It would not be an understatement to say we are currently experiencing a homelessness crisis in the UK, especially youth homelessness, particularly due to cuts in Housing Benefit and wider support services. We need to be campaigning and working hard to ensure these changes are reversed, or proposed changes are not implemented. There is also a broad debate about what should be done, although some of the proposed solutions are not necessarily based on the best evidence.
One particular aspect of youth homelessness has quietly grown in prominence - the risk and experience of homelessness among people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans- (LGBT+)(1).
Due to this, there’s a statistic that is used in a very commonplace way in the UK – that a quarter of all young people (16-24 year olds) that are homeless identify as LGBT+. It most recently turned up at the start of an episode of Queer Britain on BBC 3 to frame the rest of the programme. In this post I want to question this statistic.
First of all though, whatever the real number is going to be, it will be almost impossible to accurately get because the two categories involved are difficult to define. I’ll start with the relatively easier one: homelessness. I discussed this in a podcast with my colleague Dr Beth Watts, if you want to know a bit more. Basically this is a definitional question. The UK has a legal definition of homelessness (it varies between the devolved jurisdictions) because when you “fit” into this definition a housing authority (usually your local council) then has a duty to house you(2). Outwith Scotland, this is associated with being “priority need”. Housing authorities do returns on how many people they have assessed as homeless using these definitions which are collated nationally. Local authorities also provide housing advice and homelessness prevention services (such as family mediation). This includes a wider group of people who would not necessarily be homeless under the legal definition.
We know that these numbers massively under-report homelessness because we know the majority of people who experience homelessness don’t access local authority housing services, or actually define themselves as homeless. An additional issue is that most researchers would define homeless as not having somewhere safe and secure to stay. Therefore, people who fell out with their parents and sofa-surfed for a few nights would have experienced homelessness under this definition. Asking survey questions about this is a little tricky, and unlikely to get data that is useful for statistics. This data is collected at a population-level (the Scottish Household Survey has a fiendishly tricky question on it), but you get a very small n (number of respondees) so you can’t do much analysis with.
Now, sexual identity. This is extremely difficult to measure, and probably not for the reasons you think. Epistemologically, many queer theorists would legitimately argue you shouldn’t/couldn’t ask this question, as you’re asking people to put themselves into categories that were invented by a patriarchal, heteronormative society to oppress people. It is wrong to ask people to ascribe themselves labels - such as "homosexual" that they vehemently resent and could cause them harm. The less theoretical issue is a technical issue for survey design: what people do and what people say they are is often a different thing; or as my colleague Dr Kirsten Bessemer put it, it’s when a man says “I’m not gay but my boyfriend is”.
The NATSAL survey in the UK demonstrates how this is an issue among young people. Most population surveys in the UK find that c. 3 per cent of the population are not-heterosexual. NATSAL asks about sexual experiences, romantic attachment and sexual identity and gets wildly different answers. It found that 3 percent of men and 4 per cent of women aged 16-24 would describe themselves as gay or bisexual. However, it found that 7 per cent of men aged 16-24 had had a sexual experience with a man and nearly 3 per cent had had at least one sexual partnership with a man in the past five years. Among women aged 16-24, nearly 19 per cent had had a same-sex sexual experience, and 6.2 per cent had had at least one sexual partnership with a man in the past five years. Based on all this, I’m going to be generous and say 5 per cent of 16-24 year-olds are LGBT+.
I’m using the acronym LGBT+ but I’m only really talking about sexual identity. So, an apology to T+ people – I’m not ignoring you, it’s just there is absolutely no data on gender identity, or other complex sexual and gender identities.
Anyway, we don’t know how many people experience homelessness, and we don’t know how many people are LGBT+. So how can we get anywhere near the 25% figure?
In this section I am going to use statistics from England because a) they’re available b) as the biggest nation in the UK, England is most like the UK statistically and c) because Scotland’s homelessness law complicates things (see note 2).
Mid-year population estimates from the Office of National Statistics tell us there are roughly 6,192,870 16-24 year-olds in England. If we estimate that 5 per cent are LGBT+ then we can say about 309,643 of these are LGBT+.
