Wednesday, 21 June 2017

How many LGBT+ people are homeless in the UK?

It would not be an understatement to say we are currently experiencing a homelessness crisis in the UK, especially youth homelessness, particularly due to cuts in Housing Benefit and wider support services. We need to be campaigning and working hard to ensure these changes are reversed, or proposed changes are not implemented. There is also a broad debate about what should be done, although some of the proposed solutions are not necessarily based on the best evidence

One particular aspect of youth homelessness has quietly grown in prominence - the risk and experience of homelessness among people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans- (LGBT+)(1).

Due to this, there’s a statistic that is used in a very commonplace way in the UK – that a quarter of all young people (16-24 year olds) that are homeless identify as LGBT+. It most recently turned up at the start of an episode of Queer Britain on BBC 3 to frame the rest of the programme. In this post I want to question this statistic.

First of all though, whatever the real number is going to be, it will be almost impossible to accurately get because the two categories involved are difficult to define. I’ll start with the relatively easier one: homelessness. I discussed this in a podcast with my colleague Dr Beth Watts, if you want to know a bit more. Basically this is a definitional question. The UK has a legal definition of homelessness (it varies between the devolved jurisdictions) because when you “fit” into this definition a housing authority (usually your local council) then has a duty to house you(2). Outwith Scotland, this is associated with being “priority need”. Housing authorities do returns on how many people they have assessed as homeless using these definitions which are collated nationally. Local authorities also provide housing advice and homelessness prevention services (such as family mediation). This includes a wider group of people who would not necessarily be homeless under the legal definition.

We know that these numbers massively under-report homelessness because we know the majority of people who experience homelessness don’t access local authority housing services, or actually define themselves as homeless. An additional issue is that most researchers would define homeless as not having somewhere safe and secure to stay. Therefore, people who fell out with their parents and sofa-surfed for a few nights would have experienced homelessness under this definition. Asking survey questions about this is a little trickyand unlikely to get data that is useful for statistics. This data is collected at a population-level (the Scottish Household Survey has a fiendishly tricky question on it), but you get a very small n (number of respondees) so you can’t do much  analysis with.

Now, sexual identity. This is extremely difficult to measure, and probably not for the reasons you think. Epistemologically, many queer theorists would legitimately argue you shouldn’t/couldn’t ask this question, as you’re asking people to put themselves into categories that were invented by a patriarchal, heteronormative society to oppress people. It is wrong to ask people to ascribe themselves labels - such as "homosexual" that they vehemently resent and could cause them harm. The less theoretical issue is a technical issue for survey design: what people do and what people say they are is often a different thing; or as my colleague Dr Kirsten Bessemer put it, it’s when a man says “I’m not gay but my boyfriend is”.

The NATSAL survey in the UK demonstrates how this is an issue among young people. Most population surveys in the UK find that c. 3 per cent of the population are not-heterosexual. NATSAL asks about sexual experiences, romantic attachment and sexual identity and gets wildly different answers. It found that 3 percent of men and 4 per cent of women aged 16-24 would describe themselves as gay or bisexual. However, it found that 7 per cent of men aged 16-24 had had a sexual experience with a man and nearly 3 per cent had had at least one sexual partnership with a man in the past five years. Among women aged 16-24, nearly 19 per cent had had a same-sex sexual experience, and 6.2 per cent had had at least one sexual partnership with a man in the past five years. Based on all this, I’m going to be generous and say 5 per cent of 16-24 year-olds are LGBT+.

I’m using the acronym LGBT+ but I’m only really talking about sexual identity. So, an apology to T+ people – I’m not ignoring you, it’s just there is absolutely no data on gender identity, or other complex sexual and gender identities.

Anyway, we don’t know how many people experience homelessness, and we don’t know how many people are LGBT+. So how can we get anywhere near the 25% figure?

In this section I am going to use statistics from England because a) they’re available b) as the biggest nation in the UK, England is most like the UK statistically and c) because Scotland’s homelessness law complicates things (see note 2).

Mid-year population estimates from the Office of National Statistics tell us there are roughly 6,192,870 16-24 year-olds in England. If we estimate that 5 per cent are LGBT+ then we can say about 309,643 of these are LGBT+.

