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Practitioner profile: Ashleigh Shanahan

Practitioner profile: Ashleigh Shanahan

We recently spoke with LGBTI Homelessness and Family Violence Project Worker, Ashleigh Shanahan, about what inspires her work and how her current role is helping to build inclusive and integrated mainstream service provision for LGBTI people experiencing family violence, mental health issues and homelessness.

Tell us about your career in the family violence sector, and what inspired you to take on your current role at Wombat housing support services?

AS: I undertook a project for EDVOS for my final social work placement and this really set the scene for my career in the family violence sector. That project looked at how to get young people more engaged with services. After graduating I worked at EDVOS as an intake specialist family violence advisor. Whilst there I also took on the LGBTI portfolio. When my current role at Wombat came up, it was the amalgamation of everything I had been doing over the past few years and combined all of my passions together. 

How have LGBTI people been discriminated against and how has the service system let them down?

AS: There hasn’t always been a great understanding of the nature of power and control and the use of violence within LGBTI relationships, especially when gender is not the defining factor. This lack of understanding has played out in LGBTI people’s experiences of services. For example, police have sometimes trivialised LGBTI people’s experiences of intimate partner violence, with responses like "Oh well, it's just two women, what's the harm? What can they really do to each other?" And with men, it’s like “they're both men, they can fight it out."

 Non-binary people and trans women have, historically, been denied services because they haven’t been seen as real women or haven’t appeared feminine enough. Visual identity is important for non-binary people and trans women, and they often experience discrimination when those markers don’t live up to feminine ideals. Being homeless, for example, doesn’t allow them access to the privileges of appearance, where they’re able to access things like hormones, clothing and razors that enable them to visibly present their identity.  

Many services have a poor understanding of where to refer LGBTI people. The LGBTI community is a small community, some people do not want to access an LGBTI specific service out of fear of being recognised. This makes it important for mainstream organisations to understand the needs of LGBTI people. Whilst displaying the rainbow or trans flag is important, it needs to go beyond that. If it just stops at the door, that's even more damaging because it's lulling people into a false sense of security.

How is the LGBTI Homelessness and Family Violence Project addressing some of the systemic gaps that LGBTI people experience?

AS: The project focuses on building the capacity of the housing and homelessness sector to be able to understand the specific needs and experiences of LGBTI people and to be able to respond to those needs. It’s about bridging the gap between the homelessness, housing and family violence sectors through a whole range of capacity building activities such as training and resource development, and working collaboratively.

Many young people have gone through the service system and never once been asked if they identify as LGBTI. This has huge implications for their safety and wellbeing. We’ve been developing ways that housing and homelessness services can create safety for LGBTI people. For example, vetting accommodation so that it’s safer and fits their needs. We’ve also developed risk assessment and safety planning processes and a checklist. So when someone is looking at placing a client in accommodation, what should they consider? This might include things like checking how safe the area is in terms of neighbours, or other residents if it's a refuge or transitional housing. Are staff educated in LGBTI best practice? How close is their accommodation to the specific services they need? Can they easily connect with their local LGBTI community?

The work of creating organisational cultural change often falls on LGBTI staff. The majority of staff who work on rainbow tick groups or who are doing any LGBTI work, tend to be people who identify with the community themselves. But the point that we want to make is, it's time for agencies to get on board.

What about the role of collaboration across different sectors?

AS: Collaborating is crucial. There’s often been discrepancies in some of the understandings or the ways in which family violence services work compared with how homelessness services work. We’ve been working more closely together to navigate differences in terms of risk assessment and to enable a clearer pathway for LGBTI people.

Our current focus is on family of origin violence and the homelessness that LGBTI people can experience as a result of that. So we are developing partnerships with child protection, residential, foster and kinship care services. These are really overstretched services so it’s hard to ask people to all of a sudden consider these new priorities. But I'm hoping that the project will provide the support needed and then we can advocate for there to be dedicated specialist LGBTI/homelessness roles that can do this work collaboratively with the other services.

What have been some of the highlights in your current role?

AS: I get to work directly with young people who have found their own journey of discovery with their identity, and also the hardships that they've come from. The resilience that these young people have is so inspiring. I've loved working with them and hearing their stories. I've also loved the collaborative process of working with other agencies.

When I conduct surveys or ask for feedback from people who have participated in the project, I get so many passionate and detailed responses. It really makes me feel that this is an area people really want to learn about and make change.

What drives you to work in the family violence sector?

AS: After falling into work in the family violence sector, I've fallen in love with it. I don't see myself working outside of family violence anytime soon. I really love that this sector is so rapidly changing and adapting to the needs of people.