“Will you buy us a cup of tea?” my friend Patrick [not real name] asks as we walk down Berwick Street in Soho. “Three sugars.” Patrick is 52 years old and has been living on and off the streets for 23 years. “Christmastime is hard because I feel so far away from my mam and my brother. It’s also great, in a way, because people are pissed all the time so they’re more likely to give you some cash.”
Patrick is gay. Gay as in homosexual, and gay as in happy, too. The latter might sound at odds with Patrick’s situation, “but every day I stay clean and stay out of trouble is another day I can stay singing.” He was exiled from his working class, devout Catholic family over two decades ago after he came out to them as a homosexual, and after numerous counts of trying to get back in contact with any relation, they still don’t want anything to do with him. We sit for a while and he tells me about his Christmas plans — he’s going to be sheltered for two nights, and he’s excited because he’ll be able to have a Christmas dinner. “I love being gay. I didn’t always because I had to give up my whole family… so much abuse… but now I love it. And people love me too… they love my singing.”
While Patrick is brilliantly positive, we’ve also had chance meetings where he’s in the middle of a panic attack or an extremely paranoid episode. Years living on the street and harsh familial rejection have made him unlikely to give up his trust easily, but he knows I’m writing this and is happy to be talking about it.
Patrick is unique, but his situation certainly isn’t. A report by the Albert Kennedy Trust in 2015 showed that LGBT people make up a quarter (24%) of the young homeless. Bear in mind that Stonewall estimates that 5-7% of the UK population identifies as LGBT, meaning that LGBT people are six times overrepresented among homeless youth. There aren’t any available statistics for people Patrick’s age.
So why does homelessness affect the lives of LGBT people more frequently than those of our heterosexual counterparts? Well, the main reasons are, distressingly, unsurprising: familial rejection, abuse within the family and exposure to violence as a result of sexual orientation or gender identity, with 77% stating that coming out to their parents was the main factor in their being made homeless.
In 2016, after government cuts and financial mismanagement, came the closure of Pace and Broken Rainbow — targeted service providers which catered to LGBTQIA+ people’s needs. With the percentage of mainstream providers who offer specific LGBTQIA+ care dropping from 11% to 1%, according to the Albert Kennedy Trust, it means that oftentimes LGBTQIA+ people might find it difficult to seek shelter in a place that doesn’t cater to them. For example, these non-targeted services split bedrooms into male and female, but for gender non-binary and some transgender homeless people, the act of either choosing, being misgendered, or fielding violence from other service users can prove a more traumatic task than spending a night on the streets.
Patrick recalls days of heroin use and hustling as we talk, but doesn’t want me to write any more than that. And yet again, Patrick’s example is reflective of other unsheltered members of the LGBTQIA+ community — who are significantly more likely to experience sexual and physical violence, sexual exploitation, substance misuse and physical and mental health issues than other homeless people.
And as Christmas approaches, connections switch off and the streets are vacated in favour of warm couches in front of Wallace and Gromit, LGBTQIA+ homelessness surges. “Our community are more likely to experience domestic abuse and hate crime in general, but throw in a Christian festival that centres on heteronormativity, and a religion that has historically condemned the queer community as immoral and sinful – the more problematic it becomes,” Carla from The Outside Project explains. “The pressure to get together, ‘fit in’ for the sake of ‘family togetherness’ and be happy over the season can exacerbate conflicts. Add alcohol into the mix, generally expected at this time of year, and you have a recipe for family breakdowns. For those struggling with substance and alcohol use, there’s increased pressure and desire to use — and the support services are also less available over the holidays.”
The Outside Project is a 12-bed crisis/homeless shelter specifically for the LGBTQIA+ community. Based on a tour bus (Status Quo’s old one, in fact) in east London, they are an “identity responsive service” — which means if you identify as anything other than cisgender or heterosexual, you are welcome. From overnight sheltering to sober spaces, workshops, events, festivals and a community HUB, the group of activists, colleagues and friends who set up The Outside Project want to offer support and shelter, but also a place for members of the community to reconnect and integrate with the wider LGBTQIA+ community. It's a community-run project, supported by fundraising and a crowdfunder, which you can donate to here.
For Christmas, the group is offering services around the clock. “We’ve been given our own identity responsive space to sleep at Crisis at Christmas. We wanted to take the bus there but we were a bit late in the game for that. Perhaps next year! We'll also be running an LGBTIQ+ community HUB in the Crisis centre during the day to try and welcome our community into the project and signpost them to the LGBTIQ+ specific services they need.”
“If you’re alone and struggling, reach out, or join us at Crisis at Christmas,” Carla advises. “Call a helpline. Take a break when you can from toxic or stressful situations. If you are experiencing abuse or hate crime, or being at home is unsafe, the following organisations* can help. We advise people to contact the police if they feel they are in imminent danger, with the understanding that that doesn’t always feel possible or may even feel like it is the least safe option.”
And what can you do if you’re not at risk? “Don't sit at tables with homophobic or transphobic people just because it's Christmas or you don't think it's your place to raise the fact that one of your relatives is bullied, ostracised or missing,” Carla finishes. “It's not enough to just not be abusive; please don't be passive to others’ abusive behaviour.”
From the micro to the macro, there are loads of ways to help. You can volunteer, donate money or “warm clothes, bath towels, mobile phones with chargers, strong luggage/backpacks and an endless supply of socks”.
Ultimately, The Outside Project is looking for a permanent home. “Our community are more likely to experience domestic abuse, hate crime, mental health and addiction issues — all top causes of crisis and homelessness. When you look into the research alongside the ongoing persecution of our community in the press for using gendered spaces and services — I have no idea why we haven't had a shelter in the UK before.”
Me neither, although systematic underfunding of LGBTQIA+ services is, sadly, no longer so shocking. The evidence that homelessness among LGBTQIA+ people is hugely disproportionate suggests it’s high time something was done. And that something is The Outside Project. So instead of dashing to grab that Gucci bag in the Boxing Day sales, take a look at all the ways you can help here.
“What do you want for Christmas?” I ask Patrick. “A room and a boyfriend,” he chuckles, “but not necessarily in that order!”