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Poverty and Homelessness – The Reality For Too Many Older Women

Housing for the Aged Action Group

For many years, frontline workers in regional and metro homelessness services have been seeing increasing numbers of older women seeking support. The 2016 census confirmed this, showing older women, over the age of 55, were the fasting growing cohort of people experiencing homelessness increasing by 31% from 2011 – 2016. We know this trend has accelerated and worsened since 2016, with many services reporting women approaching them for support for the first time in their lives, unfortunately many are turned away due to a limited capacity to help.

Poverty is the daily reality for millions of Australian women. By the time they are aged 60, 34 per cent of single women in Australia currently live in poverty, and many are experiencing housing stress and homelessness. But why is this, in one of the richest nations in the world?

For many older women it has been a culmination of a number of factors that has resulted in them needing support.

  • Many have insufficient superannuation or savings to fund the costs of living due to their life time of caring roles for family, combined with casual work or part time work (women make up over two-thirds of Australia’s primary carers and 55 per cent of all carers).
  • Having raised families, worked part time or in unpaid roles (running the school tuck shop or caring for elderly parents) women have retired with considerably less savings and assets than men in their age group.
  • Many have also been forced out of the workforce early and have suffered from systemic age and gender discrimination in the workforce.

According to research by HILDA, women over 60 are the lowest earning of all demographic groups nationally, and there is no doubt this worsened during COVID-19. Current Job Seeker payments are also woefully inadequate, keeping people in poverty, barely able to pay for rent and basic essentials.

Older Women’s Network Queensland

A chronic lack of affordable and appropriate housing is also driving older women into homelessness. For many a lack of financial resources and assets has meant that they are unable to sustain housing in one of the world’s most expensive housing rental markets. If long term relationships end through separation, divorce or the death of an income earning spouse, women’s vulnerability increases.  Australia has chosen to support a housing system based on the private rental market and negative gearing, rather than building public and social housing (Australia has one of the lowest public housing stocks in the OECD). This system simply doesn’t cater for people relying on a low income, including those in employment, the pension and Job Seeker. While it is clear that women are victims to lifelong structural settings that have undermined their financial security – the state of the housing market is what is currently pushing so many women from housing stress into homelessness. The reality is that hundreds of thousands of women, who rely on the private rental market, are at considerable risk of housing affordability stress and hence homelessness.

Experiences of domestic violence, poor health or serious illness are also key factors in determining someone’s vulnerability to homelessness. Women are at least three times more likely than men to experience violence from an intimate partner and escaping an abusive relationship can take a financial toll on women who may also need to leave work and find new accommodation.

Sydney Morning Herald, Tim Bauer

It’s hard for anyone, but to be entering a homeless refuge for the first time at such a late age can be a difficult and traumatic experience. Yet, with the number of Australians aged 55+ projected to increase significantly over the coming decades, the number of Australians at risk of, and experiencing, homelessness is also expected to increase significantly.

If we are to avoid a tsunami of homeless older women we need our Federal Government to acknowledge this crisis and start to address the major policy areas, including massively increasing public housing supply and increasing welfare payments to above the poverty line – for starters. We need urgent reform and it’s imperative that we do better.

Older women experiencing homelessness

ABC News, Alina Eacott

For 18 years StreetSmart has been funding smaller grassroots organisations specifically supporting older women. In July you can join with us and help provide better services for older women. Share this article, and donate to four programs supporting older women experiencing homelessness and fighting for change.

UPDATE – 25th August 2021

Thanks to our generous monthly donors and supporters, including The Metamorphic Foundation, we have been able to make 5 x $5000 grants to support:

  • direct support to women to find, secure and set up housing,
  • a documentary film highlighting the issue of older women’s homelessness, and
  • lived experience peer support groups and advocacy to campaign and inform politicians on the looming crisis for so many older women.

The following organisations received grants: