Elderly homelessness in Australia: why are women at risk?
Research shows that 1 in 6 homeless people are aged 55 or older, while over the past decade the number of older homeless people increased by 49%. We examine the daily reality of being homeless, and why elderly women in particular are so at risk.
“A homeless person can walk 28 kilometres a day in search of food and shelter. Being outdoors in the elements means they’ll often suffer from sunburn. It’s especially bad for families with babies in prams,” says Theresa Mitchell, Founding Director of Agape Outreach Inc, a street-level organisation working to alleviate poverty and homelessness in the Tweed Heads area of NSW.
“Homeless people might get given a meal by a charity, but then have no storage for food. One gentleman comes to mind, he was living in his car and keeping some food there. He told us there were 110 cockroaches living in that car with him, and to cheer himself up he gave them all names. But at night they’d be crawling over his face trying to get to the food.
“It’s more expensive to be homeless. Your possessions are constantly being stolen, or thrown out by council rangers who know all the places where local homeless people hide their belongings,” Theresa explains. “It’s a kick in the gut to lose what little you have. Homeless people can’t carry everything with them to go get food – for example, a charity might give them blankets, but they’ll get damp at night and too heavy to carry. So everything might get stolen or discarded, and then they have to spend the next few days walking, trying to replace what they had.”
This lack of stability is terrible for a person’s mental health. Every day becomes centred on surviving one more night.
Why are older women at risk of homelessness?
Single older women make up a rapidly growing segment of Australia’s homeless population, increasing by 31% from 2011–2016 (the year of the last census).
Factors that contribute to older women becoming homeless include:
- Domestic violence: a woman may be forced to leave the family home and flee to a shelter because of abuse.
- Relationship breakdown: separation or divorce may mean a woman is no longer able to afford rental or mortgage payments on her own.
- Financial difficulty: women are more likely to be employed in lower-remunerated industries; e.g. retail, childcare or teaching; meaning a woman has reduced capacity for saving over the years. In addition, age discrimination may make it close to impossible for an out-of-work older woman to find a secure job.
- Limited superannuation: the gender pay gap and the increased likelihood of years spent outside the workforce raising children means a woman’s super contributions may be inadequate.
“They’ve spent most of their lives in conventional housing, renting or paying off a mortgage, so they're completely outside the system. By the time this particular cohort of woman at this stage in our history have turned 50 the effects of gender-based discrimination have caught up with them,” explains Therese Hall, a journalist who completed her masters on ‘single older women with no place to call home’.
“Over their working lives, if they've been a single parent with one income, they've come up against gender-based low pay rates, part-time casual work … and they've popped out the other end without an asset, very little super, and with no savings.”
Real stories: how older women become homeless
A tragedy left June suddenly homeless at 68. Her husband Tony died from cancer – and she was forced to pack up their two-bedroom home near Wollongong, as she could not afford the $365-a-week rent without him. Everything she owns had to be packed away in her sister's back garden shed.
June said: “I haven't grieved yet because I haven't had time with moving and trying to find another place and moving my stuff out, I can't sleep. I am in despair… I had to give all of his stuff away because I had nowhere to put it. That is very distressing to me as it feels like he didn't exist.”
After falling into debt 30 years ago, Lee, now 81, was forced to sell her home. She was unable to afford rent and has been largely without shelter since, even spending a few years living in a bus in Sydney’s northern beaches.
Lee said: “I couldn't pay $300 a week rent when my pension's $280 and I do like to eat, so if you live in the street you think, ‘Well, at least I'm eating’. You're never really comfortable, you're never really happy, you're never really safe, but that's life… I grew up in very big family, but gradually they all disappeared, they're either all dead or they've vanished, I don't really have contact with anybody.”
An accident or chronic health condition can also force someone into homelessness. It was bad luck when Marta, 54, developed an allergy that turned into a lung infection. She lost her job in elder care and gradually her savings were spent to nothing. She could no longer afford rent, and for the past three years has sought shelter in boarding houses and other shared accommodation.
Marta said: “Sometimes I had to sleep in the car.”
Faye’s daughter contracted a rare form of cancer when she was only 31 years old and passed away. Faye, 68, struggled to cope. The stress and grief took its toll on her relationship and health. She became seriously ill and was admitted to hospital where she fell into a coma for a couple of weeks. When she came out of the coma, hospital staff told her that her husband had not visited her once.
Faye returned home after she was discharged but her relationship continued to deteriorate. Faye told her husband she wanted a divorce. He responded by forcing her outside and locking the front door in her face. She spent the next two years living in a boarding house in terrible conditions where she feared for her safety.
Eventually Faye decided it would be cheaper to sleep rough and moved into a water pipe in the mangroves in northern NSW.
Help us fight homelessness this winter
Our Community Grants Program funds organisations – like Agape Outreach Inc – that support homeless people by providing meals, friendship and shelter. Your past generosity has allowed us to give out more than $8,800,000 in grants.
This winter we desperately need your help again. There are more than 15,000 older Australians with no bed to sleep in, facing hard days and even harder nights in poverty and isolation. Please, help us fight homelessness this winter.
How We Help
Each year we’re able to make a difference to thousands of people across the country with funds generously donated by compassionate Australians. We support initiatives that focus on benefiting the disadvantaged, marginalised and socially isolated people in our community.