Older Women Among Australia’s ‘Hidden Homeless’
15 April 2014 at 11:32 am
Older women in Australia are increasingly at risk of becoming homeless, primarily because of poverty and unaffordable housing, according to a new research report commissioned by social justice group the Mercy Foundation.
The report, Older Women’s Pathways Out of Homelessness in Australia, found there is strong anecdotal evidence that a growing “hidden” group of people becoming homeless in Australia are women aged over 55. Women in this age group may have spent many years raising children and are less likely to have accumulated sufficient superannuation by working full-time in the paid workforce.
The report cites housing affordability as a primary contributor to homelessness among older women, as well as the decline of the nuclear family, an increase in single-person households and increasing longevity among women.
It recommends a range of policy, service and housing responses, including rapid re-housing as well as supportive housing and aged-care housing options.
The Mercy Foundation commissioned University of Queensland researchers Dr Maree Petersen and Dr Cameron Parsell to investigate the issue of homelessness among older women and look at possible solutions to the problem.
Dr Petersen, from the University’s Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR), said the largest proportion of older women presenting with housing crisis in Australia had led conventional lives and rented while working and raising a family.
“Few have previously had involvement with welfare and other support systems,” Dr Petersen said.
She said older women’s risk of homelessness can be lessened by the way welfare and housing systems work and interact with older women.
“However, there remains a lack of evidence which considers issues of specific concern to older women, many of whom may be homeless for the first time, primarily because of poverty and unaffordable housing,” Dr Petersen said.
Mercy Foundation CEO Felicity Reynolds said the increasing lack of affordability of private rental housing in our cities meant older single women who do not own their own house and who are living on the aged pension or have only small amounts of retirement savings are at greater risk of a housing crisis and homelessness.
“I calculated the median rent in greater Sydney as a percentage of the single aged pension with full rent assistance,” Reynolds said.
“That rent represented 76 per cent of the pension, leaving 24 per cent (or $110 per week) to pay for everything else – food, utilities, transport. Spending more than 30 per cent of your income on rent is considered unaffordable.”
YWCA NSW Chief Executive Officer Anna Bligh launched the report and told ABC Radio that frontline workers at the YWCA were finding that 15 per cent of their clients now fit the description of older homeless women.
Bligh told the ABC there has been a spike in the past three years.
“It's an emerging trend of older women who in some respects have been left behind by the massive social and economic shifts; women who have gone into retirement without assets, women who haven't had a lifetime of accruing superannuation,” she said.
“And I think it should concern everybody that those women who have spent a lot of their lives rearing children, caring for others, are now finding themselves in poverty-stricken circumstances.”
The researchers found the increased recognition in Australia is not evident in other countries. “There is a pervasive lack of attention internationally to older women’s (and older people’s) homelessness…despite recognition of demographic changes, increasing numbers of older people living in poverty, and the ageing of people who are already homeless,” they stated in the report.
The report found that older women’s homelessness is largely not characterised by rough sleeping and as such official counts are limited, given vulnerable older 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”.
It states that care must be taken in noting the nature of older women’s homelessness and how the significance of the problem is assessed, as “older women are more likely to be statistically invisible in data systems”.
The report also argues that pathways as it relates to older women’s homelessness must not only account for age and gender but also cultural background and geography. The women’s life course is also integral.
A copy of the research report can be found here.