortable space in which to undergo transition. Unfortunately, his trans identity and race were almost weaponised against him by mainstream housing support services, and were used to create barriers to his ability to seek crucial help.

The housing officer implied that Faz’s transness was a choice and suggested that he should simply go back home and keep his identity “under wraps”.

It was very difficult to go to the Housing Office for the first time, having to share my identity with an external person beyond my support group, and for their reaction to be almost as if I should be criminalised for going to them”, shares Faz. Upon hearing that Faz had left home as he did not feel safe transitioning in an environment, the housing officer implied that his transness was a choice and suggested that he should simply go back and keep his identity “under wraps”. 

“There’s no choice. You don’t choose to walk around in a binder; you don’t choose for your ribs to be bruised”, Faz adds. “You don’t choose to have severe dysphoria or such bad mental health that you cancel on your friends and stay in your room for four hours at a time. You don’t choose to do that.”

Not only did Faz experience microaggressions related to his gender, he also recalls that he was at further risk due to religious and cultural pressures, and the open-plan layout of the homelessness unit in a predominantly Brown and Muslim neighbourhood. The service did not carry out any risk assessments at the time and he was merely sent away with a leaflet on applying for private renting. By the time that he became aware of akt’s services, Faz had become “numb” to his own experiences, weary from countless retellings as he was sent from one shelter or charity to another. All of this only contributed further to his declining mental health.

Being homeless doesn’t feel good but the lack of support I received only played deeper into this narrative. If I didn’t get the support that I did at akt, I don’t know if I’d be here today.

Faz

“It’s so easy for your mental health to fall off when you don’t feel like you have a sense of place or belonging. I was in such a bad place in my life”, says Faz. “Being homeless doesn’t feel good but the lack of support I received only played deeper into this narrative. If I didn’t get the support that I did at akt, I don’t know if I’d be here today.”

The service that Faz was provided with at akt was unique in that it catered to him as an individual and was “trauma-informed but strength-based”, he recalls. He only stayed with akt for three months, but this was long enough for him to develop transferable life skills, secure his first proper job, and reach a better place with his mental health. Now, Faz is a Trustee at the trust and has recently reconnected with his family.

“It was so important for me to walk through that door at akt and work with a support worker who looked like me, who was Brown – and to see a trans support worker – it was so important”, tells Faz. “It was beautiful that akt didn’t see me as a sad sob story – that’s not what you want to be – they saw me as a person who was good at motivating people.”

Improving support services

Unfortunately, Faz’s experiences with mainstream support services are not uncommon. akt’s LGBTQ+ Youth Homelessness Report shows that over half (59 percent) of LGBTQIA+ young people have faced some form of discrimination or harassment while accessing services. Moreover, of those who were comfortable responding, three in 10 (30 percent) of LGBTQIA+ young people felt like the services they accessed did not understand what to support them with because of their LGBTQIA+ identity and, more specifically for trans and non-binary youth, one fifth (20 percent) had experienced misgendering or dead-naming while accessing services. The links between homelessness and mental health become even more apparent when one considers that over a third (39 percent) of young people surveyed by akt had faced discrimination from services due to an illness, disability, or mental health condition.

“I worry about how many people feel invalidated by the lack of state support and return to abusive homes and other dangerous housing options. The risk of abuse towards our community is neglectfully overlooked by statutory services”, says Carla Ecola, co-Director of The Outside Project, an LGBTIQA+ community shelter and domestic abuse refuge for people of all ages. “It’s certainly a discriminatory system, particularly if you have intersections of being LGBTIQA+ and a person of colour (PoC), trans, or have any support needs. Neglect towards young people who are fleeing abuse seems to be a systemic failure regardless of sexuality, but this affects our community disproportionately due to young people ‘coming out’ in unsupportive homes.”

59%

of LGBTQIA+ young people have faced some form of discrimination or harassment while accessing services.

1/5

of trans and non-binary youth had experienced misgendering or dead-naming while accessing services.

39%

of young people surveyed by akt had faced discimination from services due to an illness, disability, or mental health condition.

The Outside Project (TOP) has a crisis shelter, refuge, and community centre, Carla tells, where they carry out as much outreach as possible to support members of the community who are experiencing a housing crisis. Last year, TOP opened an emergency hotel provision in response to the pandemic that ran until February this year and was predominantly used by Black and Brown youth. Now, the team is collaborating with other LGBTIQA+ community housing and campaigning organisations on campaigning for more space and equality in LGBTIQA+ housing services nationwide.

Our collective voice is more powerful in highlighting the systematic discrimination experienced by LGBTIQA+ people in London who engage with our organisations.

Anna Kear, CEO of Tonic Housing

The London LGBTIQA+ Community Housing Coalition (LLCHC) – consisting of akt, Micro Rainbow, TOP, Stonewall Housing, Tonic Housing, Consortium, and Stonewall – was set up to challenge the chronic lack of provision for LGBTIQA+ community housing in London. Recently, the coalition published a Manifesto to ask the Mayor of London, newly re-elected Sadiq Khan, to undertake steps in order to address the specific issues, needs, and disadvantages that face many LGBTIQA+ individuals in London, especially those who are most disadvantaged due to precarious housing status. These requests included producing an LGBTIQA+ Housing Strategy for London,  funding LGBTIQA+ awareness training for commissioners and delivery staff, and working with local councils to build a London-wide support network of accommodation and support services for LGBTIQA+ people.

“We created this Manifesto to explain the changes that we need to see, and what action is required to bring down the barriers that cause them”, tells Anna Kear, CEO of Tonic Housing, a community-led business creating LGBT+ affirmative retirement communities. “Our collective voice is more powerful in highlighting the systematic discrimination experienced by LGBTIQA+ people in London who engage with our organisations. As well as raising awareness, this coalition is an important entity to enable key organisations to engage with us to make these positive changes.”

Studies have demonstrated that people who felt a sense of belonging had higher levels of mental wellbeing, with a low sense of belonging being a predictor of depression.

A sense of belonging

As social animals, a sense of belonging and home is integral to the way that humans organise themselves and gain perspective on identity and self. Studies have demonstrated that people who felt a sense of belonging had higher levels of mental wellbeing, with a low sense of belonging being a predictor of depression. Along with providing a stable place to put down roots, this sense of belonging is accompanied by reliable social ties, which are crucial in protecting an individual’s mental health when they are experiencing precarious or stressful circumstances.

Therefore, it is clear that in order to tackle the disproportionate level of mental health issues amongst young queer people, we must not only seek distigmatisation around relevant conversations and better mental health services, but also provide sufficient support for queer youth experiencing housing instability. The above research by akt and the recommendations enclosed within the report, as well as the Manifesto compiled by the LLCHC, must be taken into consideration by policy-makers in order to appropriately address the significant impact of homelessness on the mental health of young LGBTQIA+ people in the UK.

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin
Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin

Our Politics Editor, Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin (they/she) is an LGBTIQA+ community organiser and Trustee with the direct action group, Voices4 London, and on the Advisory Board for the social enterprise, Split Banana, who are helping redesign and deliver inclusive relationship and sex-ed.

Prishita’s words have been published in METAL, gal-dem, and Dazed, amongst others. They also recently featured in ‘Soul of a Movement’, a new documentary by British creative directors Carson McColl and Gareth Pugh that documents some of the British LGBTIQ+ activists, artists and allies carrying the revolutionary fire of the Stonewall Uprising today.

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