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Gay, homeless, alone, and just 16. What would you do to survive?

Vulnerable LGBTI+ people are often deeply reluctant to reach out for help, La Trobe University research shows. Mistrust, even of crisis support systems, puts them at risk of a spiral of exploitation. Connor Webster reports.

Gay, homeless, alone, and just 16. What would you do to survive?

A report by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society reveals the limitations facing crisis support services in meeting the needs of LGBTI+ individuals. Photo: Roman Bodnarchuk/Unsplash

Words by Connor Webster
 

Jason* recalls walking through a stranger’s house, past family portraits showing a man, his wife, and their children. He walked past bedrooms filled with toys and entered the master bedroom. The man from the family portraits was there; his family were not.

“I never met him before,” Jason tells The Citizen, thinking back on that day three years ago. “But I felt like I knew him better than his family did.”

The man had sent his family off to work and school and taken the day off. He was Jason’s first client. Jason was just 16, and had been out of home for six months.

“When you’re homeless, you do what you have to do to support yourself,” he says.

Jason’s story is not unique. Research has found that LGBTI+ people are significantly less likely to access crisis support services than non-LGBTI+ people, meaning they are more vulnerable to exploitation or turning to under-age sex work to survive.

A 2019 La Trobe University report, Understanding LGBTI+ Lives in Crisis, found that 71%of participants “chose not to use a [crisis support service] during their most recent personal or mental health crises”.

It wasn’t a lack of awareness: the report, conducted by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, found that 68% of participants could identify between one and five different services. They just did not access them.

The report’s co-author, Gene Lim, says the study found that LGBTI+ people were reluctant to access support services because they anticipated being discriminated against, or preferred to access a service that was known to be LGBTI+ inclusive.

Fear of discrimination, or of being a burden, can deter young LGBTI+ people from accessing crisis support services. Photo: Gene Lim, ARCSHS, La Trobe University & Lifeline Australia

Fear of discrimination, or of being a burden, can deter young LGBTI+ people from accessing crisis support services. Photo: Gene Lim, ARCSHS, La Trobe University & Lifeline Australia

“If you’re already in a compromised emotional state, the last thing you want is to seek support and be on the receiving end of even more discrimination,” Lim says.

Jason left home in late 2016. “I wasn’t happy at home,” he says. “My mother died when I was very young. My father spoke barely any English. I was the youngest of six children and I was always an afterthought.

“School was supposed to be my safe space because home wasn’t. There was an incident. I left school, and the same night I left home forever.

“I knew about supports like Lifeline, doctors and other organisations, but I couldn’t access them. For starters, I was under-age, so I wasn’t legally independent.”

Instead he went it alone, with the help of a British backpacker named Ollie. He laughs as he recalls his first night.

“My first stop the night I left home was Kmart,” he says. “I bought the world’s shittiest tent….  I had been homeless for an hour and the biggest issue on his mind was how much plastic packaging we use in Australia.”

Lim says historical and structural discrimination against LGBTI+ people has contributed to distrust toward government-run institutions, like some crisis care providers.

“This is a population that has a historically difficult relationship with policing services, institutional healthcare and so on,” he says. “These have not always been great places for trans individuals, queer individuals, people of colour and even women.”

However the report found that most people who did access support services described them as inclusive.

“We found most services were very competent in assisting with specific issues, like transitioning or gender dysphoria,” he says. “However, most respondents felt an anticipated stigma that deterred them from calling. I attribute this to a lack of [overt] inclusions.”

He says crisis support services should feature LGBTI+ people in advertisements to “ameliorate that ambiguity about discrimination.”

National peer support service QLife runs telephone and online crisis support helplines for the LGBTI+ community.

“When people contact us, they know they’re speaking to another LGBTI+ person with lived experience,” says Tarnia Lee, QLife’s capacity building manager. “They know that they don’t need to educate us.

“We’re also actively building our awareness amongst diverse communities. We kind of have to prove ourselves if we want to be considered a safe space.”

Young people of different cultural backgrounds may also be reluctant to approach a support service, Lim says. He says the report found there was “a gap in understanding” between young people of non-white backgrounds and support workers.

“These misunderstandings obviously detract from the degree of support an individual derives from those services,” he says.

CRISIS SUPPORT: A report by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society reveals the limitations facing crisis support services in meeting the needs of LGBTI+ individuals. Photo: Connor Webster

CRISIS SUPPORT: A report by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society reveals the limitations facing crisis support services in meeting the needs of LGBTI+ individuals. Photo: Connor Webster

The report also found that young people, particularly young men, were less likely to access support services if they had been raised in an environment that discouraged asking for help.

“There’s this idea of self-sufficiency, stoicism, ‘grin and bear it’ mentality that’s attached to masculinity and it can be a barrier for getting — even medical — help,” Lim says.

Lifeline, which operates the most well-known suicide and crisis support helpline in Australia, launched a podcast in June 2019 called “Holding On To Hope” as part of its efforts to be inclusive and showcase diversity.

Lifeline’s national manager for communications and public affairs, Ina Mullin, says the organisation’s goal is “to be available to those who need us any time they need us, anywhere they need us and in the mode in which they feel most comfortable approaching us.”

“No person in Australia has to face their darkest moment alone,” Mullin says.

Jason is first-generation Australian. His parents were born in Samoa, a culture that he says has certain expectations of masculinity.

“In the Polynesian community in Australia, men are expected to be tough and in charge,” Jason says. “When you’re a flamboyant little gay boy, where do you fit in?”

That inability to express himself contributed to anxiety and depression.

“Even though I was aware that support services existed, I was just conditioned to handle things on my own,” he says.

“It comes back to cultural identity. We don’t see personal issues as ever possibly being mental. In the past, when I approached my family about feelings of anxiety and depression, it was just ignored.”

LGBTI+ people of colour are more likely to experience homelessness than other LGBTI+ youth, particularly after coming out to their parents, says Lim.

Jason says he considered contacting a support service when he lived on the streets, but felt he “wasn’t worth helping.”

“On my worst days I just felt worthless because that had been embedded in me when I was younger.” he says. “I had very little self-worth, self-esteem, no sense of belonging.”

Now, he says, he views asking for help as a sign of strength.

“It’s really hard to reach out and, when people do, it should be commended,” he says. “It’s a sign that they’ve recognised, inside themselves, that they’re worthy of help.”

After nearly three years of squatting, sleeping out, couch-surfing and supporting himself through sex work, Jason finally reached out to Frontyard, a Melbourne-based youth homelessness service.

Today he is 19, living in rental accommodation with a friend and working part-time at a café.

He plans to get a  tattoo of his current address.

“It’s a milestone,” he says. “Of all the people in need of crisis and homelessness support, not many reach this point.”

*Names have been changed.  

Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; QLife 1800 184 527; Frontyard 03 9977 0077 or 1800 800 531; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636. 

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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