HLN Meets: Dawn Gascoigne of akt
Around a quarter of all homeless young people identify as LGBTQ+ – we meet one of the North East women at the nationwide charity leading the fight against these statistics to find out why
By Becky Hardy
In an age of flamboyant Pride celebrations through our streets every summer and hit shows like It’s A Sin unquestioned in TV’s primetime slots, it’s easy to think discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
And yes, acceptance is growing – but it’s doing so much more in the way of the tortoise than the hare.
Simply coming out – or being outed as LGBTQ+ – can still lead to young people being made homeless. Yes, that’s right here in the North East, too. In fact, nearly a quarter of all homeless young people in the UK identify as LGBTQ+, and 77% of those people believe coming out to their families was the main reason they became homeless.
Once homeless, they are more likely to face violence and discrimination than their straight counterparts. They are also statistically more likely to develop substance misuse problems and experience sexual exploitation. This can all, understandably, take a huge toll on their physical and mental health.
akt supports young people (between the ages of 16–25) who identify as LGBTQ+ facing or experiencing homelessness or who are living in a hostile environment. By helping these people into safe homes and secure employment, sometimes by sourcing education and training opportunities for them, akt gives them the physical, mental and emotional tools to make a safe, happy and authentic future for themselves. Not too much to ask for, is it?
As we all know, the arrival of the new decade brought with it COVID which, in turn, threw a colossal spanner into everyone’s works. But what it has also done for akt is highlight just how important their support is to young people in the UK today. Between April and August of last year, the charity saw a national increase of 118% in new referrals compared to the same period in 2019. There was a five-fold increase in the number of young people coming to akt after finding themselves sleeping rough, and an 82% increase in the number of new referrals from black and mixed-race backgrounds.
With the pressure of needing to help more people than ever before, but without the normal resources to do it, just how did akt cope? We caught up with their Newcastle Services Manager, Dawn Gascoigne, to find out.
How is the support akt offer different from the support young LGBTQ+ people would receive from a more general homelessness charity?
We have an appreciation for how transphobia and homophobia can impact a person’s self-esteem. Being constantly referred to by the wrong pronoun or being dead-named – [using the birth or former name of a transgender or non-binary person without their consent] – sends negative messages which can get internalised. We focus on helping young people to accept themselves and give them the hope to believe that things really can get better.
We have young people come to us who feel like they have to hide everything and anything that reveals that they’re queer or trans. All they’ve heard is that revealing this about themselves can start arguments or lead to being rejected – and not just by their families but by entire communities. Sometimes it also comes down to a fear of being forcibly married or silenced.
It’s so significant that these people know that, when they do finally open up, someone is going to understand them. We might be the first people that somebody comes out to. For them to take that chance on a worker within a generic homelessness charity, when all they’ve had are these negative, internalised messages of homophobia and transphobia, is very unlikely, and could lead to them missing out on the help they really need. We recognise that, just by being openly responsive to queer people, those people are more likely to come to us and disclose their true identities in order to seek help.
Are the general public usually surprised when they hear the statistics about youth LGBTQ+ homelessness?
People are usually very surprised. There has been significant progress in terms of accepting different sexualities. But when we watch It’s A Sin and think: ‘gosh, was it really like that back then?’ – yes it was, but it’s also still like that in pockets of society today. People are still being rejected by their families and friends just for who they are. This is particularly relevant to trans and non-binary young people. More than 50% of our users here in the North East are gender-queer.
How does that compare with akt’s other centres in Manchester, London and Bristol?
It’s higher. We definitely have more gender-queer people using our services here in the North East than akt do elsewhere.
The landscapes of our users look quite different in each city. In the North East particularly, you’re more likely to find a young person who might be continuing to live in a hostile environment, or who are sofa-surfing, which comes with its own risks. Whereas in London, there are a lot more rough sleepers.
How has COVID impacted your work and the support you’re able to provide?
