We live in a country where same sex couples can legally marry and gay pride festivals wind through streets, so why are there so many youths sleeping rough on the streets after being rejected by the families for their sexual orientation?
The Albert Kennedy Trust (ABK) provided 8,000 nights off the streets for young LGBT people with nowhere else to turn in 2014, a 160% increase on last year.
One teenager couldn’t return his family because of abuse. His parents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, didn’t accept his sexuality and social services initially refused to help.
“We had to employ solicitors to approach the High Court to request that he was made Ward of Court,” says Tim Sigsworth, chief executive of AKT.
But the teenager is just one example of the 1,500-plus youths who have called the AKT in need of help. More than half resulted in direct long-term case work and support.
“Two weeks into my job as CEO I met a young person at AKT who had spent one night on the streets after being rejected by his parents; during that one night he had been forced to have unprotected sex to secure a bed for the night,” Tim recalls.
“Shortly after this, his first sexual experience, he was diagnosed as HIV positive.”
The charity is named after a young man, Albert Kennedy who, whilst supported by his family, experienced homophobic abuse from strangers, which led him to take his own life in 1989.
Founded in the same year by Cath Hall, who was inspired to help young Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT) people through her role as a foster carer, it provides accommodation, advocacy, mentoring and support for 16 to 25 year olds who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness.
The charity, which works in three cities across the UK, hears many stories from young people who have experienced homophobia, biphobia or transphobia, or ignorance of their needs from mainstream service providers.
“We also advocate for young people who have mental, physical health problems, self-harm and have substance misuse problems to obtain housing through the local authority,” Tim continues. “Sadly this is often a very long-winded process as these young people are likely to be turned away. Many young people come to us already living on the streets as their families have turned them away for coming out.”
One 19-year-old woman came to AKT after her devout Evangelical Christian parents kicked her out of her home when she came out to them as a lesbian. They also forced her to leave her child behind with them – a child conceived to cover up her sexuality. She spent the next few months sleeping in stairwells and selling her body to buy food.
According to Tim, many people underestimate the adverse impacts of homophobia have on young people – despite the recent legislative change.
“The rights of LGBT people have been greatly improved, but this has not necessarily resulted in social change. Our own work and the research of other [charities] shows that young people are coming out earlier, but more than 50% fear telling their parents. In some cases, this is founded.”
AKT has seen a “significant” increase in young people coming to the charity for help. Between July and September, the organisation saw a “shocking” 100% increase in footfall to AKT compared to the same period last year.
The charity’s own data on homelessness shows LGBT youth are three to six times more likely to attempt or complete suicide or self-harm. Previous research showsmore than half of gay youths have suffered mental health issues, with 40% considering suicide.
“We found this included sexual exploitation, mental health issues, and physical and substance abuse,” Tim adds.
“A young man, aged 22, came to AKT after being ostracised from his community and left homeless by his family having come out as gay.
“As a result of the trauma of the situation he then lost his job and was forced to spend his time looking for places to stay – hanging around bars and clubs. One evening he went home with someone who proceeded to drug and then abuse him, along with a group of other men.
“At this point he arrived at AKT suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As a result of the sexual abuse he suffered he had contracted HIV but had barely engaged with HIV services, as he was so traumatised. AKT battled the local authority, who refused to honour their duty of care to him.
“In the meantime we linked him into appropriate HIV and mental health services and provided him with a mentor to help him rebuild his self-esteem. The local authority has just housed him in his own place with our support.”
“We have placements with carers for young people. They have a pathway plan that helps them achieve and improve these skills. We also have short-term accommodation available available where we house young people in an emergency, for example if they are fleeing violence or are left homeless by their families after they have found out about their sexuality or gender identity.
“Sadly we see many young people going to bars and clubs and finding people to sleep with so they have a bed for the night, which often leads to problems including sexual and drug abuse.”
AKT also helps youths plan a future. Mentors meet them on a weekly or fortnightly basis to help with practicalities such as college applications.
“We have seen a real need for this kind of support as many young people have sofa-surfed with friends and need help planning for the future. We also offer life skills training to help young people live independently.”
As for a long-term solution to the problem, Tim “absolutely” believes LGBT relationships should be taught in school.
“Many of the young LGBT people who AKT work with have experienced sexual exploitation and physical abuse in relationships and I believe this is in part due to LGBT young people not receiving education and support around same-sex relationships at school, whether on a sexual or emotional level.”
If you need help, AKT’s London, Manchester and Newcastle offices are staffed 10am – 4:30pm Mon-Fri.
London: 020 7831 6562
Manchester: 0161 228 3308
Newcastle-upon-Tyne: 0191 281 0099
If you need help at other times, call:
Shelter Housing Advice Line: 0808 800 4444 (8am-midnight every day)
LGF Helpline: 0845 330 30 30 (10am-10pm every day)
London Lesbian & Gay Switchboard: 0300 330 0630 (calls at local rate)
Samaritans: 08457 90 90 90 (24hrs)