PrideCast: Homelessness in the LGBTQ+ community
15 June 2022
In this podcast to celebrate Pride 2022, Head of Digital at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Peter Markham, interviews Jesse, a partnerships manager and recovery worker from The Outside Project, as well as Dr Jenny Drife, adviser to the College on homelessness.
For more resources, please visit our LGBTQ+ page.
Peter Markham (PM): Welcome to the PrideCast, as we call it the podcast to celebrate Pride Month. I'm Peter Markham the head of Digital Communications, and Jesse you're very welcome, would you like to introduce yourself?
Jesse Ashman (JA): Sure, so my name is Jesse, I work for the Outside Project, and I work as a Partnership Manager and Recovery Worker.
PM: And we're lucky enough to be joined by Doctor Jenny Drife. Jenny, could you just say a little bit about yourself please?
Jenny Drife (JD): Yep, I'm the Consultant in the Community Mental Health Team for people who sleep rough in South London and I'm the Adviser to the College on homelessness.
PM: And you have a welcome to the podcast as well. So, the first question goes to Jesse and could you tell us a little bit about the outside project who you are and what you?
JA: Yeah, sure. So the outside project is an LGBTIQ + Identity Responsive, Homeless Shelter, Community Centre, and DVA refuge. So, we were started in like 2017, which is a lot more recently than people guess and then have gradually expanded from there. So currently we run our community centre, which is in Borough which has a range of different support services and community groups that meet there. And then we also do outreach into temporary accommodations and other accommodations that people are in and at the moment we are campaigning to get a building to put our shelter in. So, we've got everything ready to run the service apart from somewhere to put it, so yeah, that's kind of us.
PM: And how many people, would you say you help in a year if it's possible to estimate?
JA: I never know what to put for this, this is what grant funders always ask. So, we have at least one group a week at the Community Centre and each group has at least like 10 to 15 participants and about two of those are new each day. And then in the shelter I believe our top ever capacity for bed spaces was something like 30 bed spaces at a time. And that was during peak COVID lockdown, where we had an emergency hotel provision in two different locations; the main shelter and the DBA refuge. So that's kind of our top capacity.
PM: Wow, and you were filling the 30 spaces where you?
JA: Oh yeah.
PM: Well, it sounds like you do an amazing job. So, you said a little bit about getting started in 2017, but how did you get started and what inspired it to be started?
JA: Yes, so it started by a group of people who worked in homelessness services but also had lived experience of homelessness and we're all LGBTIQ + people, and kind of found that they kept being given more specific case work to do that was with other LGBTQ + people, but then the service around them kind of wasn't being identity responsive to that. So, they decided to set up their own one. So, they campaigned to fundraise to start the shelter, and this is kind of when I got involved in the project — I actually met one of the founders at an event called Poetry LGBT, so I met them at a poetry night but they had a bucket, and they were selling raffle tickets. And then I kind of got more involved in the project, and we ended up opening a year earlier than planned. So, we raised enough money to buy Status Quo's Old tour bus. So, we bought this really old disused tour bus, with like foam bunks and we bought it kind of for the price it would take the person to get it off the lot. Cause they were like I've only really got it for sentimental reasons, if you pay us the amount it takes to get it up and running again, you can drive it and use it as a shelter. So, we did that as a pilot, which was kind of an odd way around to do it, cause usually organisations will do research first and be like we've proved that we need this now can we have it, and then that second step is more difficult. Whereas we went the other way around, where we proved that we needed it by having it. So, when we opened, we didn't actually know whether we were going to be used, and then we found that we were full from like week one onwards — all of the bed spaces on that bus were used. But what we also found was that people were staying with us a lot longer than they were staying in conventional night shelters. So, people were sleeping on bunks for, like some people stayed for the duration of the winter project, because there just wasn’t those move on options. Especially for people with no recourse to public funds and for trans women particularly yeah, it was much more difficult to find those move on options. So from that we decided that we should run it in a... building that was more sustainable for people to live in for a longer time. And after some moving about we then gradually moved into Clerkenwell Fire station, and that was where we first had our own Community Centre open and the shelter at the same time. So that enabled us to have long stay rooms, and we were served rooms for couples, as well as the shorter stay rooms as well so it became like a really mixed service with not only its own communal space, but also the community centre downstairs so people could really quickly join all the community groups that are involved as well.
