Coming out of the closet, landing on the streets
For some members of the LGBTQI+ community, ‘coming out of the closet’ equals a fast-track to homelessness. Whether they’re kicked out of the house by parents or partners, or shunned by their communities, queer individuals often end up with nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Many end up at homeless shelters, but these can often pose a threat, leaving queer individuals with few options to get back on their feet.
“The more people change their mindsets, the less homelessness will happen,” said Laurika Erskine, a resident at the Pride Shelter in Cape Town. Laurika and her partner Chantell Erskine moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town in December 2018, searching for new beginnings.
“My father got a restraining order against me because of my sexuality,” said Chantell. “He didn’t understand why I was a lesbian,” she continues.
The couple have been together for six years. Laurika is more outspoken and energetic. Chantell is calmer and reserved.
“I met her and for the first time in my life I fell in love with a soul and not a body,” said Laurika, who was straight for 35 years. “I said I will never be a lesbian.”
Chantell is now a second mother to Laurika’s two sons, a 17-year-old and a 10-year-old from her previous marriage.
“Their father was abusive,” said Laurika. She said her sons have accepted Chantell with open arms.
“My older son said he’d rather have two moms than a father that doesn’t care,” Laurika said.
But their idyllic “new beginnings” plan quickly turned into a difficult season when, shortly after arriving in Cape Town, the couple became homeless.
“For two weeks we were on the streets, and throughout that, I had my children with me,” said Laurika. “We slept under a bridge.”
The couple eventually landed up at Pride Shelter. They did not disclose where their sons live.
For Laurika, the shelter is the only place for the LGBTQI+ community to come to if they’ve got “nowhere else to go”.
The Pride Shelter is a short-term residential facility in Cape Town that provides support to LGBTQI+ persons undergoing genuine trauma/crisis.
According to the shelter’s admission criteria, a genuine crisis is an event which causes significant distress in a person’s life. Trauma is a result of such a crisis or crises.
The shelter does not necessarily define homelessness as a crisis, given the large numbers of homeless in South Africa.
It is estimated that Cape Town alone has 4,862 homeless individuals. Roughly 700 live in the CBD. Statistics for the number of queer homeless people are not readily available.
It is a clearly under-researched area as scant information is available online and local queer organisations such as OUT LGBT, GALA (Gay and Lesbian Archives) as well as Access Chapter 2 were unable to assist with statistics.
Pride has 22 beds and provides residents with two meals a day (breakfast and dinner). The shelter also provides psycho-social support in the form of counselling, workshops and informational talks. Partnerships with organisations such as SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce), Health4Men, Gender DynamiX, PASSOP, Cape Mental Health, Alcoholics Anonymous and The Triangle Project help provide additional support services.
It’s not enough
Residents can stay at Pride for three months. For Laurika, this is not enough time to get back on their feet.
“I appreciate it here, but that’s crazy,” she said.
“When you come here from the street you’ve been exposed to weather, robbery and drugs. You are emotionally and physically broken.”
For her, a person needs time to heal, before they go job-seeking or even attempt to rebuild their lives. A person also has to replace what they’ve lost.
“You need to buy the essentials such as clothes and toiletries.”
Added to this, the shelter also requires residents to pay a fee of R35 a day from their second month.
“You can’t keep up,” she says.
Another resident at the shelter, who goes by the title Miss Tutti Frutti, agrees.
“You’re stressed about whether you’ll get work, because it’s hard to get work in a month,” he said.
“I mean you have one month free, but after that, you have to pay your R35 a day, so will you become a car guard? Or a prossie (prostitute)?”
According to Janette Richter, the house manager at Pride, the question of whether three months is enough time at the shelter has two answers: Yes and no.
“Some people make an effort to reclaim their lives while others tend to take things for granted,” she said.
However, the length of stay at Pride can be extended in special cases. It remains subject to critical evaluation by the Pride Shelter staff.
People fear what they don’t understand
Richter said that people can become homeless when they are “pushed out” of their communities for disclosing their sexual orientation.
“A lot of it stems from people finding out that you’re gay and they don’t want to associate with you. Especially in the workplace, so you lose your job, you lose your home, you lose your apartment, you lose your friends. And all of a sudden, now you’re different,” she said.
