John* was in the early stages of medical transition. Deciding to live openly as a trans man, after many years of deliberating, had caused his marriage to break down and compromised access to his child. These events led to serious mental health repercussions for him.
When John was interviewed for a new Shelter Cymru research study, he was living primarily in his van in rural Wales. He’d been homeless for nearly two years.
Despite having several decades of employment history he was working casual hours and trying hard to get a better-paid job – but none of his interviews had yet led to a job offer. He hadn’t told his employer about his trans status, believing that it would cost him work.
He had also not approached local authority homelessness services for help. Partly this was because he was under the impression that he wouldn’t be eligible for assistance as he was working a few hours a week.
He also had serious reservations about how he would be treated: like many other trans people, he worried that presenting to services would be an unpleasant experience in which his gender would be scrutinised and questioned.
Shelter Cymru’s new report, authored by PhD researcher Edith England, found that around half of the trans people interviewed had not used homelessness services despite clearly being homeless, sometimes over protracted periods.
The study, believed to be one of the largest datasets of homeless trans people in the UK, found that concerns over safety were a key factor keeping trans people from accessing help.
As well as sharing homelessness risk factors with LGBTQ+ people as a whole, such as family rejection, the study found that two additional factors existed for trans people.
First, relationship breakdown was an issue for trans people of all ages, often compounded by abuse.
Second, trans people often became homeless as a result of economic insecurity, with loss of employment especially associated with coming out as trans.
People who were accessing formal support for transitioning socially, legally and/or medically often found that maintaining access became extremely challenging once they were homeless.
But despite trans people’s fears about using homelessness services, the study found that some people who did use services had positive experiences. The overall picture was of services that want to help trans people, even though staff were not always aware of the best way to do this.
One solution that emerged was the need for specialist training for frontline staff – not just standard equalities training.
Trans people also expressed a strong preference for LGBTQ+ specific – or better yet, trans-specific – accommodation and support services, not only for young people but across the lifespan. Although this was seen as the ideal solution, there’s also a need for mainstream services to be accessible to trans people. Local authority service commissioners need to consider how this can be achieved in a way that is flexible and person-centred, rather than a generic one-size-fits-all approach.
John saw employment as his route out of homelessness. But repeated knockbacks from job interviews were taking a toll on his confidence: ‘Obviously I look good on paper because I’m getting interviews but I’m just not getting the work,’ he said. ‘And it’s quite gutting really, and I don’t know whether it’s because there’s something about me personally.
‘It could be because I’m trans, it could be because when they get my CV and they see a man’s name and they think this is going to be a man and then I turn up and they look at me and they think this isn’t a man.
‘It could be that it isn’t discrimination, it could be that there’s always a better candidate. But it starts to feel like, when you’re not ever getting a job, it starts to feel like it’s something personal. Especially when you’re always getting interviews and then you’re not getting a job.’
* Name changed to protect anonymity