Tania Davidge outlines the overwhelming evidence of the ‘wicked problem’ of women’s homelessness in Australia and the urgent need for bipartisan support for safe and secure affordable rental housing.
Older women are the fastest growing cohort of homeless people in Australia. The housing situation for women over the age of 45 is confronting, with more than 400,000 women currently estimated to be at risk of homelessness. How has Australia reached this point?
This crisis is due to a complexity of issues and could be rightly termed a wicked problem. To unpack the issue and how we have reached this point, the following reports and articles provide an overview.
Framing the issue
For a media overview, listen to Osman Faruqi’s interview with journalist Kristine Zwicke, The crisis we should have seen coming for the 7am podcast and read Sharon Bradley’s article “Having to ask for somewhere to live, it’s difficult indeed: Single, female, homeless. Australia’s shameful crisis” in The Age (paywalled) and Jane Caro’s scathing “The outlook for older women in Australia is dire – but no one seems to care” in The Guardian.
The Australian Human Rights Commission report, Older Women’s Risk of Homelessness (2019) clearly frames the issue and identifies the hidden nature of older women’s journeys into homelessness. It recognises that access to safe and secure housing is a fundamental human right and lays out the key risk factors that contribute to older women’s homelessness.
Although over 10 years old, the research presented in It Could Be You: Female, Single, Older and Homeless is based on interviews with homeless older women. The interviews in this report bring home the lived reality of the experiences of older women facing homelessness and how a lifetime of a lack of government and social support leads women at risk to “accumulate poverty instead of financial security”.
At Risk: Understanding the Population Size and Demographics of Older Women at Risk of Homelessness in Australia (2020) and its accompanying At Risk: Policy Snapshot looks at the issues that place women at risk of homelessness and takes the research one step further. The report uses data from the longitudinal Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey (HILDA) to place numbers around the scale of the problem. Quantifying the number of women at risk of homelessness is a critical piece of research. What is not assessed is difficult to address. Understanding the magnitude of the issue is a first step in preventing the slide into poverty and homelessness.
The Victorian Government’s Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria does not focus on older women’s homelessness. However, it identifies older women as the fastest growing cohort of people experiencing homelessness. The report provides a comprehensive snapshot of homelessness in Victoria and identifies that the system is in crisis. In this context the system is reactive rather than proactive. The report recognises that significant emphasis needs to be placed on early intervention and prevention by the State Government to reduce homelessness in the state.
Underlying contributing factors
Older women are placed at risk of homelessness due to a combination of government policy and government decisions that are made without assessing gender impact and gendered social and cultural expectations. Measure for Measure: Gender Equality in Australia provides a damning snapshot of the systemic inequity that women in Australia face.
Systemic inequity leaves women more vulnerable in later life when dealing with unexpected events or upheavals that lead to taking time off for caring responsibilities or losing employment. As Luke Henriques-Gomes discusses in “Older Women and Disabled People Hardest Hit by Australia’s Assault on Welfare” in The Guardian, women over 50 made up one in five of all jobseeker recipients in 2019.
Housing in Australia has become increasingly unaffordable both to buy and to rent. Home ownership is now beyond the reach of many Australians. This impacts both women’s ability to own their own homes and their ability to afford rent.
Older single women face barriers to obtaining a mortgage as the number of working years ahead of them is factored into their suitability to obtain housing loans. In this context, even women with modest savings find their savings depleted as they pay rental prices that have more than doubled over the last twenty years. This leaves them to retire on superannuation that is a fraction of their male counterparts and an aged pension that has not kept pace with the costs of living. For further reading, see the Australian Bureau of statistics report, “Housing Occupancy and Costs” and the Australian Super report, The Future Face of Poverty Is Female: Stories Behind Australian Women’s Superannuation Poverty in Retirement.
Government assistance, including rent assistance, the age pension and jobseeker benefits, has not increased in keeping with house prices and rental increases. Over the past 20 years, the gap between those who can afford to pay the rent or own a home and those who cannot has increased significantly. For further information on housing affordability, see the Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria (section 2.5.2 Housing Affordability) and Anglicare Australia’s Rental Affordability Snapshot.
We know the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women. The Grattan Institute’s report, Women’s work, provides an assessment of the impact of the COVID pandemic on Australian women.
To solve this problem, a bipartisan approach needs to be taken. Government policy needs to be tailored to both help older women into home ownership and to support them by providing safe and secure affordable rental housing.
Stephen Gaetz’s report, The Real Cost of Homelessness: Can We Save Money by Doing the Right Thing? shows that addressing homelessness not only has physical and mental benefits, it also has economic benefits; and “‘It’s a miracle’: Helsinki’s radical solution to homelessness” looks at how Finland’s ‘housing first’ policy is reducing homelessness. However, the reality is that preventing homelessness in the first place is one of the most important parts of the puzzle. Addressing the myriad of factors that place older women at risk of homelessness is key to preventing an older woman from becoming another homeless statistic.