Most homeless shelters across Europe were designed decades ago to cater to a particular demographic: middle-aged men who were facing some sort of life crisis, according to Robbie Stakelum, the policy officer at European Federation of National Organisations Working With the Homeless.
Over the years, a chronic lack of funding for homelessness services has prevented these facilities from adapting to changing social conditions, creating a gap in terms of what they’re able to provide and what their users require.
Nowhere is this gap more pronounced than with LGBTQ+ youth, particularly trans youth, according to a new report by FEANTSA, True Colors United, and the Silberman Center for Sexuality and Gender.
“There’s this issue of ‘institutional erasure,’” Stakelum said. “Mainstream homeless services don’t feel very inclusive. A lot of LGBTIQ youth don’t come to the services because they don’t realize that homeless services are for them, and then when they do come, they find that they aren’t tailored to them.”
The report surveyed 64 organizations that provide homelessness services across the European Union and found that eight provide specific services for LGBTQ+ youth, while only five provide specific services for trans youth.
The widespread lack of services can ensnare LGBTQ+ youth in a cycle of homelessness and other traumas, limiting their ability to reach their full potential, according to Jama Shelton, a social worker focusing on LGBTQ+ youth homelessness.
“If we are committed to ensuring that young people don’t cycle in and out of unstable housing, then we need to be intervening earlier on,” they said. “It’s more than their housing — it’s their ability to complete their education, their ability to join the workforce in a productive way, their overall mental health and well-being.
“We know that drug use, violence, and trauma exponentially increase if they’re experiencing homelessness,” they added. “It’s a public health issue in many ways.”
One of the main barriers to providing better services is the lack of data collected by these organizations. Just five report collecting data around the sexual orientation of those who use their services.
“It’s super important that there’s a systemized way to collect data around gender identity and sexual orientation and sex at birth status, and that’s for two reasons,” Shelton said. “One is to just identity the prevalence of the LGBTIQ population, to have a better understanding of what we’re dealing with, and two, to understand the reasons why they’re homeless and what kind of services and interventions they need.
“By asking them from the very first moment of interaction, whether it’s an interview or outreach, if it’s done well and in a non-judgemental way, it automatically sets up a different expectation on the part of the young people,” they said.
The report noted that 40 organizations said they are open to receiving guidance on how to better accommodate LGBTQ+ youth, suggesting that better standards across the sector for training and service provision could create more inviting atmospheres for LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness.
“Service providers are so under-resourced and over-demanded,” Shelton said. “There’s not a capacity to say, ‘Is there a way that we’re unintentionally discriminatory, and erasing certain populations?’
“This points to the need for a structural, system level change,” they added. “If you’re working within the system, if you know that the system is overstressed in general, the responsibility cannot only fall on the people employed in that system, it has to be a broader, more structural approach.”
FEANSTA, in particular, is developing broad-based standards for homelessness service providers and is working with organizations to improve their ability to care for and support their users.
The first step is making sure organizations understand the scale and scope of the LGBTQ+ youth homlessness crisis.
A Crisis Hidden in Plain Sight
The lack of data collection around LGBTQ+ youth, and LGTBQ+ youth experiencing homelessness in particular, has prevented full and clear insight into the crisis.
But the Fundamental Rights Agency released a survey earlier this year that estimates that 20% of the LGBTQ+ community experiences homelessness, including 33% of trans people, and nearly 40% of intersex people.
These figures, gleaned from limited surveys, paint a grim picture. Homelessness can be traumatizing for anyone, but the impacts are particularly harmful for LGBTQ+ youth who have likely experienced familial rejection, discrimination, ostracization, violence, and other traumas that make them vulnerable to mental health crises and even suicide.
The report notes that a US-based study found that “adolescents who experienced high levels of family rejection based on their sexual or gender identity were eight times more likely to attempt suicide, six times more likely to report depressive symptoms, and three times more likely to abuse substances and engage in risky sexual behavior than their peers who report no family rejection or low levels of family rejection.”
The same dynamic likely holds true for LGBTQ+ youth across the EU and globally, especially in countries where sexual orientation and identity is heavily policed and persecuted.
Young people overall need support, resources, and guidance to transition into adulthood and achieve their full potential. The services youth experiencing homelessness need to return to a secure, healthy, and fulfilling life are different from those of adults who experience homelessness.
If a young person enters a facility for people experiencing homelessness, isn’t asked about their life circumstances, and is surrounded by older people, particularly men, who have very different life experiences, they may feel intimidated and that they are being overlooked and choose to leave.
Organizations providing homelessness services have to meet people where they are and provide specialized services, according to Stakelum. For LGBTQ+ youth, the stakes are even higher because the risk of marginalization is greater.
“When we say specialized services, we don’t mean creating brand new organizations,” Stakelum said. “The focus should be on getting existing organizations to set up a stream of services and units within them that can be tailored to young people. We need to broaden the ambition of what those services should be.”
Every instance of homelessness is a profound failure by larger society.
When it comes to ending homelessness, there are two broad principles that can guide countries when addressing the crisis.
First, homeless shelters should develop services and train staff to support the most marginalized demographics, which will in turn lead to environments of dignity and flexibility that can support everyone, said Stakelum.
In practical terms, this means adapting homeless services to accommodate young trans women of color, who disproportionately experience discrimination, harassment, and violence.
“It’s not about improving the service specifically for trans women of color,” Stakelum said. “It’s about, for whoever comes into the service, they receive the best service possible. If you tailor services to the people who are most marginalized coming through the door, then everyone will receive the best care.”
Organizations with strapped resources can enact some changes sooner than others.
On the cheaper end of the spectrum, organizations can begin to collect information around gender identity and sexual orientation from their user. By collecting data, facilities will communicate to their users that they’re aware of and interested in their life circumstances. This new data will then help facilities better adapt their services.
Facilities can also introduce gender-inclusive bathrooms, inclusivity flags, and moving beyond the warehouse model of having all members assembled in a wide open room.
Stakelum emphasized that you can’t develop a more inviting environment without first conducting educational sessions with staff members to teach them about terminology and the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ youth
Otherwise, staff members can unwittingly offend and alienate people.
“You can’t have one or the other,” he said. “If you’re going to be putting these things [like an LGBTQ+ flag] on the wall, the staff will have to be trained to talk about it and trained in the spirit of inclusivity.”
The second major principle that can guide organizations is Finland’s housing-first model, according to Stakelum.
Around the world, countries tend to use the staircase model, in which people experiencing homelessness have to proceed up a series of steps before they receive or earn a home. These steps could include attending mental health sessions, going to job training programs, surviving an addiction, developing relationships, getting a job, and so on.
But this approach is flawed in a number of ways, especially for young people, Shelton said, because housing is the base from which a person’s life can begin to heal and grow. If someone doesn’t have the freedom to go to a home, then everything else in life becomes harder.
Stakelum said that providing people with housing first is less expensive over the long-term, reduces homelessness, and helps people become more productive members of society.
LGBTQ+ young people experiencing homelessness could particularly benefit from this approach.
Paradoxically, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that structural changes can take place when the will is there and resources are mobilized.
“We’re in a really interesting moment right now with COVID,” Shelton said. “We are having to find ways to provide people with shelter in a distanced and physically safe manner. If we can do that and figure out how to open up buildings that aren’t being used right now so [homeless people] are healthy and safe, why can’t that be the model?”
“This is a really great opportunity,” they said. “If we can figure out how not to go back to the way things were.”