“The queer community is strong, supportive and inclusive, especially in the case of adversity”
Author: Chris O'Donnell
In September Focus Ireland launched a significant research report entitled: A Qualitative Study of LGBTQI+ Youth Homelessness in Ireland. This research is the first of its kind in Ireland and sought to bring hidden experiences of young LGBTQI+ people in homelessness into light to help understand the issues affecting this marginalised group and recommend ways the sector can work together to resolve them.
At the research launch event Focus Ireland were delighted to be joined by Chris O’Donnell, Safety net Peer Worker and expert by experience, who gave an eloquent and compelling response to the research from a lived experience perspective.
In this latest Focus Ireland blog we are very grateful to again welcome a contribution from Chris, as Chris revisits and reflects on this important research.
The launch of LGBTQI+ youth homelessness report offers us a unique insight into the lived experiences of homeless young members of our queer family. I was, in 2017, a queer homeless person: just surviving – not living. Between nights in the hostels, I spent my days wandering the streets and feeding ducks. When I reached the six-month mark – generally agreed to represent the threshold to ‘long-term’ homelessness – I felt myself beginning to lose a sense of my connection with the colour and diversity of the queer scene. It was a really scary experience. Thankfully, just at that threshold point, I managed to get out of the homeless system.
Looking back, I think that this growing feeling of separation must have come from being in the closet in the hostels. I had been out for many years before becoming homeless, but once I entered the system, I didn’t feel comfortable being open about my sexuality at all. I felt unsafe. One aspect of the homeless hostels is that people have been traumatised and often lash out at others, about things that mightn’t normally even bother them. I was constantly on the lookout, watching what I said and to whom. I am not the only one who’s had this experience; hiding sexuality or gender identity is common within the homeless hostels, something that is reflected in the report, which also shows just how at-risk our trans brethren are. A lack of awareness and prejudice make young trans and other lives very difficult – often unbearably so – in the homeless system.
As Peter McVerry has memorably put it: ‘Homelessness in itself is a trauma.’ The LGBTQI+ Youth Homelessness report presents us with further verification of this fact, assembling evidence which demonstrates that ‘prior to and as a result of becoming homeless, LGBTQI+ young people are more likely to be at risk of mental health issues.’ This is a crucial part of homelessness for LGBTQI+ individuals. How can we expect people who live in horrific circumstances to have a sense of wellbeing?
The level and impact of mental health as presented in the report is in many cases alarming. One participant reported: ‘I deal with suicidal ideation. I have since I was a kid.’ Another experienced a physical response to talking about homelessness:
‘The worst symptoms of anxiety, when I think about housing, when I think about my landlord, when I think about rent, when I think about trying to search for a place or search for flatmates to move in with me, even talking about now, I can feel all the kind of physical symptoms that I would feel when I’m in a particularly anxious place. I can feel my heartbeat now.’
I myself found the homeless hostels incredibly difficult to deal with. Many have been brutalised by the environment and there is a sense of ‘hypervigilance,’ as rows can kick off at any moment A major added stress is the lack of privacy, and the fear of sharing rooms with complete strangers. It is extraordinarily stressful. As one participant put it:
‘It was horrible. It was terrible. I felt like nothing. Yeah, I was drinking a lot. I was just in the middle of this gigantic spiral of shame because I felt like I had no… Shame is my primary, was my primary emotion at the time’
But the thing that stood out for me – more than anything – was the sense of resilience that the LGBTQI+ communities displayed in the face of the nightmare of homelessness. They spoke about finding each other online and looking for accommodation together – banding as a community and fighting to leave homelessness behind. One participant stated:
‘And I think that like you were saying that resilience, I didn’t know I had it until I had to have it. But I don’t think if I had thought of it as this is going to be really hard, and that it was all on me to get through it… Like if I had been on my own it might’ve gone worse… in fairness, I wouldn’t have gotten through the year without knowing other queer people.’
This banding together is something which the queer community has always done in the face of often adverse family relationships and family breakdown. Stigma and misunderstanding still persevere and many find themselves on the receiving end of prejudiced rejection. In the face of this, many on the LGBTQI+ spectrum find themselves create alternative family structures, a historic pattern that still persists today. Often, as the report shows, trans, gay, bi and queer young people depend on friends who will allow them to ‘couch-surf’, opening up their domestic and social lives to create support networks and safe spaces. This is an important part of LGBTQI+ culture, but it also has the unintended effect of placing LGBTQI+ people under the category of the ‘hidden homeless’, the exact numbers of which are impossible to quote exactly. As one participant powerfully stated:
‘You start to hate yourself because of the situation you’re in. And hiding that you’re gay and that you’re homeless. It’s difficult.’
Nevertheless, the sense of resilience within the LGBTQI+ community is one of the key findings of the LGBTQI+ youth homelessness report, reflected in the experience of many of the respondents. As one participant summed it up, the queer community is strong, supportive and inclusive, especially in the case of adversity (to which it is so accustomed):
‘Obviously, you know this already because you’re LGBT but the LGBT community are really good at making families very quickly because we’re really good at being disowned by our natural ones. I think, if you give a bunch of LGBT people a space, a comfortable warm space, then there’s stuff to do that and a family will emerge. A good family group will emerge.’