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Trans-forming homelessness

June 04 2014
Stonewall Housing raising awareness at a recent Pride event Stonewall Housing raising awareness at a recent Pride event
We find out what you need to know about being homeless and transgender

Octavian Starr, of Stonewall Housing, admits that though saddened, he’s not that surprised by the ignorance he encounters about how to support transgender people.

Part of a small team providing specialist housing support and advice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, he finds most of the homeless organisations he works with still don’t know much about it.

Most of them, when asked about certain things that they had said to [trans] people, had broken the law, he admits. “That’s not because they meant to; it’s because they just didn’t know.”

That ignorance shows up in lots of ways. All too often, people who are transgender find that it becomes common knowledge in the agency, despite the fact that they have shown their case worker their Gender Recognition Certificate – a document which means no one should reveal they were assigned a different gender at birth.

Others struggle to get recognition of their status as transgender, or find they are treated as a man, despite presenting as a woman, or vice-versa.

But Starr sees this as a challenge, and it’s something he and his colleagues at Stonewall Housing are hoping to change.

Like it or not, this is a pretty hidden issue, yet though the numbers are small, trans people make up a significant minority of the homeless population.

At Stonewall Housing, 15 per cent of clients are transgender, according to its annual report for last year.

And Housing Justice’s Community Night Shelter Report found that one per cent of guests (from seven night shelters in the 2012/2013 season) fitted the same category.

The Housing Transition Fund found only a few trans clients in its own research (just four, in the data gathered for its report NSNO Across England) but these figures could well be underestimated.

“People don’t even feel comfortable accessing homeless services,” explains Starr. “You see a lot of sleeping rough from trans people, you also see a lot of people using different forms of exploitation to have a place to sleep; so prostitution is very, very large among trans women.”

And it’s not just women on the trans spectrum that face exploitation. When we meet, Starr – who is himself trans – is preparing to lead a workshop at the Respect Male Victims event, about people on the male spectrum being victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

One key problem, he says, is that society at large still has an issue with transgender people – or doesn't understand that ‘trans’ or ‘transgender’ encompasses a huge spectrum of gender identity.

“Most trans women I know, if they’re not seen as ‘passing’ by other people, then they get constant amounts of abuse every day – and they get used to it,” says Starr. “But a person can [only] take that for a certain amount of time before they can’t handle it any more. So this is when we get the high levels of suicidal ideation, depression and then violence. We do have clients in that situation.”

Discrimination can even come from within the wider LGBT community, whether it’s through the use of the pejorative term ‘trannie’ or simple lack of understanding.

“Gay men who are in the gay community and pretty much are only friends with gay men – they don’t see outside their male privilege, it’s like they don’t realise how much they have,” says Starr. “I saw how much privilege I was given when I started presenting as male – it was like night and day.”

Services for transgender people are thin on the ground too.

In the UK there are three gender clinics – in Leeds, London and Manchester – which more and more people are accessing than ever before, says Starr.

But funding cuts at the London clinic mean people are having to wait around a year just to get their first appointment. “It could be upwards of three years before you get any treatment and that’s very difficult if someone’s in a very bad place and really feeling that they need the treatment,” explains Starr.

“That can increase a person’s vulnerability, which can increase their risk of homelessness. They’re trying to get treatment but they can’t get treatment without an address, and then they’re in a state of absolute crisis and the gender clinic won’t give somebody hormones if they’re in a state of crisis. So it’s around and around and around we go.”

Some resort to private care, but at £200 a pop for treatment it’s beyond the means of many – and can lead some to turn to sex work to fund their surgery.

Trans people can also find themselves on the streets after being evicted by their landlords following their change in gender. The requirement for someone applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate to obtain permission from their partner if they’re married can also lead to emotional manipulation – and eventual homelessness.

“A lot of them will lose their jobs when they start transitioning as well, or they find it very difficult battling mental health or transition while trying to hold down a job or manage their families,” adds Starr.

Lack of knowledge about this transition period can cause terrible consequences for homeless service users. If someone’s in the beginning of their transition, for example, and a service doesn’t believe that they ‘pass’, people can be put in the wrong gendered services and therefore at risk of a lot of problems.

Pink News recently reported on an American case in which a woman claims to have been refused access to a two-year housing programme with the Salvation Army because she had not had gender reassignment surgery. Is this an issue here in the UK? “It is an issue here,” admits Starr. “It’s not legal, but they still do it. Under the Equality Act of 2010 you cannot discriminate because of somebody’s trans status, you have to respect the gender that they’re presenting as but that still doesn’t necessarily happen and there are ways they can get around it where they can say they’re not discriminating – they can make up other reasons.”

The picture might sound bleak, but Stonewall Housing is working hard to change it. First up, they are looking at improving access to homeless organisations – and making sure those organisations know about the issues.

“I want organisations to realise that you probably have had a trans client but they probably just didn’t feel comfortable speaking to you,” says Starr.

“You need to be very transparent that your service is not only trans-friendly but also trans-educated – that you know what you’re talking about."

And it’s not just about training sessions. Stonewall Housing is instigating a landmark LGBT Awareness Programme for all No Second Night Out-aligned outreach workers in three pilot areas: east London, Manchester and Brighton to boot. If it’s a success it could be rolled out nationwide.

Funded by a grant of £65,652 from the Homeless Transition Fund, the first step is to develop a ‘tool kit’ for street workers.

People with experience of the issues themselves are key here, with a series of focus groups taking place.If you want to take part in one of the focus groups or be a community researcher, there’s still time. The focus groups start in June and run until the end of August. The format will be very relaxed and organic, says Newman: “It’s not going to be me asking a series of questions; my role is very much to go in and talk to people and find out their experience so that I can feed that into our training.”

But to change perceptions, there’s still a long way to go. Starr can see the glimmers of light; the recently released Trans 100 list; trans actress Laverne Cox (Orange Is The New Black); upcoming Channel 4 documentary series My Genderation, with Fox and Lewis (of My Transsexual Summer fame); Trans* Pride Brighton 2014 (taking place  July 25–27) are all increasing the profile.

Starr himself is working on an independent project about trans people’s ideals of future and possibility: “I don’t want to talk about surgery any more, I’m over it,” he affirms. “I just want to talk about being a person, and what it feels like being a trans person and not being given a voice.”

For help and support contact: or call
020 7359 5767, Monday–Friday, 10am–1pm, then 2pm–5pm


Want to be a Community Researcher?

To help create a toolkit for its LGBT Awareness Programme that includes the voices of LGBT rough sleepers, Stonewall Housing is looking for Community Researchers to lead focus groups and do interviews in London, Manchester and Brighton. The role is “incentivised”, with all your expenses covered, and you will receive training as well as support during the sessions.

The only requirement is that you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and have some experience of homelessness or rough sleeping – or a strong ability to understand someone who has.

For more information email Robin at or call/text 07908 522 972.