Queer, Young and Homeless

David Lewis | ABC News | April 3, 2016

David Lewis: What makes LGBTI young people so vulnerable to homelessness and why do they remain invisible? I'm David Lewis and this is Background Briefing.

I've come to Sydney for the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. It's the biggest celebration of pride and diversity on the calendar. And thousands of people have lined Oxford St to wave the rainbow flag.

Where have you come from?

Vox 1: I came here from Hawaii but I'm from New York City and I always attended the parade there, it's quite an awesome experience. And I just happened to land in Kings Cross during the Mardi Gras period and I'm like, 'Wow, how exciting is that', so here I am.

Vox 2: All right, ABC Radio, what do you want to know?

David Lewis: I want to know why you're here for Mardi Gras?

Vox 2: We really support the whole gay thing. These are our two really good friends, who are lesbians. Hannah and I are both straight but we love them so much and we think it's really important that everybody should be allowed to be who they are and do what they want and why should there be any stereotypes and any prejudice? We love them so much. Let them be who they want to be.

David Lewis: Can you talk me through your outfits?

Vox 3: I'm wearing a one-piece spandex rainbow uniform with a cat bag.

David Lewis: Was it hard to get on?

Vox 3: No, not really. You just slip it on. Easy enough. And some pink Converse shoes.

David Lewis: And you've forgotten your bling.

Vox 3: Oh yeah! And a Boy George earring, of course.

  IMAGE:  JOSIE, AN 18-YEAR-OLD TRANSGENDER WOMAN FROM COUNTRY NSW. (ABC RN/DAVID LEWIS)

IMAGE: JOSIE, AN 18-YEAR-OLD TRANSGENDER WOMAN FROM COUNTRY NSW. (ABC RN/DAVID LEWIS)

David Lewis: Through the crowds I spot the person I've come here to meet, 18-year-old transgender woman Josie. She's leading a float in the parade for Twenty10, an LGBTI support group. She's certainly risen to the occasion with make-up, hair extensions, and a dress she later tells me she could scarcely afford but had to have. And she's smiling as she performs a carefully choreographed dance she's clearly spent many hours rehearsing. Mardi Gras is the one night of the year she can truly be herself but when I catch up with her the next morning, the mood in the city has already changed, and Josie, who's still wearing that dress, gets a very different reception. And a warning; strong language follows.

Josie: So the adrenaline is still going from last night so I don't care what I'm wearing but everyone's looking at me right now because they've never seen a fucking lady-boy before! Sorry, that was a bad side of my temper.

David Lewis: Do you get that a lot? Do you get weird looks?

Josie: I do, every day. I can't walk past many people without them being like, 'What are you?'

David Lewis: Josie moved to Sydney from country NSW and has been struggling to find shelter ever since.

Josie: I'm still on the streets again, but that's only because I keep getting myself kicked out of refuges.

David Lewis: And why is that, do you think?

Josie: Because I hate authority.

David Lewis: And so that leads to a bit of trouble-making?

Josie: Yes! I love causing trouble, it's my life! Come on, I'm trans. Well, this trans girl likes to cause a lot of trouble anyway.

David Lewis: When you hear Josie's story, it's no wonder she's so well-acquainted with trouble.

Josie: I think it was my sister or my mum, I can't remember, but one of them had this dress, it was floral and it was short, not really short, but it was like a little skirt kind of thing. I used to wear it around the backyard all the time.

David Lewis: What was it like growing up navigating that territory, not really knowing at that time that you would become trans?

Josie: I didn't even know they existed back then, so it was pretty, like, I can't remember exactly how I felt but I'm pretty sure I was really depressed because I didn't know a way that I could be a girl without being seen as a freak.

David Lewis: But a freak she was in the eyes of some kids at school.

Josie: So I wore dresses to school when I was in primary school. It was pretty full on. I used to get bullied a lot. It was traumatic. These kids don't realise that if they did that to somebody else, that other person could have been suicidal or depressed, even at that age. Like, come on people, stop bullying. No.

David Lewis: Josie's life in a far flung regional town eventually became unbearable. The same taunts she was subjected to in the playground were being thrown at her in the family home. And her relationship with her stepdad turned violent. And a warning; strong language follows.

Josie: He would literally come into my room and say, 'Stop listening to that girly shit,' or something like that, or, 'You fucking faggot, poo-jabber, butt-puncher, mud monkey,' all these really hurtful names. And then I'd go to the police about him hitting me and shit and they'd just ignore it.

