Older single women are the fastest growing cohort of people experiencing homelessness in Australia, though their plight remains for various reasons invisible to many. Designing solutions to this problem involves first understanding the root causes of the problem, including structural gender inequality, and then identifying the drivers of better outomes for such women. Not least amongst these is the need for more social and affordable housing, appropriate to their needs.
Projections based on current housing market conditions and financial insecurity risks in retirement, see the number of women affected growing considerably into the future, unless policies and services are transformed to address the needs of this cohort.
The majority of older women experiencing homelessness have not been homeless before and have experienced ‘conventional’ housing histories throughout their life. This means they often don’t identify as being homeless or know where to turn for help. For this reason, the cohort of older women at risk of homelessness is often described as ‘invisible’.
When you look at the publicly available statistics, 44% of single women over the age of 45 are on low-median incomes, do not own their own home, and are renting. This equates to around 300,000 women. Further, 50% of women approaching retirement age have a superannuation balance of $50,000 or less, compared with 33% of men.
Women who have shared their stories with us tell of lives spent raising children, volunteering in their communities, and often working intermittently in paid employment as well. When they are propelled out of mainstream housing, they often find their own alternatives, renting a room with an acquaintance or sleeping in their cars, for example. Most report that these arrangements feel insecure and unsustainable, leading to poor physical and emotional health including acute anxiety and depression.
To add to this, current services aren’t fit for purpose for the needs of this emerging cohort. One woman we spoke to shared how ridiculous it felt when a social worker tried to show her how to budget her weekly income. Having run a multimillion-dollar business previously, she knew how to budget. The problem was there wasn’t enough money to cover basics, especially housing, following a sudden and unexpected experience of unemployment.
Social Ventures Australia (SVA) has worked in partnership with organisations and leaders across the government, corporate and social purpose sectors for over 15 years. Through this experience we’ve seen that approaches that address the multiple, interconnected contributors to experiences of disadvantage, and galvanise effective action across the social ecosystem, often have the greatest capacity for impact.
To design these kinds of solutions, we must first understand the underlying drivers of an issue (root causes, if you will).
In the case of older women experiencing or at risk of homelessness, a primary root cause is structural gender inequality; with low paid work, or time taken out of the formal workforce to focus on caring responsibilities, translating to low superannuation balances at retirement age. Coupled with the high cost of housing, declining home ownership, and decades of underinvestment in social and affordable housing, risk factors for older women become a perfect storm. Some women talk about knowing they will have to ‘work until I die’ in order to keep a roof over their heads.
The push into homelessness typically results from a life shock such as the loss of a job, the breakdown of a relationship, or the onset of illness or disability.
SVA understands the drivers of better outcomes to be increased financial wellbeing, appropriate support services, and increased availability of appropriate and affordable housing – all underpinned by a necessary shift in gender norms.
By financial wellbeing we mean ensuring things like valuing caring contributions, equitable pay, parental leave and non-discriminatory labour practices (in terms of both age and gender) are addressed at the structural and systems level, and that there is an adequate financial safety net for people who are unable to continue working.
By appropriate support services we mean developing integrated, tailored and gender-equitable services, with a focus on early intervention and prevention. This should include information and support for older women to navigate the service system, something that has routinely been reported as extremely difficult and stressful.
By increased availability of housing we refer to addressing the well acknowledged shortage of social and affordable housing throughout Australia. Specifically, this means government support to incentivise investment in social and affordable housing that meets the needs of older women in terms of design, size and location. This includes tailoring crisis and transitional housing so that it better meets the needs of older women experiencing homelessness.
Over the past year we’ve been reaching out to people across sectors to understand where policy and service delivery in these areas is ripe for change, and where SVA could make a unique and significant contribution.
In coming months, we will share the initiatives we are proposing to tackle this critical issue, based on the underlying causes of the challenge and what we know to be drivers of better outcomes. We know that if successful, these initiatives will help dramatically stem the tide of older women experiencing homelessness, as well contribute to broader policy and practice to support a more equitable Australia.
Kobi Maglen is a Director at Social Ventures Australia (SVA), where she stewards SVA’s thinking on social and affordable housing.