Safe houses offer shelter to homeless LGBT youths in Poland

By Anna Gmiterek-Zabłocka, TOK FM (tekst dostępny również w wersji polskiej

Nineteen-year-old Kamil (not his real name) suddenly found himself on the street. His parents had kicked him out of the family home after he told them he was gay. They did not want to have such a son, they told him, and didn’t care where he went.

Kamil left with literally nothing but what he had on him. “I know now that it was good that happened,” he says a few months later. “Yes, I was left ‘out in the cold’ – for a while I was homeless – but it was worth it.”

After staying with a friend for a few days, he found information online about a safe house set up for people like him – homeless people from the LGBT community.

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There is one such crisis apartment operating in Warsaw at present, run and fully funded by three NGOs – the Po Drugie Foundation, the Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH) and the My, Rodzice (We Parents) Association. Kamil contacted the foundation. “They said they would do everything to help,” he says.

“After coming out, a young person often loses all their family’s support. They become an enemy, a liability, an embarrassment. Our activities aspire to offer them a sense of security and self-reliance,” said Ewa Miastkowska from My, Rodzice when the apartment was opened.

The apartment, which was launched in March 2021, can host four people at once. They must be at least 18 years of age and no more than 29. Alongside young people kicked out by their parents, it has also provided shelter to trans people and gay former children’s home residents. They learn to be responsible and work together, for example by cooking communally.

Residents who start a job make a symbolic contribution to the rent (generally a small amount, no more than 500 zloty (€106)). The point is to teach young people the value of feeling responsible.

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Kamil lived in the apartment for two months. During this time, he began working in catering, while also seeing a psychologist and applying – successfully – to go to college. He now lives in lodgings and is trying to fix things up with his parents. “The apartment really helped me, as it gave me somewhere to sleep,” he says.

The safe house has a set of rules. “Consumption of alcohol and drug usage are not allowed,” explains Agnieszka Sikora from the Po Drugie Foundation. This is one of the reasons for the relatively large rotation of residents.

“Since the apartment opened, 17 people have found a roof over their heads here. When one moves out, another moves in. There are no excessive demands. If we decide that someone’s situation is difficult, dramatic, we help.”

LGBT people in Poland often experience various forms of violence. The situation has been worsened by a witch hunt from the ruling party and church – such as one archbishop’s reference to a “rainbow plague”.

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Parents often do not accept that their child is gay or trans. In some cases, they lock their son or daughter at home, refuse to let them meet people, take away their mobile phone or internet access, and cut them off from money or food. All as a punishment.

As a result, Poland has for the last three years been ranked as the worst country in the European Union for LGBT people in the annual “Rainbow Index” published by ILGA-Europe, an NGO.

In December 2021, the Campaign Against Homophobia published the report “The social situation of LGBT people in Poland”, based on research by the University of Warsaw’s Centre for Research on Prejudice.

One of the findings was that young people are increasingly less likely to be able to count on support from their families, as the level of acceptance has fallen. Just 61% of mothers who were aware of their children’s non-heteronormativity accepted it (68% in 2017). The figure is even lower for fathers, at 54% (59% in 20107).

Domestic violence towards and homelessness among young LGBT people are widespread problems. A study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2020 showed that as many as one in five LGBT people in Europe experience homelessness during their lives.

The KPH report revealed a similar tendency. For the first time, it referred to homelessness among the LGBT population. One in six, almost 17%, of those surveyed had experienced at least one episode of homelessness, with 10% of cases lasting more than a year.

It is also worth noting that one in ten LGBT people in Poland have been kicked out of the family home, and 20% have run away. This particularly applies to young people still in education.

Sikora explains that those who arrive in the safe house do not always face transphobia or homophobia at home. “As a rule, these people have more than one problem to deal with, including addiction. They stop learning and have emotional, family and personality problems,” she says.

The maximum initial stay in the apartment is 12 months, although this can be extended. Residents receive individual support from a mentor – a “kind soul” who provides them with day-to-day help and keeps an eye on them (making sure there are no alcohol or drugs, for example).

They also receive psychological support (individual or group therapy, depending on their needs) or assistance from a lawyer, for instance if they have experienced violence. A therapist works with those with addiction problems.

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There is also a careers adviser. This role is especially important as these are young people without much life experience and usually struggling to find their way in the job market. They frequently have no idea what they want to do and which direction they can train in, and lack skills in preparing a CV or showcasing their strengths. They do not know how to be assertive or self-disciplined.