And then during COVID we went to 24 hours, so instead of being a night shelter we became 24-hour service, kind of almost overnight... and have remained 24 hours since then. So, we also opened the DVA refuge, which was again in response to those extra pressures we were seeing during the pandemic... and yeah, kind of kept that open as well, so now that exists as a drop in at the centre. Also looking for a building for that and then the shelter we're campaigning to reopen again, but the centre is very much open. And yeah, have something going on every day of the week. So, it's kind of expanded really really quickly from not very long-ago and part of that has been because of the pandemic.
PM: It's an amazing start to the charity’s life is having this tour bus. Did that help you get some media and give you promotional opportunities.
JA: Oh yeah, definitely. Also, we're not, we're a community interest company, not a charity. Which I always have to clarify 'cause I'm also the person that does all the corporate partnership stuff and which is very important to a lot of corporate partners.
It did actually mean that during the pandemic that was why we were able to stay open without there being that much bureaucracy involved in it, cause we could just ask the whole staff team and all of the directors really quickly and make that decision. And so, it did mean we've opened a lot of other services, yeah, we are a community interest company.
Yeah, the tour bus did definitely get us a lot of attention and it's kind of what people remember. So, people remember that, and they remember the fire station cause they're both like unusual places to run a shelter. And it did kind of mean that we could hit the ground running with people having heard of us, so people still know us as the ones that ran it on a tour bus.
PM: You said that people stayed with you for a long time because it was hard to find places for them to move on to, was there any of it which was they were staying with you for a long time because they felt comfortable being in an environment that you'd created for them?
JA: I mean so there are definitely, there were lots of people that didn't want to leave, and we've had people that when they've got all of their money sorted out, just want to pay to stay with us. And so just like could I not just rent my room that I've got here already? But it's always meant to be temporary, it's always meant to be a shelter, it's meant to be this is where you are, and then you continue your life after this. And part of that is why the Community Centre is so important, because that's a service that is open to anyone whether or not they've experienced homelessness and what they're currently going through, so they don't have to feel like when they move out they completely leave us. And that was again one of the problems with having the centre closed during the pandemic is that when people left, they felt like they couldn't ever come back and couldn't have that continued connection with us. And having the centre opens alleviated that so much, so it's never something that we would want people to stay long term. I mean maybe, if we had a bigger building and we could have all different types of accommodations, I would love that, but we're at the moment it is very much like this is temporary and we try to encourage people to think about what move on options they have. Which would be really difficult for people that don't have them, but for when they do have them think about how they can move on and how they're going to stay connected to the service. But yeah, it is more difficult I think than a lot of other services where people are just like I want to leave immediately, and I hate it. We don't have that problem at all.
PM: It's really interesting to hear about this at any time. The reason we're speaking now though, is to record the podcast to mark Pride month so, what is the Outside Project doing for pride and what do you think it means for people pride, what do you think pride means for people who use your services?
JA: In terms of what we're doing for Pride month, so we have Outside of Pride, which we run every year and we run that in partnership with Castlehaven Community Centre in Camden. So, we kind of take over there. They've got like a park space next to the community centre which they own but everyone assumes it's a public park because of how they run it. Cause they're a very cool organisation that we've been working with for a long time. So, they have this park that basically looks like a public park, that we take over for the day and run Outside of Pride and so we have like; a gazebo, a sound system, and we have speeches and kind of anyone can take the mic and anyone can perform what they want to.
