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This LGBT homeless shelter used to be Metallica’s tour bus

Carla Ecola has turned a piece of rock history into a vital resource for the queer community – we meet the woman behind the The Outside Project

In a freezing cold warehouse in east London, Carla Ecola sits at a long wooden table surrounded by volunteer forms, stained coffee cups and tracing paper. This small, smiling queer woman with a tuft of lime green hair poking out of her beanie is the founder of the UK’s first LGBTIQ+ homeless crisis centre and she’s in the midst of creating decorations for it  — hence the tracing paper.

The Outside Project is going to be a place of safety for people who are in crisis,” she explains.

The project, based in Dagenham, London, launches on Monday December 4 and will be the first crisis centre to cater specifically to the queer community. Two volunteers and 12 rough sleepers will stay on a stationary former tour bus that has housed rock bands Status Quo, Metallica and Radiohead.

“We'll basically be a safe space with friendly faces providing basic needs. In the crisis moment what do you need? Somewhere to store nearest and dearest belongings, a change of clothes, a shower, a hot meal and obviously a bed.”

Carla would know – for much of her early 20s she was part of the hidden homeless, bouncing from place to place and knows what it’s like to not have a stable roof over your head: “I stayed in squats, sofa surfed, slept on buses and at raves and after parties.”

She’s not alone – 62 per cent of the homeless population are “hidden”, and that number increases when you are from the queer community.

At 32, Carla is settled and has been married for over a year. But working in the homelessness sector has only increased her worries.

“I've been in so many different squats myself I saw how dangerous those spaces were. You have poor sanitation, no hot water and people who have really complex needs all kind of piling into these derelict buildings. How are they ever going to be safe?” – Carla Ecola

According to a 2016 report by Stonewall Housing, LGBT+ people are more likely to experience homelessness than cisgender and heterosexual people. They cite five clear reasons: family estrangement or estrangement from social care; social isolation; fear of negative repercussions from coming out; challenges obtaining employment and mental health vulnerabilities.

“LGBT people are more likely to have fractured relationships with their family, and community. If you don’t have support of family and local communities you’re more likely to feel isolated as you don’t have the safety net others have,” explains Michael Nastari, director of services at Stonewall Housing.

He adds that The Outside Project is a vital and long-awaited service in the fight against LGBTIQ+ homelessness.

Carla is empathic, kind and open, and as we chat she moves to let me sit next to the heater. “I've been in so many different squats myself and I saw how dangerous those spaces were. You have poor sanitation, no hot water and people who have really complex needs all kind of piling into these derelict buildings. How are they ever going to be safe?

“So I thought we don't need to squat, we can do it all properly and organise a professional service because we need one and deserve one.”

The Outside Project evolved from conversations last summer, to official meetings in February before they officially launched their crowdfunder during Pride. Just three months later they had smashed their original target of £8,000 and are now are ready to launch their pilot.

The Project will be run for two months before a review; after which Carla and her team will apply for funding and look for a permanent building. And the bus? That will be driven on to somewhere else in the UK so they can run their own pilot for LGBTIQ+ homelessness.

The pilot is similar to a lot of winter services and there will be no self-referrals. “We’ll be linked in with an organisation already who will lead on the casework for the guest such as Stonewall Housing, Galop or the local housing association.”

She explains that some homeless people who have been out for years go back into the closet as it feels like the only option. “Some people don't come out because their gender and sexual identity is part of the reason they became homeless, so when they go to try more housing they think it won't help them,” she says.

“You may have nailed how to navigate being LGBTIQ+ in your own life and come out to different people, but when you’re thrown into a crisis all you can think about is how to feel safe. So all of a sudden you go from being this happy, out and open queer into stealth mode because the last thing you need to deal with right now is homophobia or transphobia.”

One of the clear reasons people are afraid is thanks to hate crime. In 2013 one in six lesbian, gay and bisexual people said they had been a victim of hate crime and in 2014 the police reported 605 cases violence against transgender people

Going back in the closet also has a severe effect on people’s mental health – something that already disproportionately affects the queer community, with over half of those who identify as transgender experiencing depression and anxiety.

Carla talks about her frustration at the media’s persecution of the trans community, specifically trans women in women’s refuges. “On one hand they’re saying [to trans women] no you can't access our spaces but they’re not providing the spaces needed at the same time. Or non-binary people, what refuge would they even go to? There need to be more identity responsive services rather than gender-responsive services.”

“On one hand they’re saying [to trans women] no you can't access our spaces but they’re not providing the spaces needed at the same time” – Carla Ecola

“Identity responsive” is a term she refers to a lot. It’s a great buzz term, sure, but it also makes perfect sense. For a community that has a varied mix of identities and sexualities, it seems obvious that mainstream services would be near impossible to navigate.

The project goes further than ensuring that there is just a space for LGBT people, the training itself tackles issues within the community. Carla provided a training session for some of the volunteers. She gave a presentation on what to look out for, detailing the specific issues to be aware of including chem sex, drugs such as GBL and importantly, prejudices.

Midway through training, volunteers get a tour of the bus. It’s been home to some of the greatest rock bands in the world and it was “pretty much a charitable donation” since the Outside Project bought it for so much less than it’s worth.

The majority of the volunteers identify as being part of the LGBQI+ community and the rest are strong allies. However, Carla is not just trying to provide support in a bubble – she’s also looking to change mainstream services themselves.

The queer community, like so many other minorities, have a history of creating and demanding the spaces they need from basement bars when homosexuality was illegal to entire neighbourhoods to feel safe.

Carla is paying tribute to those who’ve helped her by creating plaques to go on each bunk: images of event owners, activists and other individuals who have played a key role. As she finishes her drawing of one man who used the five year anniversary of his failed suicide attempt to raise money for The Outside Project, she explains why the plaques are important.

“They connect our guests with the community who helped them and show them they are cared about and aren’t alone.”

The Outside Project are still looking for volunteers so you would like to volunteer with the Outside Project please email Carla at Carla.Ecola@LGBTIQoutside.org with a volunteer form or donate.