On homelessness, we can use statistics from the Department of Communities and Local Government. In 2016 local housing authorities declared 13,280 people aged 16-24 homeless – this would miss a lot of people, but would include people who had to leave their parental home because their parents threatened violence, or those with mental health problems. It would miss all those in full-time education. If a quarter of them were LGBT+, that would be 3,320 people, 1 per cent of all LGBT+ people. That’s plausible and would mean LGBT+ people are over-represented in this population.

However, local housing authorities deal with a lot more people through an approach called Housing Options – this is an interview with a housing officer where they work to reduce your risk of homelessness, or prevent your homeless, without going down the statutory route. The number of people given these services are collated by DCLG. This gives a (slightly) more accurate figure of who is homeless. In 2016, 200,610 people aged 16-24 in England used these services. Now, 25 per cent of that would be 50,152. If this were the case, this would mean 16 per cent of young LGBT+ people had experienced homelessness, and again it would mean an over-representation compared to a rate for the non-LGBT people of around three per cent.

As I’ve made clear, this is all very difficult to measure. We even know that the 200,610 people who had accessed Housing Options is an underestimate. Some estimates put youth homelessness (including having to sleep with a friend because you have fallen out with your parents) as high as 25 per cent of all young people. This seems high, but even for me, who lived a pretty middle class life as a teenager, it rings true as a few friends did become homeless during these turbulent years. If we use this figure we could estimate that 1,548,217 young people become homeless in a year. Then, 25 per cent of that number is 387,054 – that’s more LGBT homeless young people than there are LGBT+ young people. However, this homelessness rate would be an over-exaggeration as it is a rate for all 16-24 year-olds i.e. 25% of young people experience homelessness at some point when they are young.

Something still does not ring true with the 25 per cent figure though – there are too many questions around it. It also does not match the figures of service users I’m finding in my own research (5-10 per cent). It would be easier to say: we don’t actually know how many LGBT+ young people become homeless. Because we don’t. 

Does it matter? I would say yes, it does, and I say this as a gay man who is passionately interested in this subject and the housing outcomes for LGBT+ people. I would argue it matters for two reasons. Firstly, I think it distracts us from the actual issues around LGBT+ homelessness. The causes of LGBT+ youth homelessness are, from what we know, the same as they are for all young people – family breakdown, unemployment, poverty and mental health. In terms of family breakdown, their sexual or gender identity is very likely to have an intersection with this, or be the primary cause (they are fleeing homophobic or transphobic parents or guardians). However, the key issue to consider then, in a UK context, is what services they can access and some pretty basic issues like:
  • Do services record sexual and gender identity of service users? (we’d then know how many were LGBT+!)
  • Do LGBT+ people consider themselves “candidates” for housing and homelessness services, or are they self-excluding?
  • Are services sufficiently understanding and tailored?
  • How are shelters managed? Are they gendered? How do they respond to homophobia/transphobia?
These are all issues raised by LGBT Youth Scotland in their excellent evidence submission to the current inquiry into homelessness by the Scottish Parliament Local Government and Communities Committee. I shall also be following them up with further blog posts coming out of my current research project.

I think there is also an issues that focusing on this 25 per cent has a danger of foregrounding risks of homelessness associated with sexual and gender identity to the detriment of the widespread risks we know are there, are increasing, and we need to do something about: the massive cuts in housing benefit for young people; poor quality work, that is low paid and insecure; problems with tenure security; lack of suitable affordable housing for rent.

Finally, as a social scientist, I think we have a duty to produce rigorous evidence, particularly when it might be used to inform public policy. Yes, we do not know nearly enough about the experience of LGBT+ people at all, let alone youth homelessness. But we should present statistics such as the quarter with suitable caveats – that we simply do not know, in this case.

(1) I am, very badly, using "trans-" here to cover a multitude of sins - the sins being mine. I'm using this term to cover people who identify as transgender or non-binary, and also people who identify as queer. I know this is wrong, and I know this is a lazy shorthand, but I talk more about definitional issues later on, so please let me off. 