And we do that without any corporate sponsors, so it's completely owned by the community and for a lot of people it's their first experience of pride. So instead of there being, all of the complexities around pride for accessibility and for particular people of colour and for transphobia and all those things that kind of come along with mainstream Pride. Often that's not people we work with that kind of past experiences, their first experience of pride is sitting on the grass with us, listening to music and eating pizza. So yeah, it becomes a much more positive first experience and I think a lot of people have bigger prides, and then we do also go to bigger Prides as well. But it's very much... either us running a store or running a sober space, rather than us kind of running a pride event. And we did have, we have had a couple of years ago, there's a video that went round of us not being allowed to join the parade, and there being like a police and Pride in London volunteers blockade between us and the parade, which was really unexpected cause it's always been the Pride in London that organisations can join, or groups can join the back of the parade, without having bought wrist bands. And then yeah, there was this weird thing one year where there was this blockade between us. So yeah, we've had a complex relationship with mainstream prides.
In terms of like in general, what does pride mean to our community? So, I run a group every week called Pride Lounge because we wanted to continue that feeling for it not to just be Pride month, and for that to be part of the process of recovery and part of the process of finding identity as we think about pride in our daily lives. So, instead of re traumatising ourselves we think about what are we proud of, what we work through, what we're going to achieve in the future, and we do that by having a community cooking group and then we all eat together. And then we all have a sharing circle where we share things that we're proud of share things that we've worked through. I think it's something that people have a really complex relationship too and I kind of want to prioritise it as a feeling of self-identity rather than all the complexities around like oh should Pride be sponsored, should we be doing it in March, should we be doing a protest, should we be having a parade. I would rather think about why was it named that in the first place.
PM: That that sounds great. So, I'd now like to bring Doctor Jenny Drive into the conversation. Jenny, you introduced yourself earlier, can you tell us a little bit more about your involvement in helping the homeless in terms of mental health care, and how you got involved in that please?
JD: As I say, I'm a consultant psychiatrist in a community mental health team for rough sleepers in South London. We cover three boroughs, and we work with people with severe and enduring mental illness. We've also in two of our boroughs we have sub teams which work with people who are vulnerably housed and who have coexisting mental health and substance misuse problems, cause that often tends to coexist. And as for how I got involved with it, it was an accident really. Back in 2006 I took a staff grade job in a similar CMHT in North London and very quickly realised it was what I wanted to do, and so I've essentially been in the field as much as I can since then, with a bit of work in addictions service and addictions consultant for a while, cause the two as I say, are closely linked together.
PM: OK, thank you. Obviously with your background, it must be interesting to hear about the work outside projects are doing.
JD: It's really wonderful to hear about actually. I'm surprised I haven't heard about it before, but now I shall try to foster some links Jesse.
JA: Yeah, please send people our away.
JD: Yeah, we will do because it's such a necessary thing for people to have a space where they feel safe, and they feel welcomed and wonderful to hear about a shelter where people don't want to leave and aren't sort of looking for the next place. So thank you, Jesse, for everything you do.
PM: Did you say you were from, you work in South London, Jenny and
JD: I do
PM: The shelters in North London. Is there a South London equivalent by the sounds of it there isn't.
JA: I say well, our community centre is in South London.
JD: You mentioned Borough, did you?
JA: Yeah, so we are kind of just behind Borough station, and it is also step free access from the station into the centre because you also get through from London Bridge. And we have a accessible shower there and also, we have groups like our Tuesday morning where you can go and get breakfast there as well. So, it sometimes looks a little bit like a day centre, as well as having those other community groups in it as well. Yeah, our centre in South London at the moment, the shelter itself is homeless and we are looking for buildings anywhere in London really. Some say we could end up anywhere. But we've historically been in Islington and then we did a lot of work in Camden as well. Borough and North London has historically been our home.
PM: I'm glad the podcast has been able to bring you two together. So, Jenny we've heard Jesse tell us about the people, the Outside Project helping from your experience of working with the homeless and their extra challenges which homeless people from diverse groups, whether they're from a minority ethnic background, LGBTQ + or some other minority face and what can be done to help?
