“It was liberating and exhilarating,” Ali said. “It was the very first time in my life that I didn’t have to fear anything. I could finally start to imagine following my dreams without the fear of being hated or harmed.”
The Home Office housed Ali for his first night in the UK before he was moved into independent accommodation by his local council. But when he spoke to The Big Issue, he had been waiting for his asylum application to be granted for two and a half years – a process the UK government says usually takes around six months.
“It has been a very frustrating process,” Ali said. “It has been a very long time. Fortunately for me, because of my age and the support I’ve received – from the local authority and my college – it has been much more bearable than it might have been otherwise.”
Ali has been moved between four different homes since his arrival in the UK. The first three were “just horrible” he said, in poor condition and with very little space which he had to share with strangers while his right to remain in the UK hung in the balance indefinitely.
“There was no privacy, there were no boundaries,” Ali added. He eventually experienced what he describes as a “breakdown” as a result of his asylum application not moving forward.
But youth homelessness charity Centrepoint stepped in to support his wellbeing and help him into his current flat, where he has his own kitchen and bathroom and is “much happier”.
Ali now studies biology, chemistry and physics at college with a view to studying neuroscience at university. This is made possible by the Centrepoint bursary, which has helped him afford hundreds of pounds’ worth of textbooks and travel to and from classes. As an asylum seeker he is not allowed to work – part of the UK’s “hostile environment” set of policies – but he volunteers with the Mosaic Initiative, a charity supporting refugees into employment.
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“They educated me and encouraged me to be myself, to not be afraid of exploring who I am,” Ali said. “Which is probably the most valuable gift anyone could have given me.”
Ali did not come out until just before Pride in 2019. It was only after his involvement with the charity and the opportunity to be with other LGBTQ+ people that he felt safe to be open about his sexual orientation.
“If you’re an LGBT person who doesn’t know the language and doesn’t know the culture, you feel alienated,” he added. But the “combination of support” has received, including from Centrepoint, has made his life “much easier in the UK”.
There are many asylum seekers like Ali, he said, who come to the UK in the hope that they can build their lives without being discriminated against for who they are. “Our fears are real,” he said. “It is very difficult spending every night scared someone will tell the government you’re gay, or worrying someone will attack you for your religion, or for any other reason you might come to the UK.
Ali shares his story to “encourage people to not be scared of who they are and to be understanding of each other’s differences,” he said.
Identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community is “absolutely a factor” in young people becoming homeless, according to Monica Gallo, a senior practitioner and psychotherapist at Centrepoint.
“Young people nowadays may be more open and accepting, but there is still a lot of stigma and intolerance residing in the previous generations,” she told The Big Issue.
“The levels of transphobia and/or homophobia these young people may experience at home or in their community increases their risk of homelessness.
“Many of our young people already experience familial rejection, abuse or violence in their upbringings. Think about how much that could increase with our LGBTQ+ young people and what message that sends them about their identities.
Once homeless, LGBTQ+ youth are at a higher risk of exploitation and grooming, Gallo added. It’s a risk faced by all young homeless people, she said, but “the dynamics of that change as they search for some stability and for someone to accept them for who they are”.
Courtney – whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity – grew up in London before moving to Sweden with her family as a teenager. But by the time she was in her mid teens, she felt unsafe at home because of her parents’ strict Christian views.
“It was basically like you were the devil if you were gay,” she told The Big Issue. “When I told my parents that this is me, this is who I am, they didn’t accept it.”
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Courtney’s family told her she had to change. “They tried to pray for me. I couldn’t wear the clothes that I wanted to wear, they made me wear dresses, and it was a battle between who I was and who my parents wanted me to be. My mental health was deteriorating.”
By the age of just 15, she felt she had no choice but to leave home. “I thought it was the only way I could save myself,” she said.
Courtney spoke to her best friend back in London through Facebook about her situation, who said she could come to live with her.
“She said yeah, my mum will accept you. My parents didn’t want me to go but they spoke to her and eventually said okay, cool, we’re staying in Sweden but you can go back to your friend.”
Things went smoothly for Courtney once back in London, for a short while, as she settled back into school and her new life. But soon she and her friend were both kicked out of their home and forced to “sofa-surf” for around three months, sleeping in whatever space was available at friends’ houses for short periods of time before moving onto the next place.
Courtney described feeling “detached from what was really going on” and being too young to grasp the gravity of her situation. She didn’t tell her parents how she was living as she felt she couldn’t admit that her move hadn’t worked out as planned. Her only support came from the youth club she attended and the mother of her girlfriend at the time, who called social services on her behalf.
She was eventually put in touch with Centrepoint, who found Courtney a place in a hostel. After a month she got her own room. But the instability meant “everything went out the window” as she struggled to stay in college.
Courtney lived in hostels until she was 22. Now finally in her own flat – “I actually have somewhere to call home” – the Centrepoint bursary is helping her afford the basic essentials such as rent and food.
Sexual orientation makes a “big difference” to a person’s experience of homelessness, Courtney said. “There are all these stereotypes. First for being LGBT, for being Black as well, and for being female.
“You’re automatically judged and feel like you need to work harder to get someone to just see who you are. They just see your sexuality or your race. I don’t think many straight people have people they’ve just met asking them, ‘how did your mum accept your sexuality?’. You get all these questions before they just talk to you as a person.”
Courtney now studies counselling and is doing a part-time placement as a counsellor in a primary school. She believes her education is giving her new insight into what she went through as a child.
“I’m very proud of that little girl that had the courage to say, I’m just going to leave,” she said. “I’m proud that I’ve come this far, studying and holding down a job. I don’t regret anything.”
Courtney is still in touch with her family, with whom she now has a good relationship. She hopes her own experiences will help her support young people going through their own difficulties. “I feel like I can be a good representative for my community, being Black and LGBTQ+,” she said. “If that’s how you identify as a child, in my experience, it’s really difficult to get help from people who understand you. But I hope I can be that for someone.”
Centrepoint’s bursary supports homeless young people through further education and employment. By donating to the bursary scheme you could play a vital role in shaping a young person’s future.