After a lifetime of raising children and contributing to the country’s wealth, women are being hung out to dry by state and federal governments.
The fastest growing demographic for homelessness in Australia is women over the age of 55. The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)’s Older Women's Risk of Homelessness: Exploring a Growing Problem, released in April 2019, reported a 30% rise between 2011 and 2016 with at least 7000 older women homeless at any one time.
Hard data on how many women are sleeping rough today — and where they sleep at night — is hard to come by. Homeless women keep their heads down due to the serious risks to their personal safety and government agency engagement is clearly inadequate.
It is painfully obvious to those on the front line, the problem is worsening and there is clear agreement on the causes.
CEO of the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) Dr Cassandra Goldie said in May that gender inequality is structural, “Our current tax, income support and superannuation systems are entrenching gender inequality and this must be remedied in the budget if it is truly to deliver for women.”
Goldie criticised the federal government for prioritising “subsidies for home renovations and ownership, which have benefited higher wealth households, whilst refusing to invest in social housing”. Even before the pandemic “older women were the fastest growing group of people facing homelessness”, she said.
The AHRC report agreed, noting: “We have an ageing population, a high cost of housing and a significant gap in wealth accumulation between men and women across their lifetimes. Without innovative solutions this problem will continue to increase.”
One organisation working tirelessly to provide them is the Older Women’s Network (OWN).
A place of their own
Beverly Baker, Chair of OWN NSW, told Green Left the problem of older women’s homelessness had indeed “continued to increase” since 2019.
Baker gave a brief history of OWN.
“OWN is a spinoff from the Pensioners and Superannuants Association. It was very blokey back then: it was all about negative gearing and wealth creation and did not meet the needs of women in terms of finance, friendship or a range of other needs specific to women.”
OWN was established in 1991 to fill that void, inform women of their rights and to create a safe space for them to support each other.
It began providing social supports for women and this still remains part of its core business. However, it soon became clear the need was much greater than anticipated.
“We were getting a lot of contact from people who couldn’t find housing or afford to stay where they were,” Baker said. “Our Chair at the time, Robyn Dougherty, had herself been couch-surfing.”
When Dougherty’s husband passed away she moved overseas to live near her daughter but became very ill and had to return. She suddenly found she had to couch-surf and house-sit, having nowhere stable to live. Friends pointed out she was effectively homeless, and she discovered there were many older women in similar situations.
Until that time, Dougherty had been a professional, self-sufficient woman. But in her early 70s, she found herself a casualty of medical needs alongside being priced out of the inflated housing market.
Friends eventually helped her find one-bedroom accommodation. Even that has become problematic as she now needs a walking frame and her accommodation has no lift — another common problem.
With the government hell bent on forcing such women into sub-standard, privatised aged-care institutions, it is unsurprising homelessness has so markedly risen.
Another day in paradise
Asked where such women end up, Baker said most are couch surfing or house sitting, trying to avoid living in their cars.
“A lot of women spend all their money on a phone and net access,” she said. “It’s the only thing that gives them any equity.” It also gives them access to house-sitting apps, online courses and organisations such as ACOSS and OWN.
“Centrelink is little help,” Baker said. “Services have been privatised and the [staff] basically get paid to get people off benefits; they often treat people with absolute contempt.”
It is a sentiment echoed by many people trying to access help from Centrelink.
“There is no work for women over 55,” Baker said, “unless you ‘know someone who knows someone’, and Centrelink knows it.”
OWN wants a dedicated service for older women with properly trained staff and for the government to stop de-funding what little remains of homeless and domestic violence services.
Baker does not believe the new superannuation arrangements will help. “It’s too little too late,” Baker said. “It will never be able to generate enough to supplement the pension because women’s superannuation has been held back for too long.
“There has been no effective wage growth for 20 years and there is no guarantee funds will be put aside for gig workers.”
A major driver of homelessness is the systematic sell-off of public housing and state and federal governments’ refusal to invest in new public and social housing projects.
The New South Wales government is pressing ahead with selling off of public housing to private interests. Entire communities, including long-term public housing communities at Millers Point, have been displaced solely for developers’ interests.
It makes Baker furious.
“We are at the stage where a home and housing has become a capital acquisition platform for the rich … Housing has become something only the wealthy class can afford.”
She thinks that negative gearing should have a vacancy tax added to stop ridiculous scenarios such as what is happening with the former public housing at Fort Street in Millers Point. Bought by Air BnB, it now sits empty most of the time. “The government needs to stop giving tax breaks and franking credits to the rich,” said Baker.
OWN also strongly disagrees with the plan to roll out the draconian Indue Card.
“It has been proven to cost more to manage than it is worth,” Baker said. “If applied to the aged pension or unemployed, it will catastrophically impact older people who are in, or are seeking to find, shared housing. It takes away the ability to make your own prudent financial decisions.”
OWN’s Buy a Brick campaign encourages people to donate the small cost of one brick or more. Once enough funds have been raised, OWN intends to support the work of Women’s Housing Company to provide social housing for homeless older women.
OWN operates in NSW, Queensland and Western Australia and is looking to expand into all states and territories to build its national voice. Its October annual general meeting will explore moving to a policy-based organisation.
Like many, Baker is fed up with backward, patriarchal policies driven by religious ideology instead of good public policy. “The elite are rebuilding an aristocracy to be unassailable, to amass so much power, wealth and property that we will never get democracy back,” she said.