According to Matthew Clayton, research, advocacy and policy co-ordinator at The Triangle Project — a non-profit human rights organisation for the queer community — a large catalyst for homelessness is family rejection.
“It can also be a driver of other aggravating factors like mental health issues or substance abuse,” he said.
“LGBTQI people can find themselves in a vicious circle where family instability causes instability in their own lives and this instability makes it more difficult to find work, shelter or access other services.”
For Jamiel le Roux, another resident at Pride, a series of broken relationships resulted in his current stay at the shelter.
“I was in a (same-sex) relationship for about eight years and because of that relationship, my foster parents wrote me off completely,” he said.
“My (biological) mother, who lives here in town, doesn’t give a damn (about my situation).”
Le Roux left the relationship after his ex-boyfriend, who is 17 years older, became abusive. “He started beating me up.”
Le Roux spent a few years on and off the street, eventually landing up in Pollsmoor prison for drug possession.
“I got involved with tik and I got caught,” he says matter-of-factly.
Three months after being released from Pollsmoor he moved into Pride Shelter after an unsuccessful attempt to live with his mother.
Despite the common idea that substance abuse is the primary cause of homelessness, Le Roux, like many other homeless people, experimented with tik after ending up on the streets.
The use of needle-injected drugs often leads to the spread of diseases such as HIV/Aids and Hepatitis B and C.
OUT LGBT — an organisation lobbying for the physical and mental health rights of the queer community, implemented a project called HARMless in 2014 which provides services to people who inject drugs. According to the organisation’s Annual 2017-2018 report, most beneficiaries of the HARMless project are the homeless and the unemployed. Within the same calendar year, in an attempt to curb the spread of disease, the organisation distributed a total of 427,193 needles and collected 354,250 in the Tshwane region.
Not all shelters are gay-friendly
Chantell and Laurika were previously barred from entering a shelter in Wynberg because of their relationship.
“The guy said to us, ‘Well since you’re a couple, if she was a man, I could have put her by the men and you by the females and it would have been fine. But because you are two women, I can’t put you in the dorms together’,” said Laurika.
“Another friend of ours ended up at a shelter in Paarl, where he had to pretend to be straight in order to survive. He was almost raped there,” said the couple.
Hate crimes towards the queer community are common both within and outside shelters.
2018 statistics from “Love Not Hate” — a programme by OUT LGBT which tackles hate crimes towards queer individuals — shows that they had 891 cases reported to them, where they were able to offer safe spaces to 79 people as a form of assistance. It is important to note that not all cases of hate crimes are reported to police.
CEO of the Haven Shelter Hassan Khan says that the social work organisation which houses and assists the homeless, accepts LGBTQI residents. However, the same prejudices and challenges that exist outside are still present within the shelter.
“Misunderstandings do occur,” he says.
“The difficulty that shelters and potential beneficiaries face are questions of preferred identity versus legal identity with respect to name, gender, which affects where one sleeps if one is transgender still undergoing a long process.”
Denim Lourens, 44, is an intersex resident at one of the Haven Shelters in Cape Town. “I’m not born like a normal woman with a vagina and all that and I’m not born like the normal straight men,” she says.
In the past, she’s experienced discrimination because of her sex and sexual orientation. But she says the Haven has been accepting of her.
“People were always asking questions like, are you a man, are you a woman?”
Lourens ended up homeless after moving to Cape Town from Paarl to “start a new life”.
“People don’t accept you and my family wasn’t schooled enough to know what I was going through,” she says, adding that living on the streets was “tough”.
“You don’t sleep. You need to be alert, because you don’t know what’s happening. For me, never ever being on the streets. That was hectic.”
So you aren’t gay?
Miss Tutti Frutti feels that a “gay shelter” should be run by a member of the queer community.
“They know what the struggles are out there,” he said. “If you’re not gay, you don’t know.”
Richter, the matron at the Pride Shelter, is not a member of the queer community, but claims she is well-equipped to run the facility.
“I am compassionate, have empathy, am a mother, and have eight years experience working with LGBTQI people,” she said.
Pride is the only shelter in existence supporting queer people in South Africa, and Africa as a whole. DM
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