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Australia is bracing for a tsunami of homeless women

10 October 2019 at 7:30 am
Jan Berriman
On World Homelessness Day, Jan Berriman from YWCA Housing explains the reasons behind the rise in the number of homeless women and suggests some practical solutions.

Jan Berriman | 10 October 2019 at 7:30 am


Australia is bracing for a tsunami of homeless women
10 October 2019 at 7:30 am

On World Homelessness Day, Jan Berriman from YWCA Housing explains the reasons behind the rise in the number of homeless women and suggests some practical solutions.

If a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its elderly and vulnerable, Australia is set to fall shamefully short. 

Women aged over 50 are the fastest growing group of people at risk of homelessness in this lucky country, with a 30 per cent rise in the number of grandmothers, mothers, aunts and sisters sleeping in their cars, couch surfing or accessing crisis accommodation since 2011.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

We will need to build more than 720,000 extra social dwellings in the next 20 years to meet the oncoming surge in demand for people at risk of homelessness. 

In Victoria alone, there are 50,00 applicants on the housing register and, sadly, since January this year YWCA Housing has been unable to meet the needs of more than 400 women who have contacted us directly to secure safe and affordable accommodation. 

It’s simply not good enough. 

The tsunami in demand for affordable housing is coming largely from a generation of women who experienced pay inequity, divorce and family violence and who have little to no superannuation or savings, or who took time out of paid work to care for children or parents. 

Those of us at the coal face of social and affordable housing are already seeing the signs of the looming wave, like the 80-year-old woman who recently applied to YWCA Housing for assistance. Never married but having worked her entire life and rented her homes, she has gone through her meagre superannuation nest egg since retiring and cannot afford market rent on her pension. 

Despite its predictability, no national housing strategy has been developed to prepare for the inevitable disaster ahead. Decades of lower-than-needed investment and a lack of strategic thinking means thousands of older Australian women will face homelessness or housing insecurity in their twilight years. 

It’s a huge problem, requiring an equally big solution and one that the community sector does not expect government to solve alone. We are already finding innovative ways to meet demand, including initiatives like our pop up model, the Lakehouse. Through collaboration with an aged care provider, the private sector and local governments, a vacant retirement facility was repurposed as pop-up temporary accommodation and has housed more than 50 women since July 2018. 

Local governments and the private sector invested $300,000 for the building works, furnishings and site preparation while YWCA Housing was appointed the lessee and tenancy provider, paying peppercorn rent of $1 a year for use of the property. Building outgoings are recovered through below-market rent paid by the women as sub-tenants. 

We need more cross collaborations like the Lakehouse initiative. 

Other cross collaborations include build-to-rent projects, with the community sector and private operators partnering to provide a roof over the heads of women in need. In these initiatives, women tenants are charged below-market rent and long-term residents are given the option to buy, with both revenue streams providing community groups with the capacity to repay building loans. 

But, on its own, the community sector can never meet the impending demand. We need a catalytic investment in social housing over the next 20 years, the scale of which requires government leadership. Likewise, it is government that needs to introduce legislative and institutional reform to enable a national strategic approach to this issue. 

Government departments need to work together – there needs to be questions about the risk of homelessness when assessing elderly people for aged care and we need to develop a pool of funds to build residential aged care facilities for older people who have experienced homelessness. 

Health, housing, aged care, community services, women’s affairs and other government departments need to set the course for the way ahead on social and affordable housing across Australia with the private and not-for-profit sectors helping to shape the solutions and contributing to practical outcomes. 

Government may have been slow to realise the extent of this problem and to put an action plan in place, but it would be better late than never. 

Jan Berriman  |  @ProBonoNews

Jan Berriman is director of national housing and property development for YWCA Australia.

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  • Liz lennon says:

    I’m an older single woman on a low income experiencing homelessness. I’ve written about this topic for the last 2 years and was a speaker at the launch of the WA Ageing on the Edge report hosted by Lisa Baker MLA Maylands in Parliament House in September. the WA research is part of a national research project on older people at risk of homelessness. I included links to my speech, other papers I’ve written on older people and homelessness and a copy of the Ageing on the Edge report

    This a national emergency and a disgrace. it shows how women are not valued and we remain silent, invisible and well behaved. not me,!