It was like a pressure cooker last year. Everything seemed to stop, but more and more young people found themselves stuck in hostile home environments. We couldn’t even accommodate young people in a crisis by getting them into a hotel like we used to, because the hotels weren’t taking anyone but key workers.
One of the biggest difficulties we’ve faced has been getting recognition that familial abuse is domestic abuse – which are both, quite simply, abuse. Often what we find is that some housing authorities would contact the parents of these young people to see if what they were telling them is true. That would never happen in a domestic abuse situation. So if a parent came back to them and said: ‘oh no, nothing like that has ever happened’, then the housing authorities would expect that young person to just return home, outed. There were so many young people trapped in a household where they weren’t accepted because there was nowhere to move onto. The housing market had effectively stopped.
Then there was a flood and we managed to get a lot of young people into social housing, which we’re really fortunate to have access to in the North East. But there is still that glitch of us being able to accommodate someone in an emergency for a few days, and the local authorities being able to accommodate them long-term in social housing, but that process taking up to three months sometimes, so where do those young people go for those few months? How do they stay safe?
What about how you communicate with those young people looking for help – how did COVID impact that?
It made it really difficult. You can imagine that if you were a young person who wanted to leave home, you wouldn’t want to be overheard talking on the phone or on Zoom. Where could they go to not be overheard and talk about really sensitive, personal information? Some of our assessments have had to be carried out over email, and trying to have a really sensitive conversation over email is just so difficult.
What’s been exacerbated for everyone throughout the pandemic is the impact lockdown has had on our emotional and mental wellbeing. But I would say that it’s even more damaging for the young people we work with, because of those internalised transphobic and homophobic messages they receive. Those critical, negative messages that they start to believe themselves because all of the support groups that they used to go to for affirmation that they were valued and valid people no longer exist.
The social side of LGBTQ+ life is so important to the community’s wellbeing – and something that often gets overlooked by the general public, isn’t it?
Absolutely. There are the pubs and clubs and that side of things, which, of course, are no longer open. But there are also the art groups – Alphabetti Theatre have a really good queer focus, Northern Pride hasn’t gone ahead, Curious Arts usually put on loads of events, and none of those have been around for our young people.
It isn’t just about going to see a West End show, it’s about having that meaningful representation of who you are and being able to explain and explore who you are – not through words, but by being a part of something you feel you fit into. We used to take our young people to so many of those places before COVID hit.
Having a home is about more than just having a roof over your head – it’s about being secure in your own identity, so that you have hopes and ambitions and dreams for your future. At akt we do have partnerships with some of those smaller theatres, but we also just used to take our young people out bowling or for a nice meal, it was just about being together. There are so many of those types of activities that we’ve missed out on over the last year, and those experiences are so important in helping young people find the confidence to go on to establish that sense of home and family for themselves in the future.
How can we help akt and the work that you do?
That’s such a huge question! It comes down to raising awareness and getting the word out to people who would benefit from our services. There are people out there who are hidden and who have never heard of akt – we can help them.
Our founder, Cath Hall, has been described as being the ‘original straight ally’. I’ve been thinking how It’s A Sin has highlighted just how important it is for people within the LGBTQ+ community to have those allies. So another way that we can all help is by rallying those allies to support LGBTQ+ causes too. Because discrimination still happens. It’s just about being vocal and talking about things and exploring things together – people come from all sorts of different backgrounds, but if we can keep having conversations across those divides then we’ll only become more tolerant, more accepting and generally kinder people.
[In response to the serious challenges the pandemic has presented to the work akt does, the charity has launched its new aktogether appeal. To donate, click here.]
February is, of course, LGBT+ History Month. What’s a fact you know about the North East’s own LGBTQ+ history that many of us may not?
What is now akt used to be Outpost Housing Project, and that started life as The Wendy House – a project that was started by a group of lesbians who wanted to make sure that there was a safe space for lesbians and gay men to go to. I just think about those women who got this organisation off the ground. That took some strength and some solidarity to come together and start providing what we’re still providing now.