(2) So, the key thing here is “priority need”. Everywhere but Scotland, a local housing authority only owes you a duty of housing under legislation if you have “priority need” – basically four reasons: you are pregnant or a parent or guardian with children; you are disabled, ill or have mental health problems; you are a victim of domestic violence; you have been made homeless by fire, flood or disaster. The first one of these obviously commonly excludes LGBT+ people. Something else to add here is that you also need to a “local connection” to the area. This might indirectly discriminate against LGBT+ people who leave small towns to be with LGBT+ communities in larger cities. 

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Marking season

I finished my spring semester marking yesterday. I estimate I've read about half a million words since 19 April. I set a coursework deadline for a week after our dissertation hand-in deadline, so I make it doubly difficult for myself. But it got me thinking...

There is something odd about the spring marking season that I've noticed in the decade I've now been involved with it. The autumn seems incredibly manic - the pile of marking is on top of everything else, and you're getting ready for the next semester. In spring, the sky is blue, the grass and trees are that vivid green of early season. The oyster-catchers screech outside your windows. The whole campus has a warm, soporific air about it as the cherry blossom drifts down into the courtyards.

The corridors are quiet. Doors are shut as people take their piles of exam scripts home, or plough through Turnitin assignments. Every now and then you pass a group of students huddled in a corridor, sharing notes about their upcoming exam, or doing the post-exam debrief. Yet the whole place is hushed and oddly calm. Even Twitter seems quieter. People have nothing to talk about, except their marking. 

Yet there is the stress underlying it all. And this is proper, I have absolutely no power, stress. This stuff has to be marked before the Exam Boards or those students ain't graduating. If you speak to people they have a deadened look on their face from just reading endlessly, or dealing with the administration of the thousands of grades. You end up noticing spelling and grammatical errors in everything you read. Every text gets a mental mark out of 100. You can't think of anything else, but the marking. 

And then it's done. 

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Are you gay?

I’m currently carrying out a small research project funded by the British Academy on the experience of homelessness among young people who identify as LGBT+, and people who identify as LGBT+ and live in the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland. You can read more about the project here, and it emerged from the research I blogged about here and set out the agenda for my current research, challenging narrative of gentrification, here.

We have employed a research assistant to interview people who identify as LGBT+ and I am interviewing people who work with housing associations, local authorities and homelessness organisations. All these organisations, and people, have been amazingly committed to advancing equality and really wanted to learn from my research, as well as providing some excellent examples of good practice.

A few of these organisations have been very open in admitting they don’t routinely collect data on the sexual or gender identity of people, beyond the simple male/female monitoring. They’ve also said it is something they were going to start doing soon. One participant suggested that they didn't do this recording historically because in Scotland (and I’d add, probably the whole UK) this was probably because people feel awkward about asking about sexuality, and being asked about it.

Now, what I’m about to explain I’m sure millions of people have argued (indeed the wonderful folk at LGBT Youth Scotland who are helping me with this research point this out) and I’d welcome academic references to this point, but…I dwelt on this for a while and it’s really fucking heteronormative to not routinely ask service users about their sexual orientation because of a feeling of discomfort.

Because, you see, the 95% of you reading this who identify as heterosexual never have to explain your sexual identity because everyone presumes you are straight. You feel awkward being asked about who you have a sexual relationship with because you have never had to justify it. Every time I, or anyone else who identifies as LGB, has to answer that question we are coming out to a stranger. We don’t know how you would react. Actually, it usually makes me feel more comfortable. Yet organisations choose not to ask this question for fear of making people feel uncomfortable, or insulting people; straight people who really don’t have to worry about this at all.

Why does this matter? Before I get to that, it’s important to note that it is very difficult to ask a good question about what someone’s sexual identity is. Technically, in a survey, you should ask three questions: what sexual identity someone identifies with; who they usually form romantic relationships with; and who they have sex with. In the UK the NATSAL is the only survey that manages to do that. However, the social scientists at the Scottish Government and Office for National Statistics found that something along the lines of “How would you describe your sexual identity” with the choices “Gay/Lesbian”, “Bisexual”, “Straight/heterosexual” and “Prefer not to answer” does a good enough job. The same applies around asking people about their gender identity, or what pronouns they prefer. And, as Katherine Brown argues in this book chapter, despite the fact such survey questions impose identities on people, it’s better to know something about this population than nothing.

