Sascha* was 16 when he was kicked out of home by his mother and stepfather who did not agree with his trans identity and were challenged by his behaviour.
Their rejection and relentless transphobic abuse compounded Sascha’s body dysmorphia and poor mental health which led to self-harm and drug misuse.
The 17-year-old, who has Autism, was alternating between sleeping in a car and couch-surfing at a mate’s house when he presented in crisis to Centacare’s Outer North Youth Homelessness Service (ONYHS) last month.
Sascha is among a growing number of trans young people reaching out to the service after falling into homelessness on the back of family breakdown and other complexities including intellectual disability.
ONYHS Manager Tracy Ingram says trans and gender-diverse adolescents are a fast-emerging cohort in the homelessness sector, with the number of presentations at Centacare increasing in the past two years. Currently, the ONYHS is supporting five trans young people.
“It shows us that the young people trust us, and that they know there is someone out there who can help,’’ Tracy said.
The increase in the number of at-risk teens engaging with specialist support services is a step forward, Tracy adds.
Australia lags other countries in developing research, policy and best practice regarding LGBTIQ+ homelessness.
“Trans young people are more likely to want to leave home, or be asked to leave home, because their family is not accepting of them wanting to change or of them being different,’’ Tracy said.
“But the same cohort is often the most reluctant to ask for help because they don’t know who we are or whether services will be accepting of them.
“We are on a steep learning curve. The youth sector is aware and is wanting to make sure we do not exclude these young people, and we are stepping up to try and do what we can.
“This requires all of us to look at how we traditionally operate services, and how we can change those responses to be more inclusive.’’
Tracy highlights Carlow Place at Elizabeth, which provides emergency and 24-hour supported accommodation for eight young people aged 15 to 18 years who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
Previously, the site’s two houses were split between each sex. Centacare overhauled this a year ago when it renamed the houses after local streets, scrapped the gender divide, and changed signage, imagery and language to reinforce Carlow is a safe and inclusive environment.
“It is more about understanding who the young person is and how they are presenting, and how we will work with them,’’ Tracy said “as opposed to only accepting a male because there’s a vacancy in the male house’’.
“Now, if there is a room available, it’s about who will fit best in the house, not because of how they identify.’’
That includes balancing client safety concerns, said Victoria Markovic, ONYHS Adolescent Specialist Case Manager.
“We are learning about how to best support trans young people and how to be inclusive, but also how to balance other client concerns around safety,’’ she said.
“Some people might feel that to even suggest someone might feel unsafe around someone who’s trans is not being inclusive, but it is just acknowledging that some young people might have hesitations or fear due to their own trauma stories, and you have to keep that in mind if you are looking at safety across the board.
“We never want to put anyone in a housing situation who may be bullied because of who they are and feel unsafe at night.’’
The Writing Themselves in 4 report, released by La Trobe University in early 2021, engaged 6418 LGBTQA+ young people aged 14 to 21 years in Australia – the largest national survey of its kind to date.
The survey found that nationally, one in four (23.6 per cent) of participants had experienced one or more forms of homelessness in their lifetime, and more than a quarter (26.0%) of participants felt that this experience was related to being LGBTIQA+. This was most common among trans men (45.2%) and trans women (37.9%).
Close to one in five participants reported that they had become homeless after running away from home or the place they live (17.4%) or being asked to leave home (10.5%).
“We have clients who desperately want to leave home like Sasha did, because they are not accepted for who they are, but they fear what will happen if they do leave and then cannot secure stable housing.
“There is a fear of things being worse if they leave, and then try to return again if there are no options for them.’’
Victoria said the whole community had a part to play to bridge the gap in supporting trans and gender-diverse young people.
“Innovation from the ground up is needed’’ she said.
“If we all value young people being safe, connected to community and supported, we will find the services that are out there to help them get their needs met in a client-centred way.’’
*Not his real name
In Australia, more than 116,000 people experience homelessness on any given night. Homelessness Week aims to raise awareness of the impact of homelessness, the importance of housing as a solution, and how communities can make a difference. This year’s theme is `To end homelessness we need a plan.’ For more information visit Homelessness Australia.