17 Nov 2020

Why 1 in 5 transgender people experience homelessness

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From HERE WE ARE, 9:00 am on 17 November 2020

Angelo was kicked out of home at 14. He's one of many trans New Zealanders who have been homeless. Murphy and Susan Strongman explore the country's grim statistics. 

Warning: this article contains discussion of suicide and other content that may be distressing.

Here is a list of things a person is too young to do when they are 14: Get a learner licence, consent to sex, get a tattoo without parental permission, buy a Lotto ticket, buy alcohol, vote. 

Yet 14 is the age at which Angelo*, a transgender teen who is hard of hearing and sometimes struggles with psychosis and hallucinations, first experienced homelessness.

It was about 8pm on a weeknight and he'd been playing lacrosse after school. That evening, when he opened the door of the family home - one of two he'd lived in since his family migrated to New Zealand when he was a baby - he walked into an argument between his parents and his older sister.

"That's my brother. You can't treat him like that," he heard his sister say. 

But Angelo's parents didn't accept that their son was male, and his sister's language - "brother", "him" - sent their father into a violent rage.

"It just turned into a huge fight. And then they just kicked us out." 

With no time to go inside and get their things, he and his sister were left on the street with nothing but Angelo's schoolbag. 

Angelo is 19 now. As he speaks, his glasses slowly slide down his nose, and the fringe of his bleach-blond hair flops across his face. He describes his mental health as "shaky" - he has bipolar disorder and severe anxiety.

"So, I think I should probably lay out my family relationships," he says. 

He leans forward in his chair and carefully places an empty iced coffee cup on a coaster. Quietly spoken, he punctuates his sentences with "so", "yeah" and "like". 

"So, my mum hates me. She doesn't hate me per se, but she just doesn't agree with, in her words, 'my lifestyle'. Whatever that means. So, yeah."

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Almost one in five trans and non-binary New Zealanders have been homeless, according to 2018 survey Counting Ourselves. The proportion is even higher for non-European survey participants (a quarter), while 16 percent of European participants have experienced homelessness, the study found. 
 
Another survey, by Gender Minorities Aotearoa, found of 43 trans homeless people in Wellington, 79 percent had a mental health condition, and 47 percent had a disability. The survey, which is yet to be released publicly, also found that for three quarters of participants, homelessness had been experienced more than once. 

For some gender diverse people, intersecting identities - like ethnicity, disability, religion or sexuality - can compound to make life even more difficult. The cumulative effects of these minority stresses can result in mental health difficulties and stable housing is a key ingredient in the maintenance of good mental health. 

READ MORE FROM THIS SERIES: Woman evicted with 3 hours’ notice for being transgender

 

Participants of the Counting Ourselves survey who were kicked out of home because of their gender said they struggled to find housing that welcomed trans or non-binary people. The survey also found employment discrimination and violence against trans and non-binary people contributed to a cycle of homelessness.

"I got kicked out of a flat because they decided that trans women aren't really women," one participant said. "Because I was trans, I was a target for workplace bullying, which is why I lost my job and ended up on a benefit with mental health issues, which in turn is why I got kicked out of another flat. When I was living in a car, I went back to presenting as male for safety reasons... Charity drop-in centres aren't the safest of spaces."

It's a grim situation, and it's likely survey numbers don't accurately represent the whole picture. The extent of homelessness is hard to measure within any group. And as University of Auckland researcher Tycho Vandenburg explains, trans and gender diverse people aren't even counted in the Census - let alone in rough sleeping counts. 

"Part of it also comes down to how we understand homelessness in New Zealand. When most people think of homelessness, they revert to the idea of a streety who is sleeping rough on a park bench. In reality, homelessness is far more complex than this. 

"People who are couchsurfing at their mate's house, living in overcrowded homes, living in a garage or a car... These kinds of situations are what we call 'invisible homeless,' because it is much more out of the public eye," Vandenburg says. 

Other living situations that fit within Statistics New Zealand's definition of homelessness include shelters and women's refuges, boarding houses, motor camps, caravans and tents. But people living like this won't necessarily consider themselves homeless, meaning they won't be counted in data collected by support services, or by ticking a 'homeless' box on a survey form. 

One in three is a more realistic estimate of the number of homeless trans and gender diverse people in New Zealand, Vandenburg says.

And though research suggests the breakdown of family relationships is the main driver of homelessness for LGBTIQ+ youth, it's far from being the only one. It's also important to note that often these people - people like Angelo - are forced to choose between staying in an unsafe family home environment or leaving in order to safeguard their own mental and physical wellbeing.

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Angelo describes his parents as being incredibly conservative, traditional and Catholic. They viewed the physical violence that they directed towards him and his sisters as discipline. They were never ok with their son's transness or queerness and Angelo grew up not understanding that people with diverse genders and sexualities existed. 

