Invisible victims: single older women in the housing crisis
Panel discussion on O.W.L’s
Older Women Lost in Housing. It’s not the typical image that springs to mind when you think of someone who’s experiencing housing vulnerability.
Penny Leemhuis is one of those women. She’s now an advocate for OWLS, and she came into the studio to share her story, along with Anusha Gonnetilleke, the Supervising Solicitor of Canberra Community Law’s Street Law Program.
Duration: 24min 17sec
a Gonnetilleke, the Supervising Solicitor of Canberra Community Law’s Street Law
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They’ve worked or been caretakers (or both) their whole lives, but they are the fastest growing homeless demographic in Australia—thanks to a lifetime of gender discrimination.
She lives at the base of Sydney’s Blue Mountains, in one of a cluster of units. She gets on well with her neighbours but she couldn’t tell you much about how they got here.
“We don’t normally tell our stories to each other,” says Margaret, 60. “We’ve just become friends. What’s happened to you in the past is your past.” Living in social housing run by Mission Australia, that may have something to do with the fact her neighbors have all faced homelessness at some stage of their lives.
Women over 55 are more likely than men to have lower retirement savings, thanks to lower average earnings and having taken time out to have children.
For Margaret, this unexpected turn of events came after a fairly conventional life. She had been married for 23 years, juggling her commitments as a mother and a small business owner. She had a roof over her head. But when her husband left her for another woman, he made Margaret sell the family home.
“I wanted to hang onto the house until my son was 18,” she says, “and he made us sell it. Through the courts and that.”
Not long after, he killed himself. Margaret, still looking after the young son they’d adopted from Vietnam, had to deal both with the grief and the debts her ex-husband had left behind from their house and their video shop.
“I went to the solicitor and they said all you can do is go to court and sue your dead husband on the grounds that he hasn’t paid the bills,” she recalls. “They said ‘You’d win, but you’d still have to pay because you’re responsible,’ as he never took the debts out of our joint names. I ended up going bankrupt.”
Margaret in her bedroom at her Mission Australia unit in Sydney’s Blue Mountains.
Margaret’s story is not unusual. She is part of a rapidly increasing number of women in Australia who are facing homelessness later in life. Just like Margaret, many were once homeowners or private renters with a stable housing history—until they experienced common crises such as relationship breakdowns, domestic violence, widowhood, health issues, and/or financial difficulties after retirement.
A “lifetime of gender discrimination” combined with rising rental prices have made older women particularly vulnerable, says Susan Ryan, Australia’s former Age Discrimination Commissioner. “Women experience employment discrimination at every stage,” Susan said in a recent address as part of a St Vincent de Paul lecture. “They earn less, typically are restricted to lower paid jobs which produce lower levels of superannuation, they do not get fair access to training, and [they] are blocked from promotion to senior roles.
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“When they have children, they get only minimal financial support for parental leave, then face barriers returning to paid work,” she continued. “Typically it is women who undertake caring roles for elderly parents and family members with disability, often needing to leave the workforce entirely to provide this care. Most of this caring work is unpaid, or attracts only a small benefit, and with no superannuation.”
Women over 55 generally have lower retirement savings than men thanks to lower average earnings and having taken time out to have children, according to Catherine Yeomans, Mission Australia CEO. “So a big life change such as marital breakdown or widowhood, or even a rise in rental payments, can be more detrimental for a woman.
“If they don’t have that financial buffer, they have no choice but to dip into their retirement savings to survive. This is not a sustainable way to live, and sadly we are seeing many women fall into homelessness for the first time later in life.”
Although priority for public housing is given to older women, demand far outstrips availability. “The shock of this new face of poverty is that most of the women involved have not experienced longterm serious illness, and have worked most of their lives,” says Susan.
“They may have once owned a house, but lost it through relationship breakdown, business failure or sheer bad luck. They would not be eligible for public housing in NSW, where we have a waiting list of around 60,000–most of them people with significant problems who must be accommodated ahead of our well and capable, but poor older women.”
