Australia’s ageing population, high cost of housing, and significant gap in wealth accumulation between men and women across their lifetimes is leading to increasing inequality.
Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reveals that women comprised more than two-thirds of all people seeking homelessness support and were not able to be helped last year.
And without solutions, this crisis will continue to snowball.
“[The] data shows that women continue to bear the brunt of any crisis, whether it be fires, a pandemic, or an economic recession,” Chair of Homelessness Australia Jenny Smith says.
The AIHW December figures show that in 2019 to 2020, 260 people each day seeking homelessness support missed out. And more than two-thirds, or 67 per cent, of this group were women or girls.
“This includes many women who were presenting to homelessness services with young children," Smith says. “Last year, there were 11,201 children under ten who missed out on support.”
As demand for homelessness services continually exceeds capacity, women over the age of 45 are one of the fastest-growing groups of people who are homeless in Australia.
An estimated 405,000 women over the age of 45 were at risk of housing affordability stress and subsequently becoming homeless, reveals the "At Risk" policy report from Housing For the Aged Action Group (HAAG), and Social Ventures Australia.
And census figures show, there was an estimated near 7000 women over the age of 50 who were homeless in 2016, this figure reflecting a 31 per cent increase since 2011.
Kobi Maglen of HAAG national older persons homelessness prevention says this represents the “tip of the iceberg” as older women don't tend to present at homelessness services.
“But instead make do by missing meals or medication, staying with friends, or housesitting,” she says.
Women retire with lower average superannuation balances than men due to a range of social and economic factors including the gender wage gap and time taken out of the workforce to care for children or family members.
Female-dominated industries are more likely to be low paid, casual or part-time, while experiences of family violence, gender and age discrimination more likely to impact their work.
Maglen says this problem is exacerbated by Australia’s lack of appropriate and affordable housing.
“And this means that increasing numbers of older women are left with nowhere to go,” she says.
“This is an unfolding crisis compounded by the economic, social and health impacts of Covid-19. It also highlights the critical link between safe, secure and affordable housing and good health and wellbeing, particularly in older age.”
The number of people unable to be assisted in 2020
|Age group||Number||Per cent||Number||Per cent|
^Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) December 2020 data
“I never ever imagined I would find myself in this situation. Ever,” Marie says.
“Everything changed when my husband and I separated. I had to stop work for health reasons and my relationship could not stand the strain as I was the main earner,” she says.
At the time, Marie was 55 when she faced homelessness. She had owned homes in the UK and Australia.
The majority of women that homeless services are in contact with are like “you or me”. They have led “conventional lives”. Marie is educated and has typically worked in management roles.
“I had $30,000 in superannuation. My share of our matrimonial home settlement was not enough for me to buy anything, so I put it into my superannuation,” she says.
“I had been a stay-at-home Mum, which is rarer these days, but my main earning period was between the age of 40-53, hence the low Super.
“Then followed three years of temporary, insecure housing situations including housesitting, informal “rentals”, living with friends, staying with my son, and a spell in a caravan park.
“I made 18 moves and the toll on both my physical and mental health was huge.”
Womens' Housing Company chief executive Debbie Georgopoulos says access to safe and secure housing is a fundamental human right.
“Homeless women in Australia are the women we know. They are our Mothers, our aunties, our neighbours, our sisters,” Georgopoulos says.
“It can happen to anyone.”
“The solution to homelessness is more housing, it is as simple as that.”
Minimal construction for most of the past 25 years means that national social housing supply has effectively halved since the 1990s.
A UNSW City Futures Centre study, commissioned by the Housing Productivity Research Consortium, found that among the best ways to broaden Australia’s economic recovery strategy would be a large-scale national social housing program.
“A seven billion-dollar investment in social and affordable housing would unlock more than $18 billion in economic expansion, creating more than 18,000 jobs a year over four years, and making a serious dent in homelessness,” Kate Colvin, national spokesperson for Everybody’s Home, says.
Colvin says the federal government would need to build 12,000 homes a year to help cover the shortfall for over 65s and that's not including the support needed for younger Australians.
“This is a great time for the federal government to be building social housing because every dollar they spend on that construction activity, generates a $1.50 for the economy. So while the economy is still struggling this is something that delivers a double benefit.”
“A better-balanced housing system is the right thing to do. It also happens to be the smart thing to do.”