  • Nora says:

    Yes, I’m 60, and I am in the process of buying a van, as I can no longer afford rent, selling & giving everything away.
    Raised 2 children on my own, and looked after sick parents, luckily I can afford a van

  • Patricia Harris says:

    Yes I am a full time mother, having divorced due to extreme Domestic violence. I was forced to spend thousands of dollars to move interstate, sell my home, etc etc, to escape that violence, because the Police and the Courts would not protect me, even with multiple IVO’s. My ex, was allowed to reduce his income estimate, clearly fraudulently, to not pay much child maintenance, was allowed to get away with not paying for school fees, medical fees etc etc.. I was forced spend over $10,000 on my own, having to pay it off, on dental fees for both the kids, that the ex never was forced to pay. Our system forces women into poverty!! The men are allowed to play the game, they get superannuation, and when a separation occurs, the men get away with lying, and the System makes No Allowance for the extra fees involved with raising children, they do NOT enforce the dads to share the financial cost of the kids, only the basic child maintenance, which many of them dont pay or default on anyway.. The Courts and Police force us into situations where we pay out thousands for court costs, to protect ourselves and then they put us in dangerous situations.. so in the end, we have spent 10s of thousands of dollars protecting our children, protecting ourselves, raising those children on our own, having to make every sacrifice we can, while the dads earn their superannuation, get every extra bit handed to them, and once our kids grow up, we are left with nothing,!! I lost 10s of thousands in value having to move states to protect us, dental fees for the kids cost me $10,000 that he didnt have to share in… school fees, camps, required computers etc etc etc,, are all left to the mothers to pay for, and the dads get away with it, so in the end after all those years, we have nothing to fall back on! The plight of majority of the homeless women is entirely the Governments fault, mishandling of mothers, mishandling child maintenance, refusing to enforce dads to share expenses, charging women huge amounts of money to be safe, and not protecting them.. there is No foresight in any of their policies.. Even allowing, outside people to challenge and take money from Wills left to the wives, mothers etc in times of death… I have met many women who’s husbands passed away, leaving them money only for the courts to allow, distant relatives, friends, etc etc, to fight it and take it.. leaving those women broke… There is so much wrong with our system

    • Ralph says:

      Ignorance. The male predominantly is 90% more violent in every aspect of the word than the female counterpart in this predominantly man made unnatural world of his making And not the woman’s making. For 12,000 years his tyranny his very nasty piece of works is to abuse the female Misue her a his object A SEXUAL SPITUNE to release his worsening sexual aggression his brutal violence. Ignorance over her. That divide has never stopped widening as HELL ON EARTH. Or the only hell there is period Every problem on earth is born arises from this fact
      No more needed to say Down through the ages he has forced her into an inferior position by his superior economic and physical force. And abused her offspring her children to further this nasty control over her

      Today she is enraged over his tyranny but can do nothing in her present condition of oppression to him He has the guns the billets the money she hasn’t hardly any of that She is also firmly hooked on his EXTREEMLY Ignorant dream. Building a destructive mad world and his obsession with cliteral indulgence satisfaction and fully lost sexual control of himself So the devil or this satanic drive runs this world Hence the OVIOUSLY consequences this woman and every other woman is hooked on his dream. Left her own dream for his selfish one is hooked on it Stuck in an endless VICIOUSE CIRCLE in it. Not willing to pay the price to break with it The only way out Or the best possible and leave him behind in his satanicness to destroy this world Which now can’t be stopped or saved.

  • Gabriele says:

    it is a well known fact that housing is a bit more affordable out in regional Queensland –where I live . there are many empty houses compared to the cities–not everyone needs to live in these overcrowded places –there is so much more room/space land –if only ppl would stop and think . As far as I know Pensioners of all kinds are getting the same pensions out here in regional areas and are able to survive better than in the hideously expensive cities . Come to think of it there are not many homeless around here that I have seen . People just seem to cope better . Cheap housing on mainly good size blocks are still available . We have Anglicare Blue Nurses and a Hospital that is made bigger . Transport is available to all main doctors /specialists –just gotta ask . Also smaller towns are friendlier and more helpful and compassionate. The Government needs to get going and get their arses into gear . …

    • Sandy Goldring says:

      Thank you Gabrielle for bringing this up. Out in the rural area there is a lot of support for people and in many cases cheaper accommodation OK it’s not the Ritz but with care would be home.

