Homelessness Is More Than Just Straight White People

LGBT, Aboriginal and migrant communities face huge homelessness issues.

When Mo moved to Melbourne from Perth, they quickly found themselves struggling to find a home. As young, queer, trans person of colour, there weren't a lot of safe housing options.

"They would tell me I could go into refuges, but I’m queer and trans and black, so those places aren't safe for me," Mo told ten daily.

"It was hard to explain why I couldn't use a refuge. There’s no place that accommodates people like me."

Homelessness does not discriminate based on race, gender, age or background. LGBT people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and those from diverse backgrounds experience homelessness at a far higher rate than the wider population.

Homeless people sleep in front of a shop in Sydney (REUTERS/David Gray)

Mo was homeless in Perth after leaving home due to violence. On moving to Melbourne, Mo -- who now has found a place to live -- faced tricky issues in trying to access housing and homelessness support services.

"It was really hard. It sucks reaching out to someone when you're vulnerable and have them not understand you, because they don't get your experience or even understand why it’s a problem," Mo said.

"That hurts. But it wasn’t new to me. I had to deal with it my whole life. I knew not to blame people for not understanding."

Mo's case is not an outlier. Discrimination, violence, and opportunities around education and employment all exacerbate underlying homelessness issues around finances, housing affordability and access.

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“Language challenges and race discrimination can be barriers to employment and other economic participation. Migrants trying to find private rentals may face discrimination by landlords and real estates," Jenny Smith, CEO of Victoria's Council to Homeless Persons, told ten daily.

Almost half of Australia's homeless population --  116,000 people nationally, according to the 2016 census -- were migrants, with the highest number of coming from New Zealand, Sudan, Vietnam, Iran and India.

A 2014 Australian Bureau of Statistics survey found one in three gay or lesbian people, and one in five bisexual people, had experienced homelessness in the previous decade, compared to one in eight heterosexual Australians.

Almost a quarter of Australia's homeless are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, numbering nearly 24,000.

LGBT Australians experience homelessness at a far higher rate than the general population (Getty Images)

LGBT, Aboriginal and migrant homelessness experts all told ten daily how discrimination -- in areas including real estate, employment and education -- compounded broader homelessness factors around finances and violence.

Ruth McNair is an associate professor at the University of Melbourne, and an expert in LGBT homelessness. She said members of the LGBT community were at higher risk of homelessness due to abuse, violence and rejection forcing them to leave the family home.

"Surveys show the first age of homelessness was much younger for LGBT people than others. Moving out of home earlier sets up this cycle of homelessness," she told ten daily.

"In smaller communities, LGBT people can feel rejected by the whole community, not just family, and want to move away from the whole town."

McNair said LGBT people faced discrimination from estate agents in securing private rentals.

"That's quite common and not very well recognised. Estate agents would much rather rent to a married couple," she claimed.

"There are also other issues around shared rentals. Housemates can be homophobic or transphobic. LGBT people often move more often because they can't predict house mates' behaviour."

"It's hard to build skills around sharing accommodation when you keep moving, then there's the overlaying issue of increased substance use or mental health issues from being rejected or abused."

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Robyn Sutherland, a homeless service case worker from the Bungree Aboriginal Association on the NSW central coast, said many of her clients faced racism in obtaining their own properties.

"They will be judged on the way they look, not what's in their bank account. They're discriminated against because they're both Aboriginal and homeless. Getting people into accommodation is a major issue," she told ten daily.

"We're working toward getting people a home. You don't need to be afraid of us. We’re not here to take, we’re here to work towards walking together."

The 2016 census found the overwhelming majority of homeless Aboriginal people were living in 'severely' overcrowded housing, homes needing multiple extra rooms to fit inhabitants comfortably.

"There are also not enough Aboriginal workers in mainstream housing agencies. Bungree is the only Aboriginals-specific housing organisation in NSW," Sutherland said.

"We have homeless people come from Sydney, out west, Newcastle, even Queensland. They're coming because they want to see a black face helping them, to know they won't be treated any differently."

Muslim women experience discrimination which can lead to homelessness (Getty Images)

CHP's Smith said migrants are likely to earn less and have less access to welfare payments, meaning higher risk of homelessness. Cultural factors around gender and class can also impact greatly on housing.

"We've done many studies, and real estate agents just won't rent to a Muslim woman with a hijab," Maha Abdo, CEO of the Muslim Women Association, told ten daily.

"It’s happening continuously. Homelessness is not just when you can't afford a home, but when you're being discriminated against in a systematic way. It puts you at the back of the line."

"You have the means to rent but find it very difficult to jump the hurdles in front of you."

Abdo said her group often acted as a guarantor for leases, hoping to encourage estate agents to rent homes to Muslim people.

"When you build a relationship with the rentals sector, that overcomes that obstacle. But where there are no advocates, it’s a main issue hindering the Muslim community from accessing rentals," she said.

Contact the author: jobutler@networkten.com.au