Thursday, 25 October 2018

What do we know about LGBT+ homelessness

Not a lot, is the answer. We know a little bit more thanks to a project I’ve been leading on that finished last year and that is now being published in academic journals. You can read my blog posts about the project as it ran on here – it led me to quite a discovery of my own sexual identity.

Anyway, the first paper from the project is now out in the International Journal of Housing Policy and, if I say so myself, it has an ABSOLUTELY CRACKING title: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer experiences of homelessness and identity: insecurity and home(o)normativity. Of course, this means it will never be cited, but hey-ho.

Blogging about your paper is supposed to increase its citations, although with my “Pink Pound in the Gaybourhood” paper it helped it garner one citation after three years. So, here is my blog summary of the paper.

In writing-up this project, I’m drawing on my positionality as a public policy and housing scholar who has recently branched out into research issues around sexual and gender identity. The mainstream literature in public policy and housing is staggeringly silent on issues of sexual and gender identity. Through this research I discovered the rich work in disciplines like human geography (queer geographies); sociology and cultural studies. In writing up the research I therefore wanted to do an activist project into public policy and housing research by bringing the lives of non-heterosexuals, and how we understand them from varying theoretical perspectives, into heteronormative/heterosexist disciplines. It’s, therefore, reasonably good public policy scholarship, and pretty shoddy queer studies scholarship, but it is trying to bring the literatures together.

In the case of homelessness among LGBT+ populations the literature is, let’s say, difficult. There’s some dated stuff that comes from an era of less socially liberal attitudes that suggests that it is caused by family rejection. But even a quite old study by Prendergast questions this simplicity. There’s also the “pop” social science of things like the “a quarter of all young homeless people are LGBT” which I rail against for their lack of evidential basis. I also get annoyed at that stat, and it’s presentation, because of the simplistic way in which it is assumed sexual or gender identity is a variable in homeless; i.e. it is a direct cause.

There’s also US and North American research. However, this is of limited applicability. Firstly, a lot of it is written from a public health/social work perspective so it is mainly focused on the risks of harm to health caused by rough sleeping, rather than detailed exposition of causes, experiences and routes out of homelessness. Secondly, the situation in the UK regarding homelessness and rough sleeping, although bad, is no way near as horrific as it is in the US. Particularly in Scotland, a lot of the people captured by US research would have a right to housing which would reduce their risks.
In terms of the homelessness literature, I was pointed towards the work of Carol McNaughton-Nicholls. She used the concepts of “edgework” and “thin rationality” to explore the agency of the participants in her research on homelessness in Glasgow. Thin rationality especially, really resonated through our data – how these LGBT people had to make difficult decisions at points of their housing pathways that resulted in them experiencing homelessness and then experiencing a feeling of being-at-home.

And I use the term being-at-home on purpose here (it’s not in the paper, but this is the argument we make). This is because, what we actually uncovered was not that sexual or gender identity was a direct cause of homelessness – indeed many of our participants would have experienced homelessness whatever their sexual or gender identity – but that sexual and gender identity was wrapped up in experiences of homelessness in complex ways. Importantly, it seemed that for our participants, being-at-home (as opposed to just being housed) was associated with a deeper sense of security in their own identity as queer people. This meant that being-at-home could be felt at stages of their housing pathway where, in legal terms, they would technically be homeless or at least inappropriately housed.

Thus the paper begins to “queer” the homelessness/housed binary to the extent that I have a fun opening conversation gambit now of “I don’t actually think homelessness exists”. This is a theoretical route I want to explore further – Dr Lindsey McCarthy’s recent paper in Housing Studies was interesting in this regard. I am reassured that two recent pieces of doctoral research on the topic of LGBT+ homelessness by Carin Tunaker who was at Kent, and Philip Mullen at Newcastle, found similar results. And I cannot thank both of them enough for their time in sending me stuff to read and talking to me about their research (which is a lot better than mine!).

This finding also led me to my policy recommendations – which are that homelessness service providers need to be less reticent about opening-up conversations with young people about their sexual and gender identity. I was quite shocked about how worried people were about doing this; yes straight people, it is difficult to talk about your sexuality, but us gays have to do it all the bloody time, thanks, because we live in a heteronormative world. Anyway, it is only by opening-up such conversations that the complexities can be understood. I would add, that in my opinion based on this research, that it is mainstream services that should be doing this for two reasons. Firstly, practically because arithmetically, in a country as small as Scotland, with a population group that is three per cent of the whole population, it is going to be difficult to deliver specialist services for LGBT+ across a wide area. Secondly, and normatively, be because mainstream homelessness services should be welcoming, supportive and tailored to all people, no matter who they are.