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