They call themselves OWLS. Despite the fact that women over fifty-five are the fastest growing cohort of people facing homelessness in Australia, ‘Older Women Lost in Housing’ are neglected in discussions of housing insecurity in this country. Older women facing homelessness are often described as ‘invisible’.
Fifty per cent of women approaching retirement age in Australia have a superannuation balance of $50,000 or less, compared with thirty-three per cent of men. Older women in Australia face a multitude of issues including housing stress, insecurity and homelessness that directly stem from lifelong structural gender disadvantage including superannuation and ageism in the labour force.
In 2020, an estimated 405,000 women over forty-five were at risk of housing affordability stress, and becoming homeless.
Most of these women have experienced conventional housing histories and have never been homeless before.
The critical link between safe and secure housing and good health and wellbeing was deepened by the Coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic intensified two of the most significant burdens facing Australian women: a shortage of secure well-paid jobs and an increase in care taking, coupled with a lack of supportive childcare policies. A report by senior economist Alison Pennington of the Centre for Future Work found that the economic consequences of the pandemic shutdown was that women lost jobs at a greater rate than men, and as the economy recovered, are returning to fewer jobs offered on a more casualised basis.
Effectively, the pandemic has widened the gender pay gap. The federal response to women’s resulting economic security will be critical.
Kobi Maglen of the Housing for the Aged Action Group (HAAG) stresses that the problems facing older women including the gender pay gap and age discrimination in the work force are exacerbated by Australia’s lack of safe and affordable housing. With an estimated 100,000 people on waiting lists for public housing in Victoria, older women that do not necessarily identify as homeless do not know where to turn for help.
“I have heard many older women say that there are people worse off than them and therefore they feel undeserving of help as their needs are not always complex; they just need appropriate and affordable housing. However, we know that the mental and physical health consequences of homelessness are dire, particularly for older people,” says Maglen.
HAAG’s approach to community engagement acknowledges that persons from culturally and linguistically diverse communities face significant difficulties in accessing appropriate housing options. Women over forty-five years are found to be at an increased risk of homelessness if they are an immigrant from a non-English speaking country or identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
“These are the women who raised and cared for us. They are our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, friends, neighbours, colleagues. Do we want to live in a society where older women need to be rough sleeping before they get help?” says Maglen.
Gentrification and the changing demographics that it heralds erodes vital community-based structures that ensure the ability of older women to age with security and dignity.
American activist Mikki Kendall’s seminal feminist text ‘Hood Feminism’ argues that the displacement of older women because of gentrification results in elders feeling alienated in their community. Kendall has said that our elders “rely on the rhythms and the norms of their community to be able to age in place with dignity”. Indeed, research conducted by Homelessness Australia has stressed the importance of connections between older women and the community, as older women are vulnerable to social exclusion due to limited access to financial resources.
“We know the importance of community connection and access to services for older people. If older women are forced to outer urban or regional areas in search of affordable housing, then this connection is lost,” says Maglen.
In June of this year the Federal government will cut $57 million from homelessness services. According to Homelessness Australia, one in four people using homelessness services in the last year were women and children, many fleeing domestic violence. Between April and December 2020, some 345,000 Australian women emptied their super accounts entirely as part of the pandemic early super release scheme. Women already face immense structural barriers to retiring into safe and secure conditions. Without housing policy that explicitly targets the unique needs of older women, the numbers of older women facing homelessness will only increase.