He also didn't understand that the gender he identified with was not the one he was assigned at birth. Angelo recalls the day he discovered this in vivid detail. He was in a health class, aged 8. "That's when my dysphoria started, and I was like, 'Oh, my God, people think I'm a girl', and I just wanted to die." 

But his parents dug their heels in. When he was 10, they sent him to a Catholic girls' school. His relationship with his mum and dad - and his own mental health - continued to deteriorate. In his early teens, as puberty began to kick in, he was hospitalised with a severe eating disorder. "I just really didn't want to, you know, feminise."

In hospital, Angelo says his doctor explained that he wasn't "weird" or "crazy". The dysphoria he was experiencing - plus the suicidal ideations, feelings of worthlessness and abnormally low body weight - was likely triggered by an internal struggle between who he was and the conservative worldview his upbringing had generated. 

The doctor also told Angelo's parents, with his permission, that their son was trans. They refused to allow him to come home from hospital. With nowhere to be discharged to, Angelo estimates he remained in a ward for about three and a half months, before his father eventually caved and took him home.

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About six months later, Angelo and his sister found themselves huddled together in the wintry darkness on the road outside their home, having been kicked out after the fight with their parents over his gender.

Angelo hadn't told any of his friends that his parents were abusive. But his sister had told hers. She called one, who came to pick them up. The siblings stayed with the friend for a fortnight, until their parents cooled off and let them return. It was the start of an unsettling cycle that has never really ended for Angelo - his parents blowing up and kicking him out, being allowed home for a period of calm, leaving when things got bad again. 

On that first night, Angelo doesn't know where he would have ended up if he hadn't been with his sister. "Luckily, I had her and she has good friends."

Since then, when he's been kicked out of home or has left on his own accord, he's slept on friends' couches, in bus stops, at parks, even in the doorway of his high school during a winter storm. Sometimes people have helped him. Mostly, he's just been left alone. 

He likes sleeping in churches best. "I'd sleep in the pews and use one of, like, the kneeling pillows. No one would be there at all. So it was peaceful and quiet. And it was warm.

"I never felt like I was in danger. For some reason, late at night, you know, when there's no one around, I feel so much safer. Whereas most people be like, 'Oh, what if you, like, get stabbed? Or murdered? Or mugged?' I didn't really care for that because like, I mean, I have nothing on me.

"I, at that point in my life, I mean, I'd be okay if I died. And it was better than being at home. I couldn't sleep when I was at home, I was, you know, being out on the streets actually gave me more of a sense of calm and safety than my parents ever did."

Angelo's description of his family home as a place of risk mimics the experiences relayed to researchers by 27 trans and gender diverse young people in the US who had experienced homelessness. Members of the group told researchers their family homes were threatening places that they were fortunate to escape from. When asked where they would be if they had not left, one third said they were likely to have taken their own life.

After leaving their homes, members of the group described finding a "community of which they felt a part, accessing information they needed, and developing skills of which they were proud."

During periods when he was not allowed home, Angelo would sneak into the house while his parents were out. "I just got used to living like that, where I was just always sneaking around. And I never really viewed myself as, like, homeless or whatever, because I was still able to access my parents' house to shower and sneak food and get changed, and whatever - my stuff was still there. And then if I needed to, I could go to a friend's place, and stay the night and not even tell them why. I never really told anyone about this stuff." 

On one occasion, in order to get the documents he needed to apply for a benefit, Angelo broke into the house, took his birth certificate, passport, and citizenship documentation, photocopied them, then returned them. 

Despite not having the stability of a home, Angelo kept busy by volunteering for community organisations, where he made friends with like-minded, supportive people. It was doing this unpaid work that he learnt what government support he was entitled to and how to get the stuff he needed to get by. 

"I definitely think there's just something about the way that I am where I'm the kind of person who just takes all the cards that are handed me and just works with it... I guess I don't know any different, you know, that's just kind of how it had been for the past, you know, years."

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Photo: RNZ / Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho

 

But for other homeless people, survival can mean developing skills that are incongruous with mainstream society, placing them at risk or leading to interactions with the justice system.

At 45, Alice* has just eaten Mexican food for the first time - a chicken quesadilla. She says she likes it, but it's possible she's just being polite. Perched on a stool, she cradles a cup of tea as she talks. Once the tea is finished, she puts the cup down and picks up her keys to fidget with instead.

When Alice first started working on the streets in her teens, the other girls said she dressed like Neneh Cherry. Today she's dressed casually - no makeup - just pants, a plain top and jandals. Her dark hair is combed into a tight bun that sits right on the top of her head.

