Older Women and Homelessness – it couldn’t happen to me – or could it?
Over the years a recurring question has often come to my mind “where do older women live once they are no longer working and have rented during their working lives?”
The short answer to this question is not one that many in our society would find palatable - and that answer is “wherever they can”. These women might live in their cars (if they have one), they may couch surf with friends or family, they may live on park benches (though these days it’s very hard to find a public bench that allows one to lie down on)! They may live temporarily in caravan parks or boarding houses, but wherever they call “home” lacks security of tenure and often safety.
These women could be of pension age and just retired, or they may have been made redundant, they may have divorced, they may have been carers for older parents, they may have health issues, either physical or mental, or both, they may have been the victims of domestic violence, they may be unable to gain, or continue working due to a lack of appropriate skills, they may even be unable to obtain any form of paid employment, or they may be the subject of age discrimination in the workforce. In fact these women don’t even have to have reached retirement age, they could be in their fifties, or early sixties, and too young for the age pension but still unable to find gainful employment perhaps for some of the reasons given above. According to Mission Australia (Mission Australia website) if a woman is over the age of 45, renting and single she increases her risk of homelessness.
Even if women have worked up until retirement age, traditionally they finish their working lives with less superannuation than our male counterparts. This situation is often due to the broken working patterns of women, who have taken time out to bear and raise children. But whatever the reason there is a growing number of older women who find themselves homeless.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2049.0 - Census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness, 2016) the 2016 Census revealed that there was a 31% increase in the number of older homeless women in Australia since the 2011 Census, bringing this number to 6,866. That is, 6,866 older women with no place to call home.
What is of concern is that this growing social issue of homelessness amongst older women is not generally known within the wider community. One reason may be our perception of what an older homeless person looks like! Perhaps more often than not we have an image of an unkempt male who may appear to be affected by alcohol and when not sleeping on the proverbial “park bench” is pushing a shopping trolley carrying all their possessions in innumerable plastic bags.
The older homeless woman does not wear a sign proclaiming herself to be homeless, she may be the woman next to us in the supermarket, or the woman also looking for a bargain in an “Op Shop”.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The older homeless woman does not wear a sign proclaiming herself to be homeless, she may be the woman next to us in the supermarket, or the woman also looking for a bargain in an “Op Shop”. In other words she doesn’t have distinctive characteristics!
A recent episode of Jenny Brockie’s SBS “Insight” programme was a sobering look at homelessness and older women. Whilst the background of the women concerned varied the common theme was that none of them expected to end up homeless. What I found of particular interest were the facial expressions on some of the women in the audience, particularly the younger women. I had the distinct impression from their expressions that not only was this an issue that they had ever considered they were horrified.
While researching for this article I came across Bob Holland’s earlier article on Homelessness in Orange (OCLife, 4th August 2016). That article looked at homelessness in Orange on a wider scale, not just confined to older women. Even then homelessness in our own town was considered to be a serious issue.
In recognition of the plight, in Orange, of older homeless persons (both male and female) Mission Australia last year opened the doors of the Benjamin Short Grove Residential Aged Care Facility. The facility can provide a home, and care, for up to 60 residents. The model of care adopted address the specific needs of those who have previously been the victim of homelessness and disadvantage (Mission Australia website).
Whilst issues such as elder abuse and domestic violence are more commonly reported in the media to date this has not been the case with homelessness amongst older women. It can be argued that until such time as there is an increased public awareness, and increased government support in addressing the many factors that can lead to homelessness in the first instance the situation will only worsen. Perhaps it is up to us to put pressure on government to address not only the issue of current funding to support organisations providing accommodation, but also to address the predisposing factors outlined above. Otherwise for many of us the “they” referred to in statistics, and the media, could become “us”!