OF THE 105,000 homeless people in Australia, a staggering 42 per cent are aged 12-25. Some have had to leave repressive or violent home lives because of their sexuality or gender confusion.
Tim is one such young person. At 16 years old, he was kicked out of his family home in Melbourne earlier this year after his religious parents discovered he was gay.
He spent his first night sleeping under a tree, in the middle of Melbourne autumn. He then stayed with friends until ultimately he was forced to sleep on the street.
”Sleeping rough” is exactly as it sounds: no roof, no bed, no blanket. Tim moved somewhere different every night looking for a safer and warmer place to hide out.
Incredibly, he still went to school each day.
While living on the streets, Tim encountered staff and volunteers from Wesley Mission, one of the largest providers of services to homeless people in Australia (and one of the most heavily funded by the government).
But Tim was reluctant to accept their help.
“It was awkward because they asked me why I was on the streets and I didn’t know what to say,” he tells news.com.au. “They’re a religious organisation and I didn’t want to hear what they’d say so I just left.”
Tim isn’t alone. He’s since met a number of gay and transgender young people who avoid homeless organisations because they suspect that beneath the support offered is the view that you deserve “endless punishment,” simply for being born gay.
In Australia 60 per cent of homeless services are provided by religious organisations.
In NSW alone, $11 million of the $15.39 million available for funding inner-city homelessness services is divided between four large faith-based groups.
That’s a significant slice of the pie.
“I guess knowing that their belief system is religious kind of scares me away,” Tim says.
The Salvation Army dedicate significant resources to helping the homeless, and are by all accounts motivated by a capacity to help those in need.
However, front and centre on their webpage, just one click away from that message of help and support, is their doctrine. It claims to be underpinned by the values of the Old and New Testament and calls for ‘the endless punishment of the wicked,’ and claims that ‘repentance toward God, faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and regeneration by the Holy Spirit are necessary to salvation.’
In 2012, The Salvation Army’s Major Craib went on gay radio and confirmed that it was their belief that gay people should die. In the media flurry that followed, a more senior member of the church qualified that Craib really just meant a ‘spiritual death’.
Since this experience, the Salvation Army is making roads towards a better understanding of at-risk youth.
Dr Bruce Redman has worked with the organisation for over 30 years, and expresses his disappointment that in the past there have been misunderstandings, describing previous interactions with the LGBTIQ community as “messy”.
“Things are moving along, but it’s like trying to turn a ship around,” Dr Redman says. He points to a forum the church is holding this month, exclusively on the topic of human sexuality, as a sign that a dialogue on this issue is occurring.
“The problem with a conservative organisation is that it is about ‘conserving’, holding on to stuff, and sometimes stuff is around for far too long. It doesn’t catch up to where everybody is at, certainly where people’s heads are at and their hearts are at.”
While this may be an issue for these heavily funded embedded organisations, over at Sydney’s Wayside Chapel Pastor and CEO Graham Lang says their mission is to create community, not preach religion, and everyone is welcome.
Wayside, which was founded in 1964 in the heart of Sydney’s colourful Kings Cross, sees at least 15 regulars who are openly LGBTIQ, but that’s the just the proportion who self-identify. Getting them to even acknowledge their sexuality can be difficult.
On these larger faith-based organisations, Lang sees the problem as one of scale.
“People become the cogs in your machine. The people you are here to serve become ‘things’, the object in your activities. Be that government, church, whoever is running it.”
Lang believes their mission is to create community, not to save anyone, and that preaching from the pulpit will only drive away those at need.
“You have to be careful about the language of ‘lost’ and ‘saved’, especially in this conversation because the church thinks it sets itself up as ‘we’re the found ones and we have to go out and get the lost ones.’”
Overall, organisations like the Salvos and Wayside are driven by the kindest of Christian values: charity, helping others, and love.
You would be hard pressed to find employees or volunteers at these organisations who are not motivated by a sense of good.
“I’ve worked with homeless for last 30 years and I’ve got to tell you I’ve never seen in that time a situation where people have been unfairly disadvantaged because of their sexuality,” says Dr Redman. “It’s something I’m really proud of. We wouldn’t tolerate it on any level.”
But stigma remains a significant barrier for young LGBTIQ people struggling to overcome adversity, and when that comes from the very people charged with helping them, we will struggle to see all young people off the streets.
Thanks to his social worker (and his own resilience), Tim now has an intervention order against his stepfather, who still sends him abusive text messages about his sexuality.
He is still in school, and is now living in secular accommodation provided by the government, which he shares with other young people. He says he feels “lucky.”
If you or anyone you know is facing difficulties with their sexuality, call the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard on 1800 184 527 or visit Minus18.org.au.
If you are struggling to find somewhere to live, or experiencing financial, mental health or other difficulties, visit ReachOut.com.au.