Friday, 30 June 2017


I got a new qualification back in May. I’m usually very proud of getting new qualifications, including my PGCert in Academic Practice, which most people treat as a burden. I didn’t tweet or brag about this one though because it was a leadership qualification. I am now an accredited leader to level 5 of the Institute of Learning and Management leadership framework. I was ashamed of this qualification because of one of the key learning points from the course for me – that when we think of “leaders” in English, we think of, well ultimately:

A man. Shouting. Bullying people to do what he wants them to do. And ultimately what he wants people to do is wrong.

I ended up doing the course because after I was promoted to Senior Lecturer last year I ended up leading a couple of key pieces of work in the University – leading a research programme, and leading an Athena SWAN application. I realised in October 2016 that I was writing about how good the Aurora leadership programme was for women and thought I need something like that. Fortunately for me, a space had come up on the University’s ILM5 course that was starting the following week. Luckily I could make all the sessions over the six months. I realised quite how much I needed it when I was walking through Waverley Station the day after I'd said to HR I would do it and I burst into tears realising that I'd said "I can't do this anymore and need some help."

Because of my preconceptions about leadership, I went in very skeptically and determined to have a feminist approach to my learning. Chatting to colleagues, they suggested speaking to Frances Patterson who leads our social work leadership courses. She put me onto shared leadership theory that is heavily informed by feminism, and particularly the work of Joyce Fletcher on post-heroic leadership.

A lot of contemporary leadership theory is based on neuroscience, and I have to confess, I remain unconvinced of that. I’m just too focused on understanding sociologically to accept psychological evidence for human behaviour.

Engaging with the literature and realising that the way I operate in organisations is good leadership that is empirically demonstrated to lead to better performance was really eye-opening and empowering. As I say, I think the word “leadership” in English is too corrupted now. If we were into compounds nouns in English, like the Germans, I’d say empoweringcaringsharingrolemodelperson would be a much better word.

As part of the course I got some leadership coaching sessions with Michele Armstrong. I had my last session this morning and it gave me time to reflect on my “leadership journey”. A big part of my leadership reflection was getting to my core values – what makes me tick. These are helping the most vulnerable in society and delivering equality. Another key value for me is competence, and getting the job done and delivering change.

One key reflection, that I need to discuss with others, is how I come across on this. Although these are my values, and I would say they are progressive, I don’t immediately leap to activism, resistance and complaint to go about delivering them. I like to go with the grain and use bureaucracy for positive ends. Also, in a HE context, a lot of the things that are the focus of ire – audit and “administration” – because they are “Neil Librul”, I actually think are not all bad. Following Clive Barnett, I always look for the shades of grey in our friend Neil. He’s not a totalising force. A lot of his tools – like audit, or performance measures – can be used to progressive ends. I feel more comfortable in this space and doing this work, and I think I need to talk about it a bit more as I'm worried I come across as a management stooge.

I keep my “resistance” quieter. For me, it means using the inefficiency of bureaucracy to thwart its own ends – no one will notice if I don’t fill in that spreadsheet I’ve been asked to complete. I’ll conveniently forget to forward on requests to protect colleagues from something either I could do, or I think is ill-advised and needs to be rethought. In working with colleagues, I’ll focus on how exciting their ideas are and encourage them to take them further, rather than bash them over the head with targets. If you meet the targets it’s a bonus, but your job should be enjoyable, empowering and intellectual stimulating. The chances are, if you are doing that sort of job then your “customers” (students) will be happy and getting good learning (and a Gold TEF award) and you’ll be doing the sort of research that will tick the REF boxes.

I suppose a key frustration of mine though is that on these leadership and coaching courses I go on, everyone has been like me - already a very good leader, who just needs to space to reflect and some theory and practical ideas to hone their skills. That we have said to ourselves that we need to develop these skills, to me, says that we are good leaders. Those who think they are good leaders, who practice heroic leadership, aren't reflexive enough to attend such courses and yet they quite often are in leadership positions. 

So, I am proud of being a leader, and my leadership skills. I still don’t like the word leadership though. 

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

How many LGBT+ people are homeless in the UK?

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 trickyand 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.

Something still does not ring true with the 25 per cent figure though – there are too many questions around it. It also does not match the figures of service users I’m finding in my own research (5-10 per cent). It would be easier to say: we don’t actually know how many LGBT+ young people become homeless. Because we don’t. 

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?
These are all issues raised by LGBT Youth Scotland in their excellent evidence submission to the current inquiry into homelessness by the Scottish Parliament Local Government and Communities Committee. I shall also be following them up with further blog posts coming out of my current research project.

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.