    • Teresa says:

      Isn’t there less homeless people in the country because of lack of services and transport. It’s a bit hard to get about when you have to rely on a bus that comes twice a day and the nearest shop is 15km away.

      Not to mention they would stick out more and possibly be shunned or shamed by locals since everyone knows everyone.

      Maybe it would be OK if an elderly person landed a nice basic flat within reasonable distance to doctors, services and shops.

  • Doing My Share To Help Women In QLD says:

    Homelessness would be drastically reduced if every council in Australia adopted Brisbane City Council’s excellent rooming accommodation policy. It’s the best in the country. There are many property investors whose sole purpose is to house people in need but the councils need to step-up. This problem will not be solved by government alone.

  • Leigh Brown-Thomas says:

    To help understand the coming tsunami of women experiencing homelessness, which has increased by 30% in the 8 years since 2011. Could You provide the actual figures (numbers of Women experiencing homelessness) in 2011 and now Please Jan Berriman. Thank You in advance. Leigh.

  • Lorraine Smith says:

    I live in the Sillicon Valley area in California…I see women living in their cars here all the expensive to rent a home here so they sleep in their car for about a year to save the money for a rental deposit. Some are very educated but have no family to help them out. I see a trend starting since landlords can raise rents as high as they want. Its getting worse.

  • D J Thomson says:

    I can’t do much but I can write letters

  • Olivia Gallagher says:

    This is a courtesy email to advise you that we featured your article in our weekly Top 100 Women EDM, which goes out to 11,000 people worldwide, within the property & development sector.

    You can view the article via registering at

  • Alexander McRae says:

    I have been thinking about this article for a few days. My feelings are so strong that I am struggling to find a way to express myself that is printable. How’s this: Australia is a much worse country than it was 40 years ago. Real estate agents, sellers and landlords, if they raise housing sales prices and rents over a certain threshold, should be arrested, tried fairly and gaoled. The housing market in Sydney is a crime against humanity. If a full on armed Communist revolution would solve the problems, it would probably be time. But I can’t see that it would solve it. The reason for the housing crisis is quite simple. Too many people just don’t give a damn. I understand that some of the problem comes from domestic violence. The way I see it, for a man to be physically violent to a women is one of the most serious mental illnesses, on a level with schizophrenia. Developers also, who build the biggest homes they possibly can, to make the greatest profit they can – pushing nature out of suburbia in the process – instead of building affordable homes for small households as well as mansions, are also doing a very wicked thing. As the film, “The Corporation” touched on, a person who cares only about making money, and nothing else, could be diagnosed as a psychopath. One may ask the question whether the economy is psychotic. If one isn’t religious and doesn’t care for the book of Revelation, just follow news and current affairs – you’ll get the same information there. While we’re waiting for the real estate industry to become philanthropic, as they should, or the Federal government to introduce national legislation pegging home sale and rental prices to some formula like 25 percent of the income of one average wage earner over a 25 year period, for example, may we just try to all help each other as best we can, as I understand was done in the depression of the 1930s. Each person’s actions may only be small, but I pledge now to give more to good ngos helping alleviate poverty in Australia, as well as in the developing world. I don’t earn much at all myself but I’m doing ok. If there is such a thing as karma, which I’m convinced there is, any person who sits on a large amount of wealth and lives a life of opulence whilst poverty exists in our country at the level identified in this story, they are doing a very unwise thing. The Federal government should solve the housing crisis immediately. By building more affordable homes and regulating the market so it does it’s job properly. I don’t understand the economic feasibility or ramifications of a course like this, but for God’s sake, there’s enough money swilling round this country, for billion dollar mall renovations, a new mobile phone every two years and filth like that, surely it must be possible to keep women who’ve made huge contributions to the wellbeing of society, worked hard their whole lives, raised children lovingly and so on, off the street. I feel so sorry for the women, and men, who are having to endure hardships like this in or country, one of the richest in the world and by some measures THE richest in the world. We need a new world, a new economy, and a new heart, but we are inured and blind to just how unacceptable the current status quo and “business as usual” is.

