26 September 2023

A tsunami of homeless women is coming

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Emily Chantiri* says advocates are calling for a national housing strategy that focuses on the gendered causes of homelessness.

This is a story I wish I didn’t have to write. I have been writing about women and money for over two decades and it saddens me how little progress has been made in that time.

And I’m not surprised that the number of homeless women is on the rise.

This story continues to unfold further as more and more women struggle to control their finances.

The reasons are many and varied, from poverty to major factors, such as domestic and family violence, high cost of living, home affordability, lack of jobs, and simply not taking charge of their finances.

The latest figures from the Federal Government’s Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) found the number of clients receiving support from specialist homelessness services in Australia, fluctuated between 81,977 clients in July 2017 to 89,146 in December 2021.

Of the 89,146 clients in December 2021, 54,198 were female, 34,948 were male.

More than a quarter (23,881) were Indigenous.

Sue Mowbray, CEO of Mercy Foundation – which advocates a ‘housing first’ approach to ending homelessness – said older women were the fastest-growing cohort to experience homelessness, growing by 31 per cent between the 2011 and 2016 censuses.

“A majority of this group have never been homeless before, have low needs, and simply require an affordable home in their community,” Mowbray said.

In the absence of affordable and appropriate housing to move into, many women and their children are caught in a crisis or refuge system with nowhere to go.

“This group of women are in this predicament because they have fallen out of housing, usually due to a life shock such as divorce, death of a partner, illness or eviction, and simply don’t have enough money to afford what housing is available,” Mowbray said.

Women over 55 are at great risk of financial and housing insecurity due to systemic and compounding factors such as:

  • Lack of superannuation
  • Working part time or casually throughout their lives
  • Taking time out of the workforce to care for family
  • Bearing the brunt of the gender pay gap
  • An increasingly unaffordable private rental market
  • Age discrimination

Mowbray said older women living on a low, fixed income and relying on the private rental market were at great risk of becoming homeless.

Urgent need of affordable housing

To combat the housing shortage, Mowbray said there was a need for major investment of around 25,000 social and affordable dwellings in Australia each year for the foreseeable future.

“We need to address the drivers of poverty, such as jobseeker, which sentences people to live in poverty, or prevent people falling into homelessness in the first place.”

Women’s Community Shelters (WCS) operates nine crisis-accommodation shelters across NSW.

The centre has a range of homes which provide affordable transitional accommodation for older women and women leaving shelters.

CEO Annabelle Daniel OAM has witnessed a large cohort of older women seeking refuge.

“The COVID pandemic also led to more people seeking WCS services since lockdowns have ended,” Daniel said.

“The primary cause of women’s homelessness is domestic and family violence, followed by issues such as financial precarity and mental health issues.”

An avalanche of homeless is coming

Daniel is currently awaiting data from the 2021 census and is expecting the numbers to rise again, with a lack of affordable housing Australia wide significantly contributing to this issue.

“Real estate agents are encouraging renters to offer over advertised rent prices and pay significant chunks of rent in advance in order to secure properties in a competitive market,” she said.

“Many older, single women have fewer financial resources to fall back on and cannot compete in such an overheated market.

“The situation is the same for women with children leaving domestic and family violence.”

Daniel agrees with Mowbray and is pushing for increased supply of affordable housing.

She is calling on a national housing strategy that focuses on the gendered causes of homelessness and addresses them across multiple policies to ensure women aren’t disadvantaged in the housing market, as well as engaging local communities to help find solutions everywhere.

Tiny house trials

Daniel said ideas around portable and tiny homes had been discussed for many years.

And, there may be hope.

The Victorian government has announced plans to trial some of these developments on land earmarked for future developments.

Daniel added that while these kinds of homes provided some solutions for some people, they were not necessarily a solution for everyone.

“Women with children, women with disabilities, women who need higher levels of safety may not benefit from these kinds of housing,” she said.

“Additionally, we must ask: ‘What is housing for? Is it an investment only available to the few, or is housing a human right?’”

*Emily Chantiri is a Sydney journalist and best-selling author of the Savvy Girl Money Book and The Money Club.

This article first appeared at au.finance.yahoo.com.

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