Homelessness services must strive to understand and support nuanced identities
By: Jioji Ravulo
My identity is made up of different identifiers. I identify as being male, was perceived as effeminate when young, and grew up in public housing in western Sydney with my iTaukei (indigenous) Fijian father and Anglo Australian mother. I was brought up in a relatively conservative Christian family, and now I have much more progressive leanings to life.
I also identify as being able bodied, healthy but considered overweight, a person of colour, bisexual, separated from my marriage to a woman and a father to a child.
As you may see, my identity is broad and complex. Even I strive to make sense of where I fit into mainstream society in the past, present, and anticipated future.
As a result, I believe society continues to silo categories of diversity as separate matters. In a society obsessed with how well you do based on your financial position, it’s important to acknowledge that we are not just our socio-economic status.
I believe we need to create youth homelessness services that reflect these complex realities on intersecting identities.
The common scenario when a young person needs to find alternative accommodation includes finding a service that has a space available for them to sleep in. This can involve numerous phone call conversations, face-to-face meetings and being assessed for your suitability to stay in a short-term accommodation service.
Many of these assessments require the young person to be open, transparent and honest about their circumstances and needs, willingly trusting others to make a definitive decision on whether they fit the criteria required to be eligible.
From my experience as a manager of a crisis youth accommodation service, these assessments are geared towards a risk management framing. This is where many of the limitations of creating services that cater for diversity and its differences occur.
The community services sector premises the young person’s suitability on whether they will fit in, rather than what we can do to ensure we can provide them with the support they genuinely need.
Additionally, we limit the support to meeting their presenting issues: in this case, a warm bed and a hot meal. We don’t dig deeper into unpacking and helping create solutions for the reasons why accommodation became an issue in the first place.
Funding to this sector is also quite precarious, with state government bodies working to streamline the provision of services through a stronger networking and consortia approach – wherein several organisations and agencies agree to work together in providing such services – which is underpinned by the need to explicitly show tangible outcomes for the money given.
This can be relatively difficult when trying to track what may be known as soft outcomes, which generally revolve around the development of interpersonal and intrapersonal connectedness to self and others. For many LGBTIQ+ young people, soft outcomes can include feeling a sense of acceptance within their own body, enabling them to develop a level of confidence and sense of inclusion, as well as reconciling and negotiating their various identities in order to navigate their sense of belonging and purpose. But homelessness services can struggle to capture this as a tangible outcome to justify its funding.
But I believe there is still hope. Many youth workers across the sector are passionate, and committed to fostering a spirit of collaboration and ensuring marginalised young people are understood. But this may be diminished by organisational culture and practices that deter inclusion.
It is important that individuals who are in roles of influence – like managers and other people creating service models – are constantly reminded of the need to ensure young people are understood for their differences and broader intersecting needs, and to create assessment processes that are fair and just. Other young people accommodated in these services can also play a role in fostering a shared space, encouraging each other to be inclusive and appreciative of such diverse needs.
I’m reminded, and still inspired, by a LGBTIQ+ and culturally and linguistically diverse young person (now an adult) that overcame these tricky challenges of becoming homeless due to being trans in a very traditional ethnic culture and religion, which threw them into a state of confusion and uncertainty. Initially, they relied heavily on the support of their limited circle of friends to couch surf, but as such options became exhausted, this led to a period of rough sleeping.
Through their desire to embrace who they are, and to have others recognise their difference as being valuable, they connected to an array of LGBTIQ+ focused services, providing them with a positive pathway towards options that led to supported accommodation services.
From this, they were able to secure long term accommodation, leading to independence, and opportunities to still be them despite the several challenges they had experienced. There is hope – and it does come from ensuring people are provided with the care and support to get onto paths that promote success while still being you.
We as individuals working to create a sector that is more fair and just need to constantly critically reflect and review our practices, rather than becoming complicit in creating services that continue to uphold the marginalisation of young people.
We need to create a shared space, where young people and workers can produce an environment that fosters the meeting of specific social and welfare needs, moving beyond the binary understanding of ‘us and them’, and prompting goals that achieve an array of outcomes including the ability to understand self and others.
It is through such broader and less rigid approaches that diversity, differences, and its intersecting categories and identifiers are celebrated, acknowledged, included and valued, rather than creating services in society that are shallow, restrictive, punitive and harmful to the wellbeing of young people.
By understanding the complexities of an individual’s identity, we are encouraged to create solutions that are premised on genuineness that promotes sustainable outcomes for diverse individuals, groups, and societies striving to share a space with everyone.
Jioji Ravulo is an Associate Professor in Social Work in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Wollongong. His research areas incorporate creating and implementing engaging models of service delivery, service provision for equity and marginalised community groups. Find him on Twitter: @JiojiRavulo