They are couch surfing, living in overcrowded accommodation, hostels or in crisis accommodation.
After she lost her house, Margaret and her then-teenage son rented privately, moving again and again to accommodate rental price hikes.
Although technically at risk of homelessness, Margaret would not have been counted as such: While 5,330 women over 55 identified as homeless in 2011, an increase of 12 percent since 2006, those living on the street only account for six percent of the homeless population. The cohort is therefore difficult to count, with the majority is experiencing what’s known as “hidden homelessness”.
“That is, they are couch surfing, living in overcrowded accommodation, hostels or in crisis accommodation,” Catherine says.
These are the women who rely on charities to provide them with some sort of accommodation, often temporary and insecure, says Susan. “The women who sleep in their cars, if indeed they have a car, or are forced to move in with family or friends—a situation which is intrinsically short term.”
This was the case for Margaret, who eventually moved with her son into the home of her elderly parents. “But they were in their seventies with masses of medical problems, and I’m in a wheelchair—so it wasn’t going to be easy for them to look after me,” she says.
Margaret was injured at work 40 years ago, the resulting spinal injury confining her to the wheelchair. She laughs when asked if she received compensation for the accident. “Are you kidding? That was the Commonwealth government. You didn’t get anything like that back then.” She had a disability support pension, but it didn’t go far.
“For older women who don’t own their homes outright, the pension is increasingly inadequate to cover rental or mortgage costs. This is especially a problem in our major cities,” says Catherine.
Margaret eventually got into a housing commission flat, only to move again because she was unable to get into the bathroom with her walker. She then secured wheelchair-accessible housing through Mission Australia. She realises she’s one of the lucky ones; some of her friends are in domestic violence situations but unable to leave.
“I know some older women who are living with their family who are abusive and that, because they can’t find a home where they can live. I ring them up and I hear them being yelled at and everything,” she says. “The waiting list for accommodation is ten years or something, and when you’re looking at our age group, that’s a darn long time to find somewhere.”
With a critical shortage of affordable housing in Australia’s cities, Mission Australia has called for a target for 200,000 new social homes across the country by 2025.
“Affordable housing is key to both preventing homelessness, and moving people out of homelessness,” says Catherine. “The risk of homelessness for older women can be greatly reduced by adequate provision of housing that is [both] affordable on the aged pension, and suitable to their needs.
“We need to ask our governments and our private sector providers of housing why it is that when we continuallyhear and see evidence of a housing boom—where we are told the construction of dwellings is at an all-time high—that a proportion of these new dwellings cannot be offered at an affordable rent.
“I’m assured by experts, who know much more than I do about local and overseas practice, that some European governments require about 20 percent of new developments to be affordable. Here we don’t do that—why not?”
Catherine says removing stigma is also key to saving older women from falling through the cracks. “We know older women are less likely to seek help from homeless services when housing problems arise.”
Margaret no longer has any contact with her son, who she says wants nothing to do with her for reasons unexplained. Twice a week she visits her mother, who lives in a nearby nursing home. She also socialises by playing Bingo—”just for the fun of it, not the winning”.
She finds comfort in art; painting, printmaking and photography. Her work has featured in exhibitions as close to her home as Sydney and as far away as Rome. She didn’t get to go to Rome, she could never afford it, but she’s happy where she is. “Honestly, if I didn’t have this house, my life would be completely different.”
Extract from an article by Lina Caneva
Ongoing research into a growing housing crisis among Australia’s ageing baby boomer women, especially in regional Australia, has identified the problem as a “sleeping giant”.
Researchers Sandy Darab and Yvonne Hartman from the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University in Lismore in NSW are completing new research into an issue they say is finally gaining some essential visibility.
The pair began researching older women’s housing in 2011 and published the first report, called Understanding Single Older Women’s Invisibility in Housing Issues in Australia, in 2013. That research found that ageing and single status are compounding factors which place non-home owning women at higher risk of homelessness or inappropriate housing. They spoke to Pro Bono Australia News about their most recent research findings.