David Lewis: How old were you?

Josie: This happened from the age of eight, until I was 15. I left home when I was 15. I'll never go back, never, never, never go back.

David Lewis: So that's seven years of violence and abuse?

Josie: Yeah, but the worst thing was that I remember is him saying that I was a mistake, that I shouldn't have been born, and just lots of hurtful shit, like he'd walk past the door and be like 'I'm going to do everything I can to make sure you're not in this house anymore.' And then one day I remember I said to him, 'You're not going to have to worry about that anymore because I'm leaving.'

  IMAGE:  LAURIE MATTHEWS FROM CARETAKERS' COTTAGE IN SYDNEY'S EASTERN SUBURBS. (ABC RN/DAVID LEWIS)

IMAGE: LAURIE MATTHEWS FROM CARETAKERS' COTTAGE IN SYDNEY'S EASTERN SUBURBS. (ABC RN/DAVID LEWIS)

Laurie Matthews: And we're coming in here to the kitchen. It's a fairly good kitchen...

David Lewis: When Josie came to Sydney, she went from refuge to refuge looking for help. She spent a bit of time here at Caretakers' Cottage, a seven-bedroom share-house for the homeless in the city's eastern suburbs.

Laurie Matthews: Josie has come from rural NSW and I think represents very well the reason why we got going in the first place. We were providing somewhere that was safe in the big city, where young people had a chance of getting employment and education and safe accommodation.

David Lewis: Laurie Matthews is the CEO.

Laurie Matthews: Josie's situation was that Josie is identifying as a young trans person who has struggled massively with coming to grips with who she is. A lot of that stems from home but also from the way Josie has been able to learn about who she is herself. She's not there yet, not by a long shot, so she's still exploring and learning who she is, and it's a painful journey in many respects because for a young trans person there are lots of obstacles. Much more than for any other person in the community.

David Lewis: Such as?

Laurie Matthews: I think that gender identity brings out a lot more hostility from general members of the community, from peers. It's dangerous in many respects, and it also has a lot more stigma attached to it, I think, than other members of the LGBTI community.

David Lewis: That stigma often means finding a job is difficult. And so Josie went looking for others ways to make money.

Josie: That's when I was sex working.

David Lewis: It was a decision that led her down a dangerous path.

Josie: When I was doing sex work, I started smoking ice because it was a time killer. Like, time flies when you're on ice. It literally flies. It goes so fast. Your adrenaline is kicking in, you're constantly moving, and you can't sit still, kind of like me right now because I've had so many sugars.

David Lewis: That's sugars in her coffee, by the way; six to be precise. Josie tells me she's since stopped using drugs. But back at Caretakers' Cottage, nothing about her story comes as a surprise to Laurie Matthews.

Laurie Matthews: I think what's typical is finding somewhere where there's some safety with peers and friends, and so the sex work and the drug use I think goes with the territory in some respects. It's an environment in which you can find some safety in numbers, where you find you are not totally isolated and alone, so it's a fairly natural environment for young people to be attracted to. There are many, many people out there who don't put themselves in those more risky situations but some do and Josie's one of those people who has been in fairly risky and dangerous situations but we know why because she's got friends and identity there.

David Lewis: Today, Josie has come to the LGBTI support service Twenty10 in Sydney's inner-city. It's the same organisation she marched for at Mardi Gras. She's speaking here to executive director Brett Paradise about getting a house through Twenty10. She was in one before but got kicked out for bad behaviour. Now Josie wants a second chance, but she'll have to clear a major hurdle first.

Josie: I'm getting that house back. You watch me. I'm going to get that fricking place back.

Brett Paradise: So what is it you need to do? We need to get through...

Josie: Three months. I think that's what Susan said. Three months of not getting kicked out of a refuge and then I have my place back.

Brett Paradise: The way I look at things; I count how long…

Josie: I lasted at each one...

Brett Paradise: Yeah, how long you last at things and you're getting better and better.

Josie: I lasted at Taldy for two months. I lasted at Don Bosco for four months. Then I got my house and then I got kicked out of my house, so now it's just like, I hate refuges, I want my house back, I hate having no freedom.

David Lewis: Twenty10 has agreed to give Josie another go. But first she'll have to prove she can handle living independently by not getting thrown out of her current refuge. So far, she hasn't blown it.

© Australian Broadcasting Company 2016