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The leader of the UK's biggest LGBT homelessness charity: 'There’s a lot of despair in me'

Tim Sigsworth, CEO of The Albert Kennedy Trust, on tackling the UK's LGBT+ youth homelessness crisis.

2018-03-01

As we investigate the UK's shocking rates of LGBT+ youth homelessness in our new Style issue - available to download and in shops now - we meet Tim Sigsworth, the CEO of the UK’s national youth LGBT+ homelessness charity, the Albert Kennedy Trust, to find out what can be done to tackle the crisis.

Tim, 49, has worked for AKT for 11 years. He chats to Attitude at the charity’s Purple Door house, an emergency safe house located at a secret address in London, where young LGBT+ people who’ve been rejected by their families can stay while they get back on their feet.

Can you tell us about the Purple Door house and what it’s for?

It was the UK’s first safe house. I’m proud that we’re able to help young people in this fantastic project which keeps them safe when they need it most. But I’m also humbled by it because I think of the young people’s lives, all the young people who have experienced pain and anguish when they walked through the door, rejected by their family, rejected by the people who are there to love them, and then when they leave here they’re elated, they’re confident, and they’re ready to live the life they deserve.

What kind of people do you usually have staying here?

Generally, the people who move into Purple Door are in their early twenties or late teens. They’ve come out to their parents and either had to flee because of the risk of violence, or threats, or have chosen to leave before they get to that point. So they’re coming here in a traumatised state. It’s possible that spent some nights on the street beforehand. In terms of their identity, they’re a very diverse group and go right across the LGBT+ spectrum. But they all have something in common: they’re all vulnerable, they’ve all suffered rejection, most of them have suffered abuse --  as well just for being brave enough to come and be who they are – from the people who are supposed to love them.

Things are getting so much better for gay people growing up in Britain now but we know from AKT’s research that 24 per cent of homeless young people are LGBT+ and 77 per cent of these say they had to leave home because of their sexuality or gender identity. So what do you think is going on?

We’re living in a society that’s generally more accepting but we shouldn’t be fooled by what’s happened in terms of legislation. We’ve come on leaps and bounds but legislation doesn’t change minds; it doesn’t change ingrained ideas. And what we see is people coming out younger, because they feel more confident, LGBT+ people are more visible, they are more accepted. But there are still pockets where it’s just not acceptable and that could be due to anything: somebody’s family’s faith, somebody’s family cultural beliefs, it could be a range of things. It could be simply prejudice within that family.

When helping young homeless people, why is it important to know if they’re LGBT+?

I know a young woman who was never asked about her sexual orientation by the local authority that she went to. They were more concerned by her ethnicity so they housed her in an area where they knew there was low racial hate crime because they thought that was the best thing for her. But one day she was walking down the street with her girlfriend, proud as punch, holding her hand, and she had her legs broken. All because somebody had not asked that vital question about her sexual orientation.

AKT is an LGBT-specific charity. Why do you think we need homelessness services that are LGBT-specific?

AKT’s done lots of research and mainstream services are still not responding to the specific needs of the LGBT+ community when it comes to housing and homelessness. Some are very good but there are other housing providers who just don’t get it and young people feel vulnerable and unsafe. Especially if I think about young trans people who are put into environments and hostels where they’re not recognised in their true identity. They’re treated as if they’re still from the gender they were assigned at birth. I hear stories from young people who’ve been to mainstream housing projects and they’ve been beaten up by other young people or abused by other young people. They’re not safe so we’re needed.

Apart from Purple Door, what are the ways in which you can help?

The primary reason AKT is here today, 29 years on from when we were founded, is to prevent homelessness among young LGBT people. And we do a whole range of things because there isn’t just one solution. We have Purple Door in London and we have Purple Door in Newcastle, which is independent living units. Alongside that we have our carer-households across the country that provide a foster care-type setting for those more vulnerable young people who wouldn’t thrive in Purple Door, who need a bit more support. We also work with our partners to house young people in suitable projects. In addition, AKT has projects such as the emergency support pack and our rainbow starter pack that provide young people with support to get into their own accommodation. And with some young people in some cases we can keep them safe without them having to leave home. We can help them build relationships with their parents and get some acceptance.

 

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What inspired your interest in LGBT+ homelessness? How did your own family respond when you came out in the late Eighties?

My parents had me quite late so all my siblings were grown up. It wasn’t a household where I experienced violence or major rejection when I came out, it was more low-level rejection, not being interested in who I was, not respecting who I was. I had to live a covert life and I felt I was living a double life at home, not being able to discuss who I was. I felt very lonely and isolated. So there was no violence, no, “Get your bags, you’re out the house.” But I used to go to the gay group in Manchester every Saturday and say I was meeting my girlfriend. And there were these guys, a little bit older than me, coming in that looked dishevelled, who looked as if they hadn’t had a good night’s sleep and they’d be talking about having to do sex work to survive. I thought, “What’s going on in your life?” And then I started to hear things about dads beating them up, stepdads being a nightmare, mums kicking them out on to the streets, young men having to sell themselves to get by.I felt so fortunate but by the same token I realised there was a massive problem. And then I started to hear about the Albert Kennedy Trust because as I was getting to the end of my teens, they were set up.

All these years later, how do you feel about the future?

There’s a lot of despair in me still. I’ve worked across HIV prevention, sexual health, I’ve set up projects in prison for LGBT+ people, and I always come away thinking: “This is horrendous.” The only thing that keeps me going is the fact that there are so many avenues for support out there. But ultimately it’s criminal. I’m going into schools this month for LGBT+ History Month and I’m having to explain why a thousand years ago, LGBT+ people were stoned to death and a thousand years on, it’s still punishable by death in some countries. In this country, I come across people all the time who are facing forced marriage, honour-based violence, running from their community, because they’re at risk of violence.

On the positive side, how do you feel when you hear the success stories of people AKT has helped?

I am absolutely thrilled, I just love it when a young person leaves and then the story comes back to me. Young people come back or they get in touch or they run up to you at Pride screaming like you’re a long-lost friend. And you hear about how they’ve changed their life and got on with things or done fantastic things and it’s just incredible. We had one young man who came to us when he was 17 who came running up to me and wagged his finger at me and said, “I’m paying your wages now, I’m one of your donors! I donate £5 to AKT every month! I’ve got my first job, I’m getting on with my life.” And it’s fantastic because they’ve done it all themselves with a bit of support from us.

For more information on the Albert Kennedy Trust, visit akt.org.uk