Ending queer youth homelessness

How student-led campaigns are driving the fight.

In April, the ABC exposed the ousting of a resident at ANU’s Ursula Hall after sustained homophobic bullying and discrimination. As a queer activist this broke my heart, but it wasn’t at all surprising.

With rising poverty and costs of living, stories such as these are increasingly common. The issue is becoming even more visible as more universities open 24/7 study spaces; one Reddit thread reveals confessions from staff and students across Australia that this is happening on their campuses too.

When I was Queer Officer at the University of New South Wales in 2014, our Queer Collective discovered a history of people discreetly living in the space over the summer break and during semester. Some had been kicked out of home; some had been evicted by a dodgy landlord. This was an issue that arose virtually every year since the space was set up.

Almost every time this occurred, those using the space for accommodation went to great lengths to conceal it, variously out of politeness to other users, a desire not to burden the officers, and often also out of fears they’d be harassed or kicked out of the space (and worse, outed as being homeless).

We discovered a history of people discreetly living in the (queer) space over the summer break and during semester.

The overwhelming lesson to learn from these experiences was that there just wasn’t any trust in either their elected representatives, UNSW staff or the LGBTQIA+ community on campus for them to seek help or be open about their situation.

In response, our collective and student union launched a successful campaign to establish crisis accommodation on campus for those in need. Students can access rooms for up to two weeks, with options to extend, and get fast access to interest-free emergency loans alongside counselling, psychological and financial support services.

Despite successes like these at UNSW and other campuses, there’s still a long way to go. Thankfully, students across the country are already taking the first steps.

What we know about queer homelessness in Australia

Despite years of students calling for national data on LGBTQIA+ homeless, none currently exist. The snapshots of data we do have are telling: The Australian Human Rights Council estimates that one in four homeless youth in NSW identifies as gay or lesbian, while 17% of Brisbane Youth Service clients identified as queer in 2016. This data reveals a vastly disproportionate rate of homelessness among LGBTQIA+ youth. These figures don’t even touch upon the experiences of senior members of the queer community, many of whom have been forced to ‘go back into the closet’ to live in retirement homes, or face discrimination and bullying from new and unaccepting communities.

For those already struggling, a lack of public housing and access to services can leave few options on the table. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, over 200 people are turned away from basic services every day in Australia. Jasmine Duff and Kim Stern, Queer Officers for the National Union of Students (NUS), highlight the 66% increase in homelessness in Victoria and 117% rise in NSW in the past decade as indicative of a housing crisis that disproportionately impacts minorities and low socio-economic groups.

Since that data was gathered, things haven’t gotten much better. Political attacks on the LGBTQIA+ community have continued, alongside systemic thrashing of welfare recipients.

An example of this is the dissolution of the Safe Schools program in some states, and the constant attacks it faces generally, which heightens the risks of young queer people facing discrimination, bullying and a lack of access to resources that will help them escape abusive situations. It ultimately means that more of our youth are going to end up on the streets with no idea of who to turn to or where to go.

It’s not all doom and gloom

Thankfully, solid work is already being undertaken by students across the country. The Australian Queer Student Network (AQSN) launched their Ending Queer Youth Homelessness campaign in 2015. Last year, they co-authored a Senate motion with Greens and Labor MPs, calling on state and federal governments to provide national data on queer homelessness and to include LGBTQIA+ specific programs and funding within National Housing and Homelessness Agreement plans. The motion was ultimately blocked by the Liberals, Nationals, One Nation and Derryn Hinch.

AQSN homelessness action, 2015

This year, AQSN plans to launch an Ending Queer Youth Homelessness portal, providing information on community and campus-based resources for those in need, as well as activist kits to kickstart local campaigns. As part of this rollout, AQSN aims to provide every campus with posters and booklets designed to reduce the stigma surrounding the issue.

The NUS Queer Officers are organising a contingent to the Public Housing Defence Network’s upcoming rally against Victorian Government plans to privatise even more public housing. Duff and Stern claim that, with less access to affordable homes and less beds available for those in need, “it’s no surprise that LGBTI people struggle to find an affordable place to stay if they’re kicked out of home.”

Student representatives are also planning to draw attention to the issue on campuses across the country for International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, on May 17. Natrydð Sigurthur, President of the University of South Australia’s Rainbow Club, says “queer youth are largely overlooked by services which fail to consider their unique needs.” Unlike many campuses, the University of South Australia has neither a queer space, a paid LGBTQIA+ student representative nor an ally network.

The absence of these vital resources can make it even harder for queer students and staff who face crisis living situations or queerphobia to access support. This can especially be an issue for smaller and regional campuses and those without properly funded student unions.

There’s still much more that has to be done

At UNSW, we’re lucky to have a good system of services provided through the student union and the university itself. Despite this, most students don’t have any idea these services exist. Life-changing resources are often hidden for fears of being overwhelmed by demand for limited resources; a factor which reveals just how wide-reaching these issues are.

Universities and governments must be willing to provide more funding to student unions so that those in need can access services to help them get back on track with their lives and studies.

The queer community should harness the momentum of the marriage equality campaign and direct it into campaigns to reinstate and expand Safe Schools, to provide LGBTQIA+ friendly emergency accommodation and crisis support resources and to stamp out queerphobia in retirement homes and wherever it rears its head.

But it also means lending our strength to wider campaigns for a serious expansion of social housing, greater protections against dodgy landlords and for a compassionate welfare system that doesn’t criminalise and victimise people doing it tough.

Universities and governments must be willing to provide more funding to student unions so that those in need can access services to help them get back on track with their lives and studies. Often overlooked is the fact that, alongside rising poverty and costs of living, student unions have either had their funding decimated or dissolved entirely thanks to the Howard Government’s removal of Universal Student Unionism in 2005.

Student unions across the world are vital when it comes to providing support for the most vulnerable in society, whether that’s through mass movements or the provision of frontline services. Yet no political party has seriously taken up the campaign to reinstate the funding lost through Howard’s attack.

Dylan Lloyd in UNSW’s Queer Space. Photo: Michelle Ng

In the wake of the ever-increasing attacks on higher education, students and vulnerable people generally, it’s so important that we mount a strong campaign to revitalise student unions.

None of this can be achieved if there’s a lack of interest in starting these campaigns. Members of queer communities on campuses and throughout society have to take a serious look at ourselves in the wake of our successful fight for marriage equality last year and think sincerely about the change we can achieve when we give it our all.

Get involved with AQSN’s Ending Queer Youth Homelessness campaign here.

Follow the Victorian Public Housing Defence Network for information on their upcoming actions.

Dylan Lloyd is a fifth-year Bachelor of Criminology and Criminal Justice/Bachelor of Laws student at the University of New South Wales. Dylan was Queer Officer for UNSW (2014), NSW State Queer Officer for NUS (2015) and Co-convener for AQSN (2015).

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