Older women are the fastest growing cohort of homeless people in Australia. Tania Davidge explores the gendered inequities that have created this crisis, the enormous costs that homelessness brings, and strategies for early intervention.

Between Melbourne lockdowns, I snuck in a lovely lunch with friends in Richmond. On my way back to the train station an older woman stopped me on the footpath. She told me she had lost her wallet along with all of the money she had put aside for the week. She didn’t look like she was sleeping rough, but she wasn’t well off. She was upset. Her children were interstate and she didn’t want to worry them. She had to last until Thursday when her pension came through. She needed money for rent and food. If she couldn’t pay her rent, she didn’t know what she would do. She was in tears and she offered to pay me back.

Perhaps I am a soft touch, but I gave her all of the money in my wallet. Because I know that there are not as many steps between her life and mine as I would like. Currently I am working on a project developing an affordable housing model to house older women at risk of homelessness. I’ve done the research and I know her reality is one of the possible futures for many women in Australia.

Older women are the fastest growing cohort of homeless people in Australia. On Census night in 2016, 6,866 women over the age of 55 were homeless – a rise of 31% in the five years since the 2011 Census.1 The Australian Human Rights Commission identifies that official counts of older women’s homelessness are most likely understated and recent research estimates that over 405,000 Australian women over the age of 45 are at risk of homelessness.2 This includes 165,000 women aged 45–55 years and 240,000 women aged 55 years and over. Without proper support, and due to forces outside of their control, many of these women will slip into poverty and find themselves without safe and secure housing.

For older women who find themselves in this position, it often comes from out of the blue. Older women’s journeys into homelessness do not develop like other forms of homelessness.3 Women who find themselves homeless in later life have often led conventional lives and had conventional housing histories. They may have worked all of their lives, had careers, raised children and been in long-term relationships. Their housing histories are unexceptional and yet, for the first time later in life, they find themselves one step away from homelessness.

What places a woman at risk?

The Australian Human Rights Commission report, Older Women’s Risk of Homelessness, identifies that being single, renting and living alone places a woman over the age of 45 at an increased risk of homelessness. The At Risk report, released in 2020, estimates that those who live alone and have never married are between eight and nine times more likely to be at risk than those in a dual person household. In addition, the report At Risk estimates 65% of women aged between 55 and 64 who are sole parents living in a private rental are at risk of homelessness.4

The Australian Human Rights Commission further identifies economic disadvantage and family and domestic violence as placing older women at risk. As does a lack of family support, suffering the loss of a partner or a relationship breakdown. Personal factors such as mental health issues can contribute to vulnerability, and crises such as losing a job, illness or needing to care for an ageing parent may tip an older woman into homelessness.5

Although these factors place older women at risk, these women have not yet reached crisis point. They are keeping their heads above water. For older women, the journey into homelessness is a long slow slide. They may live in unstable and precarious housing situations for a very long period before they reach breaking point. Having never experienced homelessness before, older women at risk of homelessness can be reluctant to seek assistance and many do not know where to begin. They may not recognise that they are at risk of homelessness, as they imagine homelessness means sleeping rough. However, homelessness is more broadly defined than sleeping on the streets. It encompasses anyone living with insecure housing, whether couch surfing, living in a boarding house or relying on the spare rooms of friends and family.6

As women at risk have not yet reached crisis, in many ways they are hidden from view. There are support services for the homeless and those on the brink of homelessness. However, because women at risk of homelessness do not meet crisis or emergency criteria, they are unable to access many homeless services. In addition, as the At Risk report identifies, these women are statistically difficult to count and what we don’t assess, we can’t address. Women at risk are invisible to, and often overlooked by, a system currently focused on housing the already homeless.

Gendered inequity

A primary driver of homelessness in older women is gendered inequity at a social, cultural and economic level. The Measure for Measure report, released in 2020, provides a damning snapshot of gender inequity in Australia.7 Women disproportionally bear the burden of unpaid domestic labour, they spend more time parenting, work in industries that are underpaid, are far more likely to be in part-time employment, and women from marginalised communities and single mothers are far more likely to be penalised – socially and economically.

The national gender pay gap for Australian women currently sits at 13.4% and recent research shows that Australian men retire with 42% more superannuation than Australian women.8 As women get older, the effects of a lifetime of inequity compounds. As women age, if they lose their jobs they find it more difficult to re-enter the workforce than men and they are more likely to live in poverty and live with housing stress than men.9 With the cards stacked against them, it does not take much to tip them over the edge.

What are the solutions?

The 2021 State Government Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria paints a picture of a support system in crisis, struggling to respond to those already in the greatest need.10 With access to housing for our most vulnerable already breaching capacity, prevention through early intervention is a critical long-term strategy. Stopping homelessness from taking hold alleviates an already inundated system and creates a cultural shift from a reactive model of crisis to a proactive model of prevention.11

At a broad level, the government needs to develop policies that address systemic inequity and support older women into housing. For women at risk, homeownership is increasingly out of reach and most are likely to be living in private rental accommodation. Over the past two decades the Australian real estate market has boomed and rental costs have increased by over 50%.12 This has made housing – in terms of both home ownership and rental – increasingly unaffordable.