Darab says academics are now working on raising the lid on the invisibility around older women’s precarious housing, which is “surprisingly showing up in significant numbers in regional Australia” if their latest research in the New South Wales region of the Northern Rivers is any indication.
“We knew this was a massive problem in metropolitan areas and we were interested to see if it was present in the regions… because there is a whole different set of circumstances including transport, employment and many other issues. So we didn’t know what we would find until we started this research project,” Darab said.
“We are the only researchers that we know of who have been studying this phenomenon in the regions and what we have found is that it is a massive problem. When we advertised for participants… we were overwhelmed with women calling us… from interstate and all over the place. It really is like a sleeping giant.”
Hartman says they found that baby boomers, as they come to retirement, are really finding it difficult…(continues)
SOURCE: Lina Caneva, “Homelessness for Older Australian Women a ‘Sleeping Giant’ “, Pro Bono Australia, 10 Nov 2016
Thursday, 10th November 2016
at 10:07 am
Lina Caneva, Editor
The St Vincent de Paul Society NSW is bringing a group of experts together to tackle what the welfare charity describes as “the hidden crisis of homelessness facing older women” as part of its annual Rosalie Rendu lecture. (It will be held on 20 October during Anti-Poverty Week).
Susan Ryan AO, former commissioner for age discrimination, will deliver the keynote speech based on her experience addressing disadvantage among older women. Experts from different social welfare and housing agencies will join a panel and audience discussions on the plight facing older women.
President of St Vincent de Paul Society NSW Denis Walsh, said there is a vacuum of information and research on the issues facing older women and homelessness.
“The Rosalie Rendu lecture this year is providing a platform for all of us in the social welfare and housing sectors to address this knowledge gap and begin formulating solutions,” Walsh said.
“Vinnies has developed a comprehensive Right to Home campaign to address issues around housing affordability.
“We will be launching a petition on the night calling on the NSW Government to change planning laws so that at least 15 per cent of new residential developments are set aside for affordable housing.”
Vinnies said 59 per cent of Australians seeking help from homelessness services are women, significantly higher than the UK’s 26 per cent and the USA’s 38 per cent.
“Thirty-six per cent of these women have been affected by domestic violence and it is the number one reason why they seek support from Vinnies and other specialist homelessness services,” Walsh said.
Earlier this month Mission Australia urged the federal government to take action to reduce the number of older women becoming homeless as part of International Day of Older Persons on 1 October.
Mission Australia’s CEO Catherine Yeomans warned that without an increase in appropriate affordable housing, the numbers of vulnerable older women without a safe place to live would continue to climb in Australia.
“We know from our services and the wider sector that this is a growing problem,” Yeomans said.
The CEO of St Vincent de Paul Society NSW Jack de Groot told Pro Bono Australia News that the data on older women is not comprehensive.
“What we do know is that many older women are coming out of relationships and are facing a vulnerability after often very productive lives,” de Groot said.
“They are also usually in lower paid jobs and now, as they face failing health, redundancy or retirement, they find they can no longer afford to pay escalating rents in the private rental market. These women struggle to keep a roof over their head.”
He said more research needed to be done into the systemic issues that lead to homelessness for older women and what are the ways forward for the sector to engage with these women and provide wrap around services for them.
“Application and research into their stories is crucial. When we talk about a ‘right to home’ we are not just talking about housing it’s about inclusion and participation and engagement with women and how they can best move forward.”
de Groot said most of these older women have never received Centrelink benefits before, so this process is difficult for them, and it was made a lot harder because they experienced a loss of dignity.
“When they finally reach out for help there are fewer targeted services available to them, leaving them to fall through the cracks. Gaining access to social housing is difficult for older women because they are rarely given priority status,” he said.
“The lack of affordable housing and the impact it is having on older women as they leave employment and relationships require a whole-of-government response and collaboration within the sector. If we can get 10,000 signatures then the petition can be brought to parliament for action to be taken.”
Beyond the Stigma to the Crisis
O.W.L’s interview on 2XX how the advocacy began