LONDON, May 16 — Apart from being spat on and urinated on when he slept rough in London for over a year, 52-year-old Chabahn had to contend with another daily threat: Being abused and attacked for his sexuality.
Chabahn, who is gay but kept it hidden on the streets, said living with HIV was an additional burden that some mainstream shelters did not have the capacity to support him with.
“When it comes to being LGBT, the amount of discrimination on the street is rather high. There is no safety, you have to fend for yourself,” said Chabahn, who declined to give his full name.
“You have to become a very good actor and you have to be someone that you are not.”
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) people make up a growing portion of Britain’s homeless population, campaigners say, and face specific threats, from exploitation to health issues, highlighting the need for specialised shelters.
They are often too scared to go into mixed accommodation where bullying can be a problem and may feel uncomfortable staying in religious buildings, homeless charities say.
“When the street becomes your home, you are mixing with all kinds from every background. You are mixing with a lot of dangers as well,” said Chabahn.
“Showing your vulnerability, being in a position like that, puts you at higher risk.”
It is a service gap that Carla Ecola, founder of The Outside Project, has hoped to fill since 2017 when she turned a 12-bed tour bus into Britain’s first homeless shelter for LGBT+ people.
After receiving funding and support from the London mayor’s office, the charity this month opened its first permanent space — turning a disused fire station in central London’s Clerkenwell into a sober 10-bed LGBT+ homeless shelter and community centre.
“People who have been referred to our shelter from mainstream accommodation have experienced hate crimes, verbal abuse, sexual abuse and outright violence... just for being who they are,” Ecola told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
More than 1 million people, or 2 per cent of the British population, identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual in 2017, according to official data.
Almost 12,000 hate crimes were reported against LGBT+ people in 2017/18 — accounting for 12 per cent of such incidents — the most common motivating factor after racism, police data showed in October.
Rejection to relief
Homelessness has been rising in England for nearly a decade, with some 82,000 families in temporary accommodation, including more than 123,000 children last year, government data shows.
About 77 per cent of young LGBT+ people say abuse or being kicked out of the family home for their sexuality was the main reason they became homeless, according to the Albert Kennedy Trust, a UK-based charity supporting homeless LGBT+ youth.
LGBT+ rights group Stonewall also found one in four transgender people were discriminated against when trying to rent accommodation.
“It’s unimaginable some of the difficulties that some our guests have faced,” said Ecola, who has about 40 volunteers and six staff members working for the charity, which receives support from LGBT+ housing advocacy group Stonewall Housing.
“When they come here, the relief from being around other LGBTIQ+ people — having been rejected by their families or their neighbours, and then from other homelessness services that are supposed to have caught them — is huge.”
Ecola said the new building puts the needs of LGBT+ homeless people at its core, and will have a sexual health clinic, a free cafe and shop, and domestic violence services. It will also provide a space for LGBT+ artists and campaigners.
Chabahn said after receiving help from The Outside Project, he was able to sleep for the first time in months and no longer had to hide his sexuality.
He has found work and rented a home in London too.
“You’ve got a big bag of bricks that you have to carry for a long, long time. And you are able to drop it down and not lift it up again,” he said.
“It really felt good to be with my own kind and to be in a safe environment. And most of all, to not have to act anymore.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation