KOBI MAGLEN. SVA’s approach to improving outcomes for older women at risk of becoming homeless

Estimates suggest 300,000 Australian women aged between 45 and 65 are at risk of homelessness when they retire.

Multiple changes are required to our housing, retirement and social service systems in order to mitigate this risk. This article describes some initiatives being pursued by SVA in the short, medium and long term to address this problem.

Older women at risk of homelessness are typically single, on low-median incomes, renting, and do not own their own homes. Homelessness services are already seeing the vanguard of this cohort. Between 2011 and 2016 there was a 51.1% increase in women aged 65-74 presenting as homeless.

The social sector, including Social Ventures Australia (SVA), understands we are at a critical juncture for housing and homelessness policy. There is an urgent need to remove the barriers stopping older women from accessing housing, before they reach crisis point, when intervention is simpler and less expensive. Homelessness services will be overwhelmed by a rapidly growing group of people seeking support. A preventative approach avoids unnecessary stress being placed on an already stretched social housing system and ensures those with more complex needs continue to be supported.

SVA is embarking on a long-term project to improve outcomes for older women at risk of homelessness. We understand the root causes include the lack of social and affordable housing, increasing housing unaffordability and the impacts of gender inequality on women’s financial wellbeing. Our response comprises immediate, medium and long-term solutions that target different drivers of better outcomes for older women. We are taking a multifaceted approach to drive change across systems to address the needs of older women today and ensure younger generations of women do not face the same experience. SVA is uniquely placed to convene investors, other private sector stakeholders, social sector organisations and government to deliver these solutions.

Immediate solution – Providing older women in crisis with immediate housing options

Many women we’ve spoken to who have experienced homelessness say they didn’t know where to turn to for help. They often feel a sense of shame. The system is difficult to navigate and for many it is their first time requiring help from these services. Age Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Kay Patterson AO, highlighted the need for better information and wrap-around supports in April last year.

“Clear support pathways, centralised information and new expanded housing options need developing to provide early and preventative solutions for older women before their housing situation becomes precarious.”

The Housing for the Aged Action Group (HAAG) “Home at Last” program in Victoria provides support for older people in crisis to get better housing outcomes via the existing service system. HAAG also encourages planning and informed decision-making by older people for their housing future.

Expanding HAAG’s program across Australia would provide support for older women in crisis and help others reaching crisis point. Support includes education on available services, assessment and referral to these services, retirement housing information, one-on-one support with housing application processes, relocation and ongoing support. We will work with HAAG to document their operating model and scale their service, working in partnership to support this objective.

Medium-term solution – providing women at risk with housing security

Rising housing prices have increasingly placed pressure on people with low incomes, pensioners and people with little to no assets or superannuation. One of the assumptions on which Australia’s retirement system is based is that you own your own home. For many, this is no longer realistic. The number of older women renting has increased 96% in 10 years.

The sheer number of people impacted by this issue warrants a response at scale. Housing subsidies that incentivise investment in new or refurbished social and affordable housing could rapidly increase the availability of affordable housing options for older women. We will draw on our understanding of what’s required to incentivise institutional investors (i.e superannuation funds) to advocate for a housing subsidy that meets the needs of older women at risk of homelessness. We will continue to invest in innovative housing models via our impact investing mandate, as we know that older women are seeking a range of housing options. One possible solution is the creation of a women’s housing fund, which will invest in housing projects that prioritise the needs of women.

Long-term solution – a gender lens to policy making ensures appropriate value is given to unpaid work

Women face informal and formal, individual and systemic barriers to equality and change is required at all levels.

Many women who are at risk of becoming homelessness in retirement leave the workforce to raise children or care for family members, performing what is more accurately described as unpaid work. Unpaid work is an essential part of our social, economic and political fabric, and a necessary part of maintaining functioning communities.

There is significant policy failure in how we account for unpaid work. Both the superannuation and tax systems favour work patterns which are far more likely to be undertaken by men.

Women perform the majority of unpaid work and this is clearly reflected in superannuation balances. Women retire with 47% less super than men and it is estimated that two thirds of all tax concessions are paid to men.

A comprehensive set of reforms is required to address these inequities. We will advocate for the policy changes identified by the Senate Inquiry into Economic security for women in retirement.

Working with a diverse range of partners, we also want to generate an index on unpaid work and ensure that policy making is informed by accurate data and evidence on women’s participation in both paid and unpaid work.

The root causes of this urgent social issue are multiple and interconnected. It is essential to take a systems change approach to address these issues and achieve lasting, positive change. Only by galvanising effective action across the social ecosystem will we be able to create change at scale and, in doing so, enable all older women to enjoy their lives and age well.

Kobi Maglen is a Director at Social Ventures Australia (SVA), where she stewards SVA’s thinking on social and affordable housing. SVA is seeking bold funding partners to support this project.

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