The fact that older women at risk of homelessness are more likely to be single and in part-time or casual employment affects their capacity to pay off and therefore obtain a mortgage. In addition, the private rental market simply cannot provide the affordable housing Australia requires.13 Helping older women leverage the savings they might have to move into home ownership and providing long-term affordable housing that is safe and secure are both important parts of the solution.14

On the ground, more housing models that are tailored to the requirements of older women at risk of homelessness need to be developed and delivered. It is heartening to see housing designed by thoughtful architects such as Sophie Dyring, Samantha Donnelly and Eloise Atkinson, delivered by committed housing providers like the Women’s Property Initiatives and facilitated by groups such as Sharing With Friends.

What is the cost?

Knowing what we already know about older women’s risk of homelessness, we can imagine that the long-term fallout from COVID-19 will be particularly brutal. During the pandemic, women, who already shoulder the majority of unpaid work, have taken on extra household and caring responsibilities. Many women have been overworked, some have opted to cut back on work to help children learn and many may have lost their jobs. Women disproportionately work in areas predominantly affected by the pandemic, such as healthcare, education, retail, the arts and hospitality. And for an older woman looking for work, the road can be very hard.15

The costs of homelessness are high – economically, physically and mentally. Studies show that the economic cost to society of homelessness is far more than providing housing.16 Additionally, housing stress impacts physical and mental health. It negatively affects a person’s wellbeing and their connection to community.17 Clawing your way back from poverty and homelessness can be difficult and for many people who become homeless there is no road back. However, preventing homelessness shows many rewards. Helping older women at risk before they become homeless will lead to better mental, physical, social and economic outcomes and reduce the pressure on a system already in crisis.

To address the growing number of older women at risk of homelessness good government policy is crucial. Good policy is imperative to address the accumulation of the affects of a lifetime of social, cultural and economic inequity. Government needs to clearly identify older women at risk and provide them with the support, services and affordable housing they need to ensure that they do not slip into poverty and homelessness. Addressing systemic inequity and the costs of housing not only benefits older women at risk of homelessness it also benefits everyone their lives touch.

Women who have worked hard all of their lives and contributed to our society in countless ways should not be left vulnerable to homelessness. These women have not only taken care of themselves, they have taken care of children, partners, family and friends. They have provided emotional and economic support to numerous others. They have contributed in many ways and have many more contributions to make. As they age, they deserve to be treated and housed with respect and dignity.


Tania Davidge is an architect and co-founder of the architectural research practice, OoPLA.

Illustration: Lily Walker

Footnotes
  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Census of Population and Housing: Estimating Homelessness,” 14 March 2018.
  2. Australian Human Rights Commission, Older Women’s Risk of Homelessness: Background Paper, 2019, 8; Laurence Lester and Debbie Faulkner, At Risk: Understanding the Population Size and Demographics of Older Women at Risk of Homelessness in Australia (Centre for Housing, Urban and Regional Planning, The University of Adelaide; Social Ventures Australia, 2020).
  3. Ludo McFerran, It Could Be You: Female, Single, Older and Homeless (Homelessness NSW, the Older Women’s Network NSW and the St Vincent de Paul Society, 2010), 7.
  4. Lester and Faulkner, At Risk, 5.
  5. Australian Human Rights Commission, Older Women’s Risk of Homelessness, 10; Housing for the Aged Action Group and Social Ventures Australia, At Risk: Policy Snapshot (2020), 3.
  6. Australian Human Rights Commission, Older Women’s Risk of Homelessness, 6–7.
  7. Emma Dawson, Tanja Kovac and Abigail Lewis, Measure for Measure: Gender Equality in Australia (Per Capita Australia 2020).
  8. Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Australia’s Gender Pay Gap Statistics 2021, 26 February 2021, accessed August 2021; Kathleen Riach et al., The Future Face of Poverty Is Female: Stories Behind Australian Women’s Superannuation Poverty in Retirement (Monash University; Australian Super, 2018), 4.
  9. Dawson, Kovac and Lewi, Measure for Measure.
  10. Parliament of Victoria: Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee, Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria (2021).
  11. Once a person becomes homeless the ability to help them back into housing is severely diminished. For 85-90% of people who access homelessness services and are at risk but not yet homeless, homelessness can be averted. See submissions made by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare to the Victorian State Government’s Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria (2021), 121–122.
  12. Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Housing Occupancy and Costs”, 17 July 2019.
  13. Anglicare Australia, Rental Affordability Snapshot, 2021.
  14. Affordable housing is rental housing that meets the needs of very low to moderate income households and as a rule, costs less than 30% of household income. AHURI (Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute), “Understanding the 30:40 Indicator of Housing Affordability Stress,” 23 May 2019.
  15. Before the pandemic the most likely person to be on JobSeeker (then Newstart) was a woman over the age of 45. Additionally, the number of older women on JobSeeker is not only growing, these women also spend longer on government support. Luke Henriques-Gomes, “Older Women and Disabled People Hardest Hit by Australia’s Assault on Welfare,” The Guardian (30 September 2020).
  16. Stephen Gaetz, The Real Cost of Homelessness: Can We Save Money by Doing the Right Thing? (Canadian Homelessness Research Network, 2012), www.homelesshub.ca/costofhomelessness.
  17. Parliament of Victoria: Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee, Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria, 28–29.