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The most rapidly growing group of homeless Australians – it’s not who you expect

Date published: Tuesday 14 August 2018

Category(ies): Feature

BY GINGER GORMAN
@GingerGorman

In the public imagination, the image of a homeless person is a dishevelled, older man who is sleeping rough.

This stereotype belies reality; older Australian women are currently the fastest growing group who are experiencing homelessness in our community.

According to analysis of Census data by the Equality Rights Alliance, between 2011 and 2016 the number of homeless people in Australia rose from more than 102,000 people to more than 116,000. That’s an increase of nearly 14 percent.

However, during this same period the number of homeless women over 55 years old increased by 31 percent. Even more alarmingly, the number of homeless women aged 65 and over saw an increase of 51 percent.

In addition, older women make up more than 56 percent of people receiving homelessness services – a further 61 percent go unassisted.

This red flag doesn’t tell the whole story. Most older women who find themselves homeless don’t sleep rough or access support services - so they aren’t easily counted. A 2014 University of Queensland report commissioned by the Mercy Foundation, indicates homeless older women are therefore “likely to be statistically invisible in data systems.”

Where are they, you ask?  The report suggests these women “are more likely to be staying with friends, living in a car, living under the threat of violence in their home or physically ‘hiding’.” Therefore, this alarming data is probably a grave underestimation.

“The largest proportion of older women presenting with housing crisis in Australia have led conventional lives, and rented whilst working and raising a family. Few have had involvement with welfare and support systems,” the Mercy Foundation study states.

Speaking to news.com.au in 2015, Felicity Reynolds, CEO of the Mercy Foundation said that while the numbers of homeless older women only represented “six to eight per cent of the total number of people counted as homeless in Australia,” we need to pay attention because this “is a problem that we appear to be at the very beginning of.”

“This should be setting off alarm bells for the policy makers because this is only going to get worse as affordability gets worse,” she said.

What’s it like to find yourself homeless as an older woman?

Dr Lisa-Ann Gershwin, 54, is a marine scientist. She found herself homeless in her late 40s.

“I had been embroiled in a toxic workplace issue, and it caused me to become clinically depressed. Things eventually went pear-shaped in a big way, and I was sacked causing me to become unable to work or really even to function normally,” she says.

For 18 months Lisa was without a home: “I had a lot of rough nights, but I always had a roof over my head. I am well aware of how fortunate I was.”

Although she struggled, Lisa reached out for help from Centrelink as well as other agencies.

“City Mission also gave me food to keep me going until I moved into the homeless shelter. And Anglicare got me enrolled as a participant in the Aspire mental health recovery program

“This made a huge difference to being able to weather the ups and downs that inevitably were to come. After a few months at the first homeless shelter, I was forcibly evicted…I was extremely fortunate that an elderly couple took me in to their home, where I stayed for a few months. This literally kept me off the streets, as there was nowhere else to go.

“After that I relocated to Hobart and lived in two more homeless shelters - both run by Anglicare - while I was rebuilding my life into the life I now lead,” Lisa recalls.

She started volunteering at CSIRO and this eventually became permanent work.

“I moved out of the last homeless shelter into a rental apartment, and I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. Fifteen months later I bought it. I’m convinced I actually AM the luckiest girl ever!” she says, adding: “I mean obviously I would have preferred to never have had to go through that crap, but I came to know a couple of sides of myself that I hadn’t previously known…I discovered a strength and determination that frankly surprised me.”

Older homeless women finally in the spotlight

To coincide with National Homelessness Week last week, YWCA Canberra has launched a documentary titled Hidden Women, which aims to put an everyday face to older women who experience housing stress in the ACT.

One of the women featured in the documentary is 48-year-old Marie. For her, a culmination of difficult circumstances – including a relationship breakdown and losing her job – left her without secure accommodation.

Reflecting back, she says: “As a woman you can cope with one thing, you can cope with two things, you can cope with three things and you start juggling all these problems and eventually it becomes overwhelming.

“My children had grown up and moved out…and it was a difficult stage of adjustment where you’ve been the protector and the provider for so long and all of a sudden you have no security and you’re the one that is having a rough trot,” she says, “And asking for help was really difficult.”

After sleeping no a friend’s couch became unsafe, Marie found herself living in a women’s refuge – a situation she believes “still leaves you feeling vulnerable” and isolated.

“The women that had ended up in that refuge situation were there for a variety of reasons. It was everything from domestic violence to drug abuse and they are all people that have had the worst thrown at them.

“So when you combine those personalities sometimes it can become very toxic because they are damaged people surrounding themselves with other damaged people…It didn’t really help me with my self-esteem,” Marie says, “It made me feel that I was part of the system and that there was no way out.”

Marie’s life turned around one she moved into one of YWCA Canberra’s affordable homes for women. 

“Since I’ve moved here I’ve found that I was accepted and valued and appreciated and it has done wonders for making me feel like I’m a part of a family and that was something that I really needed.

“I was struggling really difficultly with depression anxiety and they, the ladies I live with, where are really supportive and assisted me through the worst of that.

“If you want to privacy you can go into your own room and close the door and have your privacy. But If you want someone to talk to you’ve only got to come downstairs and there’s always somebody to have a chat,” she says.

What’s the solution to this growing crisis?

Helen Dalley-Fisher is Program manager at Equality Rights Alliance (ERA), a Federally Funded network of 64 organisations working on gender equality. ERA has a specific focus on housing.

“Housing policy is not age or gender neutral,” Ms Dalley-Fisher says, and “older single women have emerged as the fastest growing cohort of people experiencing housing stress and homelessness.”

She points out that “negative gearing costs the Federal budget more than $2 billion. The Federal National Housing and Homelessness Agreement is costed at one $1.5 billion. We are foregoing revenue in favour of people who are financially secure at the expense of older women,” she says.

Aside from the cost of housing, Ms Dalley-Fisher points to silos in Government that prevent progress: “We need federal level housing strategy crossing Departments of social security, health, education, employments and the Office for Women. We need to better connect aged care services and housing services.”

These barriers to long term solutions to the housing crisis are why Baptist Care Australia has joined the national sector-wide alliance to support the campaign, Everybody’s Home.

“Older women who are homeless are increasing in number, and stories from the frontline say that single women with lower education levels are especially vulnerable,” says Executive Director of Baptist Care Australia, Marcia Balzer.

“Everybody’s Home is a collaborative effort to get governments across Australia to sit up and take notice of a growing crisis. Every vulnerable group in the country is experiencing greater instability in their housing situation, with the demand for affordable accommodation far outstripping the supply. We need as many Australians as possible to support this campaign, sign petitions, and meet with their local member to express their concern.

“Housing is not just a need, it’s a right. Housing stress and homelessness are undermining the stability of our communities and economies. It’s long past time that we confront and resolve the crisis,” Balzer says.

Ginger Gorman is an award-winning print and radio journalist. Follow her on Twitter @GingerGorman or support her work on Patreon.