And this is why it matters. This is why people need to get over their straight, heteronormative cringe with asking people about their sexuality and sexual identity because then you can do something about it. To give a housing example, a tenant might report anti-social behaviour and abuse. This might be a homophobic or transphobic hate crime. As a body, you have a duty under the Equality Act (2010) to prevent harassment and discrimination, so your staff should be trained to help tenants report a hate crime. If you had never asked your tenants if they were LGBT+ identifying then your tenants might not feel comfortable in explaining that it was a homophobic or transphobic hate crime. On a more mundane level, partners who live in a socially-rented home in Scotland can be added onto tenancies so they have succession rights. It wouldn’t surprise me if many LGB identifying tenants might not think this would apply to their partners. Again, asking tenants their sexual and gender identity when they move in would make them feel comfortable – they would know you wanted to know – and so they would be happier to add new partners to tenancies.

So, are you gay? A simple question, but one we’re still not asking enough. 

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Personal Archives

As I don’t cease to remind people, my first degree was in history, so I love a good archive. When I truly felt I’d “got there” as a proper historian was when I set off for a day at the National Archives in Kew to read some documents for my undergraduate dissertation on the postwar redevelopment of Bradford City Centre – Labor Omnia Vincit. In the manilla folder of papers I discovered a cracking internal memo from the Ministry of Town and Country Planning despairing of the City Engineer’s plans for a very tightly bounded inner-ring road (the bit Bradfordians ended up knowing as Hall Ings) which was completely contrary to Ministry guidance. I vividly recall sitting on a bench outside on a cold winter morning, eating my lunch, watching the planes fly into Heathrow, and feeling a bit miserable.

My PhD also took a bit of a historical approach – analysing the New Life for Scotland Partnerships which existed from 1989 – 1999. Doing this I bumped into some more informal archiving. One of my case study neighbourhoods was Ferguslie Park. The nieghbourhood had also been subject to one of the UK’s earliest regeneration initiatives, the Community Development Project. Ferguslie CDP ran from 1972-1977. Like all good policy in the white-heat of the technological revolution, each CDP was twinned with a nearby University. In Ferguslie Park’s case, this was the University of Glasgow, where I did my PhD, and looking around the Adam Smith Library there one day, I happened upon a just-about-complete-set of reports on the CDP that proved invaluable for my thesis and to understand the timing of urban change in the neighbourhood. I say just-about-complete, I later found a report Whatever Happened to Council Housing? produced by the Ferguslie Park CDP team for the national CDP which included the cracking line describing the 1930s slum clearance tenements in places like Ferguslie Park as "cuts housing, neglected before it was even built". 

The other joyous archive I’ve used is those of local history libraries (many now closing due to funding cuts). The local history librarian at Bradford Central Library grew quite fond of me popping up to the seventh floor two-or-three times a week during the summer in 2003 and requesting the books of minutes of the meetings of Bradford County Borough Corporation. I ended up going through every volume from 1945-1965. Over the years they had also collected fantastic boxes of newspaper cuttings about developments in the city centre; and of course had all the local papers archived on microfiche. My visits made a welcome change to the people researching family history.

In my PhD I was lucky that the regeneration partnerships in my two case study neighbourhoods had funded community history projects. The local libraries in Ferguslie Park, Paisley Central Library, and Wester Hailes library, thus had kept great records from official documents and community projects that told me a lot about what had happened.

Being someone who studies urban policy, policy and urban planning documents are a key source of research material. Also, universities that teach these subjects tend to gain a load of such material in their libraries. The trouble is, understandably, librarians need to move on stock that is no longer useful, or is taking up space that could otherwise be used, so books and reports are cleared out. It is for this reason that I ended up saving a full set of the annual reports of the Scottish new town development corporations from Heriot-Watt University library when I was a Lecturer there. These are now in the safe-keeping of a colleague (it was a bit too much for me to move them on when I left for Stirling).

The other archival material you end up with as an academic is your colleagues’ materials. This blog post is inspired by a colleague Dr Melanie Lovatt, who told me a very moving story about some books she inherited after her PhD research. With demographics being the way they are, and Scottish universities running enhanced severance packages, my bookshelves have swelled with books from retired colleagues. Some of these are third-hand as well.

But you also end up inheriting more ephemeral archival material. One of the best stories here is the J.R. James Archive, run by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield. As I understand the story, my colleague Dr Alasdair Rae moved into a new office at Sheffield, and there were some boxes of slides and other stuff from a former incumbent – Professor J.R. James. Realising these were an amazing archive of postwar British town planning, he managed to get money for two students to spend a summer digitising the slides, and then working out what they were and putting it all on Flickr for anyone to access. You truly can spend hours on the archive website.

I now have my own little archive. A colleague recently retired from Heriot-Watt. Before she joined the University in the 1990s she had worked as a planning consultant at Pieda. Knowing my interest in archives, history and regeneration, she saved a box of random documents for me. It’s an absolute treasure trove of random documents going back to the 1980s, and I thought I’d share some highlights.

One bit of it, is a box of stuff on Glasgow East Area Renewal (GEAR). GEAR matters a lot in Scotland. The proposed new new town of Stonehouse was cancelled by the Scottish Office to fund GEAR instead in the late 1970s, and it was the first Scottish attempt to use partnership working, as envisaged in the 1977 Inner Areas Act, to try and revive a derelict and deindustrialised inner-city area. This giant map shows the extent to GEAR:

As I understand as well, one of the other interesting things about GEAR was the final evaluation of it was never publicly published. It was not exactly glowing, but still GEAR ended up being the model for how to “go” urban regeneration for about the next 20 years. And, voila, I have a copy of a draft of the evaluation executive summary:

The same box also contains documents from the Scottish Development Agency and Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh and Lothians on The Leith Improvement Project – the 1980s project to regenerate Leith. Thanks to that, I’m typing this from the converted warehouse we now live in. By the time it was converted in the early 2000s, that regeneration project had been so successful, that no subsidy was needed for the developer to take on the risk of the redevelopment.

As I’ve already mentioned, my PhD was on two New Life for Urban Scotland partnerships and I now have my very own copies of their original strategies and a whole host of other documents:

I also have a whole host of other documents from the two other partnerships in Whitfield and Castlemilk, along with a load of stuff from the slightly later Priority Partnership Areas including some stuff on Motherwell and Pilton.

Finally, the other interesting tit-bit is this typed document – it’s undated and has been marked in red with some corrections.

It is a report on possible developer contributions to build a light-rail or metro system in Edinburgh – the Edinburgh Trams! Now, I didn’t realise they’d had such a lengthy history, but when I posted this on Twitter last year someone got back to me with a scan of a pamphlet from Lothian Regional Council from the early 1990s, describing a rapid transit scheme that would be similar to what has been built. The line went from Wester Hailes (rather than the airport) down the The Gyle and into the city centre; a branch went off to Leith and Granton; another branch went off into a tunnel under the Old Town, to remerge and run a route roughly out to where the Royal Infirmary is now. I can only presume it was proposed under the 1994 Lothian Structure Plan – I’d welcome any further knowledge.

This report just details possible development locations along the western route estimating how much planning gain they might be able to get out of developers attracted to these sites that were soon to be serviced by a brand-new tram. He report glumly concludes that only £5-£10 million could be expected. That would be around £7-£14 million in 2010 when the tram did eventually get started on construction. Edinburgh Council did end up using developer contributions to help pay for the tram. I can’t find an exact figure, although £45 million is discussed in some reports as being money CEC put towards the project from “developer contributions and capital receipts”. If anyone knows of a precise figure, it would be interesting to know if Pieda’s estimates were correct, whenever that report was written.

I don’t really know what I’ll do with this box. It’s currently just sat in our bedroom, as it’s difficult for me to get it to Stirling. But, as my followers on Twitter know, I’ve a soft-spot for Milton Keynes as I really think it is one of the greatest successes of town planning ever. And, at the end of the week the city turned 50, and inspired by Melanie, I just thought it would be nice to blog about these odd little personal archives one ends up with.