Imagine a homeless person. What comes to mind? Most of us think of a down-trodden man, begging for change and sleeping on the street. While 56 per cent of homeless people are indeed male, the number of women over the age of 55 experiencing homelessness is growing rapidly.
According to the 2011 Census, there are over 5000 homeless women over the age of 55 in Australia, with single women being the most vulnerable group. In fact, Homelessness Australia suggests that being over the age of 45 and single, along with renting, significantly increases a woman’s risk of becoming homeless.
Homelessness Australia research also found that 64 per cent of older people living on the street are at risk of death within five years.
So what causes homelessness and why is it rising particularly among women?
There are a number of contributing factors. Mission Australia identifies domestic violence as the single biggest cause of homelessness in the nation. Along with issues related to elder abuse, “family and domestic violence is the leading cause of people seeking help for homelessness,” says Catherine Yeomans, CEO of Mission Australia.
Family violence and abuse aren’t the only reasons women find themselves on the street. A lack of financial resources and assets makes it difficult for women who fall victim to homelessness to sustain their housing situation.
“These are women who never thought they would ever find themselves in this predicament and it can be that they’ve had work that’s been intermittent, perhaps even part-time, as they balance family responsibilities and caring responsibilities,” says Ms Yeomans.
The housing affordability crisis also plays a massive part. In an ABC interview with Ms Yeomans last week, host Adam West made the statement that five per cent of all households occupied by seniors are paying 50 per cent of their income in rent.
Ms Yeomans says that as rental rates increase, older people living on fixed incomes or pensions are spending most of their income on accommodation, “leaving very little for the basics of life: food, health and transport”.
Recent research has found that in Melbourne and elsewhere in Australia, single women are being priced out a third of the rental market and forced into outer-city suburbs, due to the gender pay gap.
While the homeless rates overall are dire enough, the situation for Australia’s indigenous people is far worse. A staggering 25 per cent of Australia’s homeless are Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. When it comes to homelessness, indigenous women are the most vulnerable group in Australia.
Sometimes there are 20 and 30 people living in a three-bedroom home,” says Ms Yeomans. “Imagine a woman in her late 50s, 60s or 70s living with large [sic] family members.”
So what’s being done to tackle homelessness?
Ms Yeomans says Australia must increase the number of available homes if we are truly to address the housing crisis.
To that end, Mission Australia is putting pressure on the Commonwealth, state and territory governments to fund at least 200,000 new social homes by 2025.
“If there’s not enough affordable housing now – and we know there is not – and we know that there is an ageing population…then of course the situation is going to get worse unless we take action now,” says Ms Yeomans.
Have you felt the effects of the housing affordability crisis? Do you struggle to pay rent and living costs on a fixed income or pension? What can be done to help tackle homelessness in Australia?