Living Outside The Rainbow: Queerness and the Housing Crisis

LGBT youth homelessness protest, USA

LGBT youth homelessness protest, USA

Fightback is running a series of articles on the housing crisis in Aotearoa/NZ.

Kassie Hartendorp (Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington) explores the specific housing problems faced by queer youth.

When you start to peer past the rainbow flags and glitter shine of LGBTIQ ‘issues’, there are many more stories to be told that don’t end with a marriage certificate and picket fences. While more privileged people along the rainbow have been able to make gains, it’s easy to forget about those who are nowhere near that pot of gold, despite ‘heartwarming’ Youtube clips from rightwing politicians and banks showing their ‘diversity and inclusion’ with their rhinestone adorned cash machines. There have been important gains made, and each one through great struggle – but we are not at the final frontier yet.

One key issue that often gets swept under the rug is housing and homelessness. The very fact that housing continues to be a need for high numbers of people across the globe means, naturally, that it affects sex, sexuality and gender diverse people as well. But the nature of homelessness can look different for our communities, and have more complex factors taking place.

The NZ Government defines homelessness as “living situations where people have no other options to acquire safe and secure housing. This includes people who are:

without shelter

in temporary accommodation

sharing accommodation with a household

living in uninhabitable housing.

This definition goes further than the stereotype of people living on the street, and can encompass many forms of housing instability. Homelessness figures are difficult to record and track easily. Most people who are in transitional housing or are couchsurfing may not associate themselves with the label of ‘homeless’ which carries a heavy stigma – despite the fact that many have experienced it at some point in their lives. In 2009, the Housing Shareholders Advisory Group estimated that the ‘urban homeless’ or those sleeping rough, numbered less than 300 across the country, yet between 8,000 and 20,000 people were living in temporary accommodation unsuited for long term habitation. Within the past year, service providers say that homelessness is ‘on the rise’ with an Auckland Council report claiming that about 15,000 people in Auckland are “severely housing deprived.”

With housing being a key commodity often left to a profit driven market, it is hard to envision a world under capitalism that would not have high levels of poverty, poor health and homelessness. The gap between the rich and the poor, and reliance on a ‘user pays’ system that means paying for almost everything we need to survive, create exactly the kind of conditions that leave many without affordable, stable and secure accommodation. The causes of homelessness can be heavily linked to and influenced by poverty, mental health experiences, disabilities, addiction issues, emotional health and trauma, sexuality and gender, convictions and imprisonment, unemployment or low wages, a lack of affordable housing and are underpinned by the forces of colonisation, patriarchy, racism and capitalism.

This already shows a complicated snapshot of the context that homelessness takes place in – how does this look for people who are sex, sexuality and/or gender diverse? Figures from the USA show that 40% of homeless young people are LGBTIQ (despite being 10% of the population), yet here in Aotearoa, we don’t have statistics on the state of homelessness for our communities of any age range. Anecdotally, when our friends or whānau struggle to find housing, we often take them in and support each other, but this isn’t reflected on any national database.

Some of the key themes that play out in sex, sexuality and gender diverse homelessness are family breakdowns, discrimination (overt and covert) and isolation. It is a sadly normal occurrence for young people to come out and face family rejection, particularly when they are gender diverse. A common scenario exists where parents will only accept a young person back into their home if they commit to living as the gender they were assigned at birth. It is not a safe or healthy option to force someone to ‘go back in the closet’ or live as someone they are not, for the sake of shelter. Yet agencies such as WINZ have had trouble recognising this as a true ‘relationship breakdown’ in the past and have therefore refused youth payments for teenagers who cannot live in such an oppressive environment.

While poverty is almost always a key factor of general homelessness, a person of any socio-economic status can find themselves unwelcome or kicked out of a family home for their sexuality or gender identity. One of the people I spoke with, who has faced an abusive home life says:

I’m a migrant with rich parents who’s under 21. Is anyone going to think I’m genuinely in need? My parents are pulling the “please come home” act, refusing to give me access to my health insurance policy and telling me instead that if I’m ill they can nurse me back to health if I would only come home, and what am I meant to do?

When family and whānau become a site of pain and trauma for LGBTIQ people, often the only option becomes to find new homes and families that will validate the parts of them that are not accepted in their former home.

Homelessness doesn’t just affect young people, and there are further layers that add complexity to the issue such as race, disability and gender. With a shortage of accommodation in urban areas in particular, if you don’t look ‘normative’, you’re a person of colour, you have children or a disability – the chances are low that you will be the first pick of landlords, housing agencies or even most flatmates. Many gay or queer identifying people can downplay their sexuality, but if someone is ‘non-passing’ as a transgender flat-hunter, they are more likely to experience discrimination.

One interviewee based in Auckland currently shares a single bed with their girlfriend while staying in a person’s storage room. They’ve been told they need to leave soon to make way for another transgender person, with the plan to find a new flat with three other likeminded people. So far, they have had no success in finding a safe, affordable and secure flat to move into.