Alice says she's shy. She doesn't like to talk about her feelings, but admits she gets sad sometimes - about being unemployed, rejected for the jobs she applies for again and again.

"As soon as I mentioned that I've got a criminal conviction, they don't want to know me. And they should just look past that, and look at what I can do - because I'm a hard worker.

"That's what saddens me; that I've applied for all these jobs in the last couple of weeks, and I've got messages back saying, 'Sorry, we found a suitable candidate for this role'. Or, 'No, you don't need to come in for an interview, we've found someone', things like that. 

"Bullshit." She pushes the word out from the pit of her stomach. "As soon as I've mentioned that I've got a criminal conviction you don't even want to know me." She inhales sharply, crosses her legs the other way, continues to fiddle with the keys. 

"I like having interviews face-to-face, because then I can tell them everything about myself before they even think about going there. Put it all out there on the table, you know, if you want to hire me, hire me. If you don't, well then tough."

Alice was 15 when she ran away from home - left her abusive father in Manukau, South Auckland, moved in to the city, hung around with street kids, sniffed glue, sold sex, stole to get by, slept on couches or under bridges.

Police caught her stealing food from a market (her attempt to hide in an air duct above a toilet cubicle was foiled by a member of the public,) and she was placed in a home run by whāea Betty Wark. There she made friends, got into a routine, learnt kapa haka and gardening. But after about six months, she ran away to Karangahape Rd - back to the community she found when she first left home.

"I started working on the streets and got into the drugs and got into a lot of mischief. I started doing like, bashing up the clients, like, because they were forcing me to do things that I didn't want to do... I got into so much trouble."

Prison became a big part of Alice's life. It still is, in that it's partly what stops her from getting the jobs she keeps applying for, which in turn makes it hard for her to find stable housing.

Poverty is the biggest driver of homelessness - and escaping poverty when you're homeless is hard to do. Other drivers include a lack of affordable housing, discrimination and welfare support issues. Trauma, exposure to family violence, relationship breakdowns, ill health and episodes of imprisonment can also lead people into homelessness. The ongoing effects of colonisation on Takatāpui trans people is another driver, says trans and gender diverse homelessness researcher Tycho Vandenburg.

"A lot of services aren't responsive to the needs of Māori, let alone Takatāpui Māori. And the government is not really fulfilling its obligations to Te Tiriti o Waitangi... While in the public psyche [colonisation] is something that happened years and years and years ago, there are ongoing effects to this day and those affect Maori differently."

Living in a constant state of precarity - or what Vandenburg calls an "exhausting survival mode"  - can worsen addictions as well as physical and mental health. Even when a person has found a stable home, the anxiety of potentially getting pushed out again means they won't unpack their belongings or decorate their room.  

"Obviously, that's not a sustainable way of living in the long term. And it's that kind of thing that leads to ongoing stress, anxiety, depression, even suicide ideation in some cases."

Trans and gender diverse people are already likely to have bad mental health outcomes, regardless of their living situation. More than 70 percent of participants of New Zealand's Counting Ourselves survey reported high or very high psychological distress, compared with only 8 percent of the general population. More than half of the participants had seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months, and nearly 40 percent had attempted suicide at some time in their lives. 

"People are quite surprised that after everything that I've been through, I'm still here today," Alice says. "I just think, 'Oh my gosh, why are you even talking like that?' Because they reckon that I've gone through so much that they're surprised to even see me still standing."

It's a Monday when we speak. She's got a job interview on Wednesday. When we talk again three weeks later, she says she hasn't heard back from the employer. But she feels like the interview went well, so she's trying to stay positive. 

Angelo and his partner, who he met while volunteering, now have a home together. Angelo is thinking about studying counselling, once his mental health stabilises, but he says that might not be for another few years.

When he's feeling bad - overwhelmed with anxiety or hallucinations - he says music helps calm him. As a teen, he played the euphonium. He loved the way the large, smooth, shiny brass instrument vibrated through his body when he held it to his chest and blew air into its coiled innards. Nowadays, when he's struggling, his partner will put headphones over his ears and just sit with him, and he will feel safe and loved.

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*Names and some details have been changed

**Trans and non-binary are used in this article as umbrella terms for people whose gender/gender expression is different to their sex assigned at birth, while acknowledging that these are Pākehā terms that cannot fully describe the meaning of genders that come from other languages or cultures.

Where to get help:

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

1737 - Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

OUTline: 0800 OUTLINE (0800 688 5463) every evening, 6pm to 9pm.

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

Gender Minorities Aotearoa: 020 404 92568

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (7pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 children's helpline (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

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This story is part of Here We Are, an RNZ series about transgender mental health. You can read, hear and view more stories at rnz.co.nz/here-we-are. 

Here We Are was made with the help of the Mental Health Foundation and Like Minds, Like Mine