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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.