JD: Yeah, sadly I think that is very much the case unfortunately. I mean the first thing to say is that homelessness is very closely linked to mental health problems, so in one study by Homeless Link, they found that 80% of people who are homeless reported having mental health problems. 45% of people have been diagnosed with a mental health problem, so that whether it's cause or effect, it's very closely linked together. And being homeless is very isolating experience, so a lot of our patients, as Jesse referred to have experienced trauma, often very profound trauma in their lives and sometimes because of that people have a great difficulty with trust, with forming relationships and particularly may have difficulty with trusting in authorities.
And I think if you're from a minority group of any sort, I think that adds another layer to that, so you might be worried about how people are going to respond to you. You might be worried about facing discrimination, whether your identity will be respected or even recognised and it's really about finding a place where you feel safe. And I think that's harder to do with the more layers of things that get added on to your situation. So, one example is we often work with people who have sought asylum in the UK and have been persecuted because of their sexuality in their home countries. And that's a sort of multiple level of distrust that have has formed and it's very hard to get over that to find people, relationships and places where they feel safe. It's a lot of work to do so it's great to hear about these projects which are, you know, formed to try to help people in that situation.
As what we can do well, I think as I say, it is about finding safety. Whether that's safe, safe spaces, whether that's relationships or physical spaces, and I think we've got a lot to learn from specialist projects like Jesse’s project. But I also think that mainstream services need to do everything they can to be inclusive to respect people's identity, whoever they are. And I think that probably starts with forming relationships with the individual whoever they are and showing that you you're respecting them as the person that they are, whoever that might be.
JA: I think it's always interesting thinking about inclusion within mainstream services, cause it's something that I'm very passionate about — definitely agree that we should be doing. And then people are always like then why do you need a specialist LGBTIQ + service? And I think the thing it always links back to is actually empowering people, so we get so many people that come through our service and then we'll kind of ask them — How do you get your Job or how can I get more involved in the Outside Project? Like it's definitely something that they see themselves as - I could be part of making this change as well. So, I think that's why Identity Response to services that are kind of by and for is so important as well and having that way of like subverting power structures where it's not always coming from someone in a position of power to help you, it's coming from within the community and we're building it for ourselves. So, I think both have to exist in tandem, and there's also kind of a worrying trend of just doing diversity inclusion training within mainstream organisations rather than funding buying and for organisations, which I always sort of want to move away from and want to make the case for why buying for is so important.
PM: Jesse, we're grateful to you for coming on the podcast. It would be remiss of us not to allow you to mention Outside Projects own podcasts.
JA: Yeah, we have one episode of the podcast so far, which I have not listened to cause I don't like listening to my voice and I'm in it — Which is us talking about our memories of the fire station when we knew that we were going to going to leave that building. But we do also have a really exciting project, hopefully coming up that my colleague Holly is going to run about sounds and recording our own sounds so they're going give people recording devices to record ambient noise or whatever noises they think are important in their own lives, and then make that into an audio piece. In addition to doing some more traditional podcast episodes as well, so I'm really excited about that and I've already sent Holly some of my ambient sounds as well.
PM: Wonderful, and if people would like to learn more about the outside project and your work, how do they do that?
JA: So, you can go to lgbtiqoutside.org and that has all of the community groups on it. It also has a contact form if you can't find what you're looking for on the website. The contact form goes through to me directly. So that's the reach on that and then as I say, we are also open in Borough on 52 Lance St. next to a building called The Rise. And if you just want to drop in Tuesday mornings from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM, it's probably the best time — there's breakfast, food, showers there, or Saturdays, can I remember the timing Saturdays? I believe it is 2PM till 4PM I want to say but I can check. And that's again when it is Open Access as well. But yeah, on the website there's all different groups as well.
PM: Fantastic, thank you very much, both of you for joining us.
JA: Thank you.
JD: Thank you. Thanks for the invite.