    • D J Thomson says:

      You have expressed my sentiments exactly. It is one thing if people deliberately choose to make bad choices but quite another for people who have true to do the right thing by themselves and their families but end up getting shafted by the system. Sadly the McMansions being built, filling up the whole block (no backyard, no nature, no beauty, no soul) these will be the slums of tomorrow. It is bad enough that there are men sleeping rough but for this to happen to women and to children is even far worse. My late mother used to say “When poverty comes in the door, love flies out the window!” Sadly, there is some truth in this but it need not be so. As for solutions:
      Real estate agents should be prevented from advertising or selling property to non citizens especially those who are not even living here. This won’t happen because the vast majority of politicians are ‘globalists’ and their loyalties lie elsewhere. Family violence will continue to get worse if fundamental changes are not made. It cannot be solve by the government or by women. Only men can solve this problem. Homelessness is a multifactorial problem: legal, financial, cultural, moral and so on. The male role in society has become distorted and the financial system has been proven to be corrupted. The homeless are often the victims of these circumstances which are beyond their ability to control. Australia is run by robbers barons controlling a kleptocratic idiocracy!

    • Barry says:

      Well, in Australia, if you are old and poor, you are on your own.
      Just cast aside as if you are redundant.
      And even if you are fit and able to attempt to climb your way out of poverty, you arenpenalised by the beaurocracy for attempting to do so.
      Hence the homeless problem keeps rising, and no one gives a stuff.

  • D J Thomson says:

    I would also like to add a comment to my reply. For centuries people lived in extended families and there were uncles and aunts and cousins close by. There would be several generations living under one roof. There were still vestiges of this way of living when I was a child back in the 50’s. Our grandmother who had a long widowhood didn’t live I her own house but stayed in her children’s houses in turn, for about 6 months at a time. We always looked forward to her coming to stay with us. The industrial revolution destroyed the extended family and the mobility required of people for work and changes to family law and morals and mores as well as financial pressures (cor of just living) have contributed to the destruction of the nuclear family. As a society we need to recalibrate our priorities and our values and moral compasses. An extra bedroom for a family member may bring greater value to us as individuals and as a society than an outdoor entertainment area or unground pool. The true value of a society is measured by how well it treats its most vulnerable.

  • Angela Geaney says:

    I am in tears reading these responses. Being in extremely difficult circumstances myself, with no financial backing and little support. Kind thoughts to all.

  • Shelley Richardson says:

    From Canada with love to all the vulnerable women in Australia…yes, we see the same horrid trends here in the cities – Toronto, Vancouver…is it a global trend? Whole families living in cars in smaller towns on Vancouver Island. 40 applicants per apartment rental even if you do have enough money for 1st/last and the landlords charging whatever they want. House prices soaring.

  • Del says:

    Hi there, I have been thinking about this problem. There are many single people who still live in the homes they brought children up in and are now by themselves. They could share with another person but then their pension is reduced. If someone is willing to share their home with someone more vunerable then they should not be punished. I know it is a lot more complicated but the fact remains that there are lots of houses with only one person. The government should be looking at ways to make it a win/win proposition.

    • Barry says:

      Governments are the same as the rest.
      They have only their own interests at heart.
      And care nought for the rest.

  • Merran Cooper says:

    Family Law courts have too few judges, so women are forced to accept mediation- and men know well that they can then say/do what they like. I am a luckier one- but still my husband “lost’ 10million dollars. The experienced judge said to me- ‘Accept it’s gone and accept what he offers at mediation. Otherwise, you will go broke spending 3 years searching for the money, and you still won’t find it.’ When I queried another solicitor about how we could track the money, that solicitor said_ “What would you do with that kind of money?” As if it’s perfectly ok for a man to be wealthy but not a woman. That man took everything we earned together in our marriage despite letters and tapes from him saying . “everything I have is because of you” then also took more than half of a war widows compensation I received for the death of my first husband 35 years earlier – on a technicality. There is an inbuilt, deep vein that it’s expected for women to do all the caring, for young and old- unpaid, and it’s okay for them to be poor. Now, like many others, I am a businesswoman on my own- without an unpaid wife to cook, care for my kids, do the laundry, drive me to work, etc etc and it’s tough. There’s no way my ex could so what I do. It is time to stop this double standard of claiming we value families and marriage but letting women become poor because of the help they provide their men to succeed. The family courts are totally inadequately funded.

  • Tony Blanche says:

    And we think a few people loosing their houses in a bush fire is a national disaster, we really do have our priorities wrong!

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