Importantly, they are given a support network. They meet people for whom they are not “freaks” or “deviants”. People who can advise and help, whom they can call or, if they need to, simply hug when things are hard. They learn what friendship, self-dependence and keeping one’s word means.

“An apartment like this can be a springboard”

Psychologist and psychotherapist Jan Świerszcz helps to run a Warsaw therapy and development centre called Dobrze, że jesteś (It’s good that you’re here). Among the people he helps are those from the LGBT community. Świerszcz has no doubt that creating safe places for such people is extremely necessary, saying that such spaces were lacking in Poland.

“An apartment like this can be a springboard for young LGBT people that allows them to break out. They can receive community and social support, and through that also resources for coping in life: what to sort out and how, where to go, how to get out of a crisis,” the psychologist explains.

A person experiencing violence can try to get back on track only after escaping the circle of violence. Violence causes the same pain to a woman living with an aggressive husband as a teenager discriminated against and persecuted by their family because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

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“The experience of humiliation, hurt, and pain is the same, although attempts to escape might vary,” says Renata Durda, the head of Niebieska Linia (Blue Line), the Polish Emergency Service for Victims of Domestic Violence, which has been operating since 1995.

“This is why a safe place where LGBT people can live is so important for them,” Durda adds.

The crisis apartment is not the only place. Since September 2001, Warsaw has also boasted another form of support for people experiencing homelessness in the form of a hostel for LGBT people. This was opened thanks to the authorities in the capital, who set up a project for three years to fund its work.

In 2021, the Lambda Association which runs the hostel received 261,800 zloty (€55,500), and it will get 255,500 zloty (54,200) each year in 2022 and 2023.

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Warsaw’s deputy mayor, Aldona Machnowska-Góra, says that the city decided to open the hostel as it could not stand by and watch the problems LGBT people were facing.

“We have a wave of calculated and planned attacks on people from the LGBT community, a wave of hate towards this group in some media, anti-LGBT zones, but there have also been brazen personal attacks, for example on people wearing rainbow emblems on the streets,” she says.

Machnowska-Góra explains that the city had also received information about hateful symbols and slogans being left on the doors of same-sex families’ homes. This was what led to the decision to sign the Warsaw LGBT+ Declaration and to open the hostel. People wishing to stay there can contact them by email or phone.

“We guarantee a stay in the hostel up to three months – which can be extended,” says Sulimir Szumielewicz, its coordinator. “It’s important for us that people leave with the social skills to become as independent as possible.”

Who arrives at the shelter? One young person who showed up at the door recently was carrying only a shopping bag with a toothbrush, a shirt and a few other small things.

The hostel operated in Warsaw previously, in 2015–2016, when it was the first such facility in Central and Eastern Europe. More than 70 people stayed there then, including a high-school student who took his leaving exams while living at the hostel. Unfortunately, the centre was forced to close owing to lack of funds.

“I came to the hostel by chance. I lived there for a few months,” says Michał (not his real name). He has no doubt that such support is a “lifesaver” for many young people and is happy it has reopened. “I found work, I started earning money – today my life’s sorted itself out somehow,” he says.

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Representatives of the LGBT community would like to open more such hostels or apartments for “rainbow youth” in other cities. A safe house has now been launched in Poznań, run by the Stonewall Group with support from the city authorities to the tune of 60,000 zloty (€12,700). The Equality March Association from Lublin also wants to open a safe house, but as yet has no concrete plans.

As well as money, local authority support is the other major problem. With the witch hunt that has taken place in recent years against the LGBT community in Poland, “anti-LGBT ideology” zones throughout the country and homophobic statements by government politicians, mayors are reluctant to fund such activity, worried about the effect support might have on their election results.

The idea that led to the hostel and safe house is in fact a simple one. It is about LGBT+ people knowing that away from their homophobic families or teachers there are also people who are willing and able to help them. If they cannot count on their families, such support networks can be crucial.

Translated by Ben Koschalka. Main image credit: Piotr Skornicki / Agencja Gazeta

Anna Gmiterek-Zabłocka is a journalist at Radio TOK FM, specialising in social issues including migration, domestic violence, and challenges faced by people with disabilities. She won the Grand Press Award for 2010 among other prizes.

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