On homelessness, we can use statistics from the Department of Communities and Local Government. In 2016 local housing authorities declared 13,280 people aged 16-24 homeless – this would miss a lot of people, but would include people who had to leave their parental home because their parents threatened violence, or those with mental health problems. It would miss all those in full-time education. If a quarter of them were LGBT+, that would be 3,320 people, 1 per cent of all LGBT+ people. That’s plausible and would mean LGBT+ people are over-represented in this population.
However, local housing authorities deal with a lot more people through an approach called Housing Options – this is an interview with a housing officer where they work to reduce your risk of homelessness, or prevent your homeless, without going down the statutory route. The number of people given these services are collated by DCLG. This gives a (slightly) more accurate figure of who is homeless. In 2016, 200,610 people aged 16-24 in England used these services. Now, 25 per cent of that would be 50,152. If this were the case, this would mean 16 per cent of young LGBT+ people had experienced homelessness, and again it would mean an over-representation compared to a rate for the non-LGBT people of around three per cent.
As I’ve made clear, this is all very difficult to measure. We even know that the 200,610 people who had accessed Housing Options is an underestimate. Some estimates put youth homelessness (including having to sleep with a friend because you have fallen out with your parents) as high as 25 per cent of all young people. This seems high, but even for me, who lived a pretty middle class life as a teenager, it rings true as a few friends did become homeless during these turbulent years. If we use this figure we could estimate that 1,548,217 young people become homeless in a year. Then, 25 per cent of that number is 387,054 – that’s more LGBT homeless young people than there are LGBT+ young people. However, this homelessness rate would be an over-exaggeration as it is a rate for all 16-24 year-olds i.e. 25% of young people experience homelessness at some point when they are young.
Does it matter? I would say yes, it does, and I say this as a gay man who is passionately interested in this subject and the housing outcomes for LGBT+ people. I would argue it matters for two reasons. Firstly, I think it distracts us from the actual issues around LGBT+ homelessness. The causes of LGBT+ youth homelessness are, from what we know, the same as they are for all young people – family breakdown, unemployment, poverty and mental health. In terms of family breakdown, their sexual or gender identity is very likely to have an intersection with this, or be the primary cause (they are fleeing homophobic or transphobic parents or guardians). However, the key issue to consider then, in a UK context, is what services they can access and some pretty basic issues like:
- Do services record sexual and gender identity of service users? (we’d then know how many were LGBT+!)
- Do LGBT+ people consider themselves “candidates” for housing and homelessness services, or are they self-excluding?
- Are services sufficiently understanding and tailored?
- How are shelters managed? Are they gendered? How do they respond to homophobia/transphobia?
I think there is also an issues that focusing on this 25 per cent has a danger of foregrounding risks of homelessness associated with sexual and gender identity to the detriment of the widespread risks we know are there, are increasing, and we need to do something about: the massive cuts in housing benefit for young people; poor quality work, that is low paid and insecure; problems with tenure security; lack of suitable affordable housing for rent.
Finally, as a social scientist, I think we have a duty to produce rigorous evidence, particularly when it might be used to inform public policy. Yes, we do not know nearly enough about the experience of LGBT+ people at all, let alone youth homelessness. But we should present statistics such as the quarter with suitable caveats – that we simply do not know, in this case.
(1) I am, very badly, using "trans-" here to cover a multitude of sins - the sins being mine. I'm using this term to cover people who identify as transgender or non-binary, and also people who identify as queer. I know this is wrong, and I know this is a lazy shorthand, but I talk more about definitional issues later on, so please let me off.
(2) So, the key thing here is “priority need”. Everywhere but Scotland, a local housing authority only owes you a duty of housing under legislation if you have “priority need” – basically four reasons: you are pregnant or a parent or guardian with children; you are disabled, ill or have mental health problems; you are a victim of domestic violence; you have been made homeless by fire, flood or disaster. The first one of these obviously commonly excludes LGBT+ people. Something else to add here is that you also need to a “local connection” to the area. This might indirectly discriminate against LGBT+ people who leave small towns to be with LGBT+ communities in larger cities.