Older women and homelessness

A troubling trend

The fastest growing group to experience homelessness in Australia is older women. The 2016 Census reported that the number of women over 55 experiencing homelessness increased by 31% to 6,866 compared to 2011.

This is an alarming statistic. This figure is almost double the growth rate for people experiencing homelessness in Australia. According to the last Census, the total number of people experiencing homelessness in Australia grew by 14% to 116, 427.

Research shows that most of these women have never been homeless before. This person could be your sister, aunt, mother or grandmother.

Where are they?

Many women move between staying with children, relatives or friends to keep a roof over their head. Some are adept at house-sitting whilst others sleep in their car when there is nowhere else to go.

Why are women over 55 years at risk of homelessness?

Women over 55 are at great risk of financial and housing insecurity due to systemic and compounding factors such as:

  • Lack of superannuation
  • Working part time or casually throughout their lives
  • Taking time out of the workforce to care for family
  • Bearing the brunt of the gender pay gap
  • An increasingly unaffordable private rental market
  • Age discrimination

This group of women have suffered lifelong discrimination. Some were forced to resign when they married or were pregnant; financial discrimination meant that many were unable to enter into a home mortgage until the 1970’s; age discrimination means that older people find it difficult to find employment.

A life event such as the death of a spouse, serious illness, divorce or no-grounds eviction can push a woman into homelessness.

Women living on a low, fixed income, who have not had the opportunity to buy a home are at great risk of homelessness.

Research shows that most older women who are homeless have never been homeless before. In fact, many don’t self-identify as experiencing homelessness, as they view homelessness as the stereotypical image of a man sleeping rough.

Most women blame themselves for their homelessness. The reality is, no matter what they might have done, their homelessness is not their fault. The blame lies squarely on a broken system.

Women should not be living with the fear of homelessness at this point of their lives.

An increasing issue?

One statistics that is worrying many is that the number of older women in the private rental market doubled from 90,000 in 2006 to over 180,000 in 2016. Some describe this as a tsunami of older women on the verge of experiencing homelessness.

Root cause: Poverty

The root cause of all homelessness is poverty. Older women are more likely to be living in poverty than older men due to a lifetime of discrimination that included unpaid or paid work.

Lack of specialist services

Of the 1,518 homelessness services agencies across Australia, only 3 are funded as specialist services for older people.

Rental (un)affordability

The latest Rental Affordability Snapshot by Anglicare shows that less than 1%  of the 69,485 properties available for rent across Australia were affordable for a single person on the Age pension.

The Solution? Affordable, appropriate, safe, permanent housing

Women experiencing homelessness need appropriate, long term, affordable housing. Stable housing is important for good health and well being. Housing is an important health intervention. Women’s health needs generally increase as they age and can be exacerbated by insecure housing or homelessness.

Older women generally have low needs and need nothing more than a safe, affordable, permanent home.

Recommendations

The National Older Women’s Housing and Homelessness Working Group identified the following actions to address this issue. The complete recommendations can be found in the report.

  1. Develop a National Housing and Homelessness Strategy with specific targets for women and older women
  2. Implement a Federal Government Strategy to address the current financial insecurity of older women.
  3. Special measures are needed to assist women currently at retirement age who have not accumulated superannuation due to lower life earnings. Gender inequality and discrimination must be addressed.
  4. Prevent future generations from risking homelessness by developing a comprehensive Federal Government Strategy to address the underlying causes of gender inequality.
  5. Establish a Seniors Hosting Gateway Program to address the housing support needs of vulnerable older women.
  6. Ensure the national aged care policy addresses housing adequacy.

Source: Retiring into poverty –  A national plan for change: Increasing the housing security for older women

Research reports:

Retiring into Poverty 2018
Older Women’s Studio Development Project 2016
A Plan for Change: Homes for Older Women 2016
Older Women’s Pathways out of Homelessness in Australia 2014