Nobody wants to rent to a bunch of visibly trans/queer disabled teenagers even if we weren’t fighting a housing market that’s totally against us at the moment? Forty people showing up to flat viewings, most of whom in suit and tie or with parents as guarantors (which, as queer babies most of us are estranged from ours, or they’re really poor) ….. I can’t hide how brown and neurodivergent I am, my girlfriend can’t really pass for a masculine cis dude any more as much as she tries… I’m scared. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Another interviewee who identifies as takataapui taahine and is identified by others as transgender, queer and Māori, says that homelessness is something they are “intimately acquainted with.” From crashing on sofas, staying in vans and squatting in old sheds and abandoned homes as a teenager, their housing stability as an adult started improving after becoming a sex worker, which helped clear their debt and provided an income that didn’t depend on seasonal opportunities. They state that:

Even now though, with my stable job working at an NGO, I am aware that my position is always precarious… I definitely see my expendability as intrinsically linked to being poor, brown, visibly not a heterosexual cis person. It’s indisputably also linked to disability, or directly because of discrimination against it…  My family have no money for me to fall back on. I’ve recently been kicked out of my house because my neighbor complained that my autistic son throws toys and fruit over the fence. I don’t imagine this situation unfolding in this way if I were a more wealthy, middle aged, white, cis, man or woman.

There are almost no safety nets for people who have intersecting battles and experiences, that don’t fit neatly into common ‘gay’ experience. While communities try hard to support each other, there are not many official options. In Wellington, there is already a shortage of temporary emergency accommodation and many of the services that do exist are run by faith-based organisations that have a chequered history with sexual and gender minorities. What is available for those that cannot viably utilise the Men’s Night Shelter or Women’s Boarding House due to their gender identity? How is the safety of LGBTIQ people guaranteed, particularly when they may be fleeing trauma, discrimination and violence in the first place?

Sandra Dickson, a longtime advocate for sexual violence prevention also notes that abusive domestic partnerships can become even more dangerous to those that do not have alternative housing options. Dickson says that the impact of ‘having no family of origin to return to because of homo/bi/transphobia and gender policing’ on people who experience intimate partner violence is under-discussed. Statistics from the UK show that same sex attracted people experience intimate partner violence at the same rate or higher than heterosexual people, bisexual women experience higher rates of sexual violence, and transgender people are most likely of all to experience any form of violence. Without the resources to quantify this information in Aotearoa, it’s difficult to piece together a formal picture on how domestic violence looks for LGBTIQ+ communities, let alone to begin to work on strategies for support and prevention.

He kokonga whare e kitea, he kokonga ngākau e kore e kitea”

The corners of a house can be seen, but not the corners of the heart.

Te Mahana, the Strategy to End Homelessness in Wellington, writes that “if the issue of homelessness is to be adequately addressed for Māori, it is vital that deeper needs such as spiritual, relationships and cultural connection must also be identified, considered and satisfied” and that the heart of the issue is “cultural dislocation and loss of cultural connection.” The link between colonisation, poverty and homelessness runs strong and is hard to address within a setting of profit driven capitalism and a collective historical amnesia regarding land theft and severe cultural grievances at the hands of colonisers.

The ability to find a safe and secure place to rest one’s head goes further than physical walls, it is about having a papakainga, turangawaewae and a place to physically and spiritually rest, settle and heal. Capitalism doesn’t, by nature, build us homes or papakainga. It doesn’t instinctively nurture us culturally, physically, emotionally, socially or spiritually – we have to fight to be seen as anything other than one-dimensional beings that must spend the majority of our time doing meaningless work to survive, rather than living, exploring, creating and re-generating ourselves, our families and our communities. Sara Fraser, Housing Research Assistant says that one of the things she has learnt whilst working in housing research is:

Providing people with good tenure of housing is a pathway to better health and this is as important in our queer communities as elsewhere. We are overrepresented in the suicide and mental health statistics; social housing is one avenue which provides secure tenure, but with the current government having a hands-off approach to housing, I don’t see how the statistics will drop.”

With the National Government’s plans to sell off state housing to NGOs, rather than focusing on building new homes, the housing crisis around Aotearoa doesn’t look set to ease in the near future. Creating safe, secure and stable housing for sexual and gender minorities isn’t compatible with a housing market that is highly competitive when non-normative bodies and existences are policed or discriminated against. A democratic, public housing solution must ensure both free universal access and specific kinds of support; ‘an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’. When asked what safe and secure housing would like to an interviewee, they replied:

I imagine housing security for me personally, looks like living in a community where people care about each others’ well being, where a homeless person doesn’t exist because resources are shared, and where circumstances are recognised and we don’t imagine that we all exist from a zero sum starting point.“

Let’s continue to create more room for possibilities and imaginings as this, where we dream and demand of more than the narrow, and damaging options that are currently given to us. Let’s question the economic conditions that prioritise profits over quality of life, and let’s continue in creating true papakainga for our communities.

* Thank you to those who shared their stories, thoughts and research as contribution to this article. Arohanui to those who live this, and to those who dedicate their lives to supporting others through this.

** This article is used in reference to, inspired and shaped by Te Whare Tapa Wha, the Māori health model developed by Professor Mason Durie.

If you are sex or gender diverse (intersex or transgender) and currently needing emergency accommodation in Wellington/Te Whanganui-a-Tara, feel free to contact the Temporary Emergency Accommodation Project at the 128 Radical Community Social Centre.

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