Young, gay, homeless - and likely to stay that way

The potential withdrawing of housing benefit for the under-25s is an assault on the lives of young

We have seen before, under this and previous administrations, the rhetoric of fairness used to justify reducing access to affordable housing for those on benefits. Fairness, claimed George Osborne in 2010, demanded the introduction of housing benefit caps: why should families on benefits live where working families cannot afford to rent?

And so when, just before Easter weekend, Downing Street airily mentioned cutting housing benefit entirely for young people under 25, it was again on the basis of fairness. Many low-paid working young people live with their parents, unable to move out, so why, asked the coalition, should young benefit claimants be supported to live independently? 
 
"We are always looking at ways to change the welfare system to reward hard work and make work pay," was the Downing Street response to the furore that followed. This version of fairness seeks to pit claimants against the low-paid in an effort to further reduce the welfare bill.  It fundamentally misunderstands the role of housing benefit in helping to stave off homelessness and rough sleeping among the young.  Perhaps most importantly, it conveniently ignores the fact that not all young people are equally able to remain in the parental home.  
 
Young LGBT people in particular are already at much higher risk of homelessness than their straight and cisgender counterparts, with around 25% of the young homeless population in urban areas identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Parental rejection is still an issue for these young people; many face the prospect of losing their homes on coming out, or increasingly, in the age of social media, being outed. Still more are living with parents or family members who are openly hostile or even violent. For some, the price of staying at home includes attempts by family members to ‘cure’ them of their sexual or gender identities, through reparative therapy, religious ritual, torture, corrective rape or forced marriage. Is it reasonable to expect them to remain at this cost? Is it fair to withdraw the housing benefit that gives them somewhere else to go? 
 
Homelessness services are already stacked against young LGBT people. On losing their homes and the support of their families, many move to cities that will give them a community and a social network, but ‘local connection’ requirements have further reduced the help they can get once they arrive. Domestic violence services are largely based around the needs of women experiencing partner violence; they’re not designed for young men, women and trans people fleeing violence from their families. Few hostels are welcoming or safe spaces for LGBT young people, and some give up hard-won temporary accommodation in the face of homophobic, biphobic or transphobic abuse. The transition from homeless teen to working adult is difficult to make: many young LGBT people are forced to leave the parental home long before they have acquired the skills to compete in the jobs market or support themselves successfully. Without housing benefit to fund secure, longer-term independent accommodation, many will be street homeless and at risk of exploitation.
 
In the US, where welfare services are meagre, the consequences for young LGBT people are severe: the prevalence of LGBT young people within the urban homeless population is around 40%, according to the Ali Forney Center, which provides help, support and a place to stay for young LGBT people in New York. The centre has 77 beds, which are constantly full, and the waiting list runs into the hundreds.
 
“LGBT youth here are 8 times more likely to become homeless than straight kids,” says Bill Torres, Director of Community Resources. “More than 80% of those who come to us have been kicked out of their homes for being who they are. The remainder run away due to abuse, neglect, or a combination of rejection and abuse.  And we have much less of a safety net in place [in the US].”
 
Torres feels the young people who come to the Ali Forney Center are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation. “Surviving the street is a brutal experience. In a matter of days after being thrown out, the youth begin to beg or panhandle or steal to feed themselves.  They have to jump the turnstiles in the subway where they will sleep overnight.  Inevitably, many end up supporting themselves by ‘survival sex.’ There are ‘wolves’ – exploitative adults - that offer food and shelter and encouragement and eventually expect payback in the form of sex or in money earned from prostitution. We see kids who’ve lived this way for years.”
 
This kind of exploitation is already happening in the UK. A 2007 research report by the children’s charity Barnardos, ‘Tipping The Iceberg,’ found that young homeless LGBT people were already at higher risk of sexual exploitation, with many transitioning into sex work and drug and alcohol issues. Those who are supported to end this destructive cycle largely rely on benefits to provide them with secure housing and support until they can resume education or employment away from the risks of street life. It is surely no reasonable person’s idea of fairness to take that option away.  
 
Petra Davis is an activist and writer working in LGBT homelessness in London
25% of homeless people in urban areas are LGBT. Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.