BLOG: The consequences of erasing LGBT2+ people from narratives of homelessness
Rae Rosenberg (he/him) is a Lecturer in the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh. He holds a Ph.D. in Critical Human Geography from York University and his work […]
Published: 23 Jun, 2023

Rae Rosenberg (he/him) is a Lecturer in the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh. He holds a Ph.D. in Critical Human Geography from York University and his work explores the contestations of living and forms of resistance amongst multiply-marginalized LGBTQ2+ people. His writing is published in journals such as Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Urban Studies, and Urban Geography.

This blog explores the consequences of excluding LGBTQ2+ individuals from discussions on homelessness, highlighting the intersecting challenges faced by LGBTQ2+ youth experiencing housing precarity and the need for comprehensive support to address the origins of homelessness.

There is a general acknowledgement of some unique vulnerabilities amongst people who are experiencing homelessness: age (notably children, young people, and older people), gender (specifically women), and mental health. While the histories, contexts, and conditions of homelessness are unique across the world (and even within the same country), what is often consistent is the consequence of this limited understanding of who people are while they are experiencing homelessness. One of the ways this comes to light is through the experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Two-Spirit[1], and more (LGBTQ2+) people who are precariously housed.

As a trained geographer (no, I don’t really do maps or mapping, and if you ask me where places are in the world you’ll be disappointed!), I am broadly interested in the ways people experience the spaces they inhabit. My doctoral research in Toronto, Canada explored the relationship between LGBTQ2+ youth experiencing homelessness and the city’s officially-branded gay village. Amongst other research methods for this qualitative study, I interviewed 29 LGBTQ2+ youth who were experiencing homelessness, 11 employees of LGBTQ2+ non-profit organisations, and 11 employees at city services that related to underhousing (such as shelters, City Hall, youth services, and community housing). While the research focused on youth’s experiences of a particular neighbourhood, it also involved broader conversations about services for underhoused youth and the various challenges that LGBTQ2+ youth encounter while seeking support.

A common root of these challenges is the singular understanding of people who are experiencing homelessness. There is a limited appreciation of how experiences of homelessness are also shaped by multiple and intersecting social categories (race, ethnicity, class, national origin and migration status, gender, sexual orientation – the list goes on). While there was, for example, some awareness of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations amongst certain employees within municipal institutions, city service staff routinely commented on the scarce and outdated education and training, and insufficient communication, about LGBTQ2+ identities and queer/transphobia. As a result, shelters and other city services that are available for youth experiencing homelessness can be unsupportive at best, but more commonly hostile and violent, for LGBTQ2+ youth.

Issues around hostility and violence for LGBTQ2+ youth in the shelter system often stem from others staying in shelters. As one city employee shared with me:

“being out is dangerous within the shelter system, often in places where you’re sharing, you know, sleeping space, washroom space….”

LGBTQ2+ youth experiencing homelessness try to avoid using shelters due to concerns with safety and privacy. Many youth recalled being stared at, ostracised, and receiving underhanded comments about LGBTQ2+ people (or the outright use of slurs) when they stayed in shelters. One trans-feminine youth of colour reflected that in the shelter:

“I felt very secluded, very anti-social ‘cause it wasn’t really LGBTQ-friendly or safe. Like, there were posters, and staff were doing their job… but the way [others] talk to you was horrible. The way they treated you was horrible.”

Another common experience was LGBTQ2+ youth having their belongings stolen. The items that were stolen were often specific and highly personal, including feminine clothing (for trans women or trans feminine people), IDs, and pictures of loved ones. For one trans woman whose clothes and ID were stolen, she could no longer access her hormone prescription or easily book a family doctor without her ID. Due to the effects of being off hormones and losing the feminine clothes that fit her, she felt increasingly judged and unsafe in women’s shelters. Ultimately, she chose to exit the shelter system and forego the safety net of that temporary housing.

Almost all LGBTQ2+ youth participants who lived in shelters chose to leave and give up their temporary housing. Shifting into public spaces or couch surfing exposes LGBTQ2+ youth to additional risk factors, especially youth with multiply-marginalised identities (such as trans women, Indigenous LGBTQ2+ youth, LGBTQ+ youth of colour, and LGBTQ2+ migrant youth). Black and Indigenous LGBTQ2+ youth experienced more attention from police than those who were white. Trans women, feminine, and LGBTQ2+ youth of colour reported more instances of sexual harassment, stalking, and violence from adults.

Approaching youth homelessness through only two categories – age and housing precarity – provides a significant disservice to LGBTQ2+ youth who are precariously housed. Racism, queer/transphobia, misogyny, xenophobia, and housing precarity intersect in powerful ways, in every type of setting – rural, suburban, small cities, global cities. However, failing to acknowledge and address these aspects within the lives of people experiencing homelessness leads to serious consequences. Recognising that LGBTQ2+ youth are disproportionately prone to experiencing homelessness, these intersections of identity and power must be accounted for if we want to effectively address the origins of housing precarity, support all people experiencing underhousing, and generate robust knowledge about homelessness.

[1] Two-Spirit is an umbrella term encompassing diverse gender and sexual identities amongst Indigenous peoples.

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