Australia is often cited as an economic success story. Decades of growth fuelled by the resources and agricultural industries enabled it to navigate the global financial crisis virtually unscathed. Indeed, Australians enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world.
Unfortunately, not everyone has reaped these economic benefits and concern has been mounting for some time about a deteriorating wealth divide within Australian society. Central to these concerns is the lack of affordable housing. The price of housing, and private rentals, has soared. The supply of social housing is limited while waiting lists for such accommodation extend for years. More people are resorting to marginal forms of accommodation and homelessness has increased considerably.
This post examines one aspect of this troubling national trend – an increasing number of women at or nearing retirement age are experiencing difficulty in finding affordable and secure housing. This ‘new’ group of women, for the most part, do not fit with society’s ubiquitous image of homelessness. Indeed, last week the Older Women’s Pathways Out of Homelessness in Australia Report noted:
“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.”
As with the general homeless population, homelessness amongst older women cannot be singularly explained. The group is diverse in age, education, location, cultural background and life circumstances. It can be triggered by a single, traumatic event or a lifetime of personal disadvantage and misfortune.
Beyond the prescient issue of domestic violence, if there is insufficient superannuation, a partner dies, a marriage breaks down later in life or something goes wrong from a health or financial perspective, many older women are finding themselves in difficult circumstances. McFerran argues that the entrenched social and economic disparity faced by women places them at risk of homelessness.Changes in the life expectancy of women, the lack of affordable housing, the rate of divorce and separation (and the subsequent number of women living alone) has created a wave of homeless, older working women.One particular driver is persistent wage inequality and the fact that women tend to move in and out of the workforce (as a result of childcare responsibilities), whilst earning less than men. Another study points to the growing gap between pension incomes and rents as a primary reason behind the increasing number of aged people (in particular women) seeking assistance from homelessness services.
So what can be done? More services directed towards, and accommodation appropriate to, older women at risk of homelessness is required. Homelessness services throughout Australia have identified, and implement, a range of solutions and service models targeting homeless older women. Unfortunately, there is concern about the funding of these services: the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness only funded until mid-2015, and funding for further capital works under this program have been diluted.
It is also imperative that innovative approaches to accommodation – and necessarily more, not less, capital funding – are made available. A range of appropriate and innovative housing models must be considered. Organisations such as St Bartholomew’s are constructing hostels for older homeless women, as traditional boarding houses, predominantly used to house men, are often inappropriate for women. Also, the supply of public housing must be increased with a view to constructing more transitional, staircase and permanent supported housing within the social housing sector. Nor is this the time to discourage innovative approaches to housing the homeless. As welcome and necessary as larger scale construction is, capital works funding need not be directed solely to new structures. Relatively minor renovations could cater for homeless older women, for example, by converting one public housing dwelling into several self-contained bedrooms with use of a common kitchen and lounge area. Such works are relatively inexpensive and provide the additional benefit of companionship and support.
Finally, it is worth noting that rising numbers of homeless older women is not a uniquely Australian problem. Worldwide, an ageing population, the virtual certainty of lifetimes of income inequality and a continuing lack of home affordability and availability will see numbers of homeless older women increase. Perhaps the Australian experience can act as a warning to others about this new ‘face’ of homelessness.
Thanks Eileen- this raises some very imporant issues. I think this national trend just reflects the reality of the financial position of many women who bring up a family. Although increasing housing options is an obvious immediate and very important solution to assist women who find themselves in this position, we also need policy solutions to address one of the key causes of this issue – the fact that many women are left with a lack of financial stability and earning power after they have raised a family because they have either left the workforce to raise children, or have entered into the “part-time” route in a less demanding career (and therefore with lower pay and career prospects) in order to be able to care for the children and work at the same time.
This arrangement works very well for the family (it has been my choice), however as a woman it can place you at a significant financial disadvantage to other individuals, and your partner if they have continued in full time employment. The problem for the stay at home / part-time employed partner is that these type of arrangements are dependent upon the family unit staying together (i.e. depending upon the strength of your relationship). The minute that the unit breaks down, the stay at home / part-time employed partner is then left to fight for a financial settlement to compensate for this absence from the workforce + the difficulty of re-entering the workforce full time when they still have children to care for. Ultimately, in these circumstances, only the very wealthy will recover from this situation.
It needs to be stressed however that this is only a gender issue because of the social norms which dictate that it is still predominantly women who stay home to look after the kids. As more and more men make the choice to stay at home, or undertake work on a part-time basis, we could expect the same phenomenon to affect them. One positive outcome of this might be that serious policies are developed to address this issue. In the meantime, women need to make their choices with “eyes wide open” and hopefully negotiate arrangements with their partner that does not make the entirety of their future income and financial stability dependent on their relationship’s success.
Excellent article and Saturday evening I will make an admission that I am one of those that have learn t to look for the solution and I have the solution for our homeless children that we have in Australia and plan to implement the policies and aim to have every Child safely housed within a warm clean environment within six months. It may sound ambitious but the solution is simple and also requires mandatory response to tackle the problem of our social isolation from all ranks of life. It is mandatory to register the babies in order to receive benefits and it should be mandatory that the Children must be housed at a minimum standard to receive benefits. The relevance to the article is the older homeless women, could become great cottage Parents and utilise all the skills they have learnt during the years of raising Children and / or Work. As the CEO and co-founder of a recently formed NFP Foundation of Life Group it is our intention to Break the cycle and protect those at their most vulnerable. Great Article.