• Around 6,300 people aged 65 and older sought help from homelessness services from 2014-2015. (Moment RF/Getty Images)
Some older Australians may have been employed all their life, raised children and paid taxes. And then in their latter years, as their health deteriorates and rents rise, they become homeless. SBS explains how it could happen to anyone.
By
Alana Schetzer

3 Jul 2017 - 12:18 PM  UPDATED 5 Jul 2017 - 11:18 AM

Homeless people aged 55 and over are often a forgotten group within Australia’s homeless population, and according to the Council for Homeless People (CHP), this invisible segment of society is increasing. 

Chief executive of CHP, Jenny Smith, explains there was a nine per cent increase in the older homeless population in Australia in the three years prior to 2015, creating a pool of 6,300 people aged 65 and older who sought help from homelessness services from 2014-2015.

“Older people’s homelessness is often not as visible as they’re less likely to be sleeping on the streets, and more likely to be in rooming houses, caravan parks, staying temporarily with friends and family with no security of tenure and other forms of marginal accommodation,” Smith says.

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The reasons for the increase of homeless seniors are many, Smith tells SBS: the size of our aged population is growing at a faster rate than ever; there's a chronic shortage of affordable housing in capital cities; there’s been an increase in the number of older people renting; and upward pressure on rent prices means can leave an older person at risk of losing their lease.

Advocacy group, Older Tenants, also confirm that of older people are increasingly doing it tough, noting that the current welfare and support system was not designed to work with the needs of older people (these include issues around frailty and health needs).

Homeless seniors: who are they?

While 55 is not really considered ‘old’ in most social circles, many organisations classify homeless people aged 55 and up as 'seniors' because homelessness can make people age faster, and many homeless people in their 50s will have the same health problems as people in their 60s, 70s or 80s.

Women

Single women aged 55 and over make up about 70 per cent of homeless people in Australia.

These women are often people who may never have been considered at risk of homelessness; they may have worked all their life, raised children, and been part of mainstream society. However due to changing life circumstances, their housing arrangements change and their situations may decline. 

The causes of homelessness for senior women, according to Smith, include relationship breakdowns, the death of a spouse and the high cost of private rent, especially if the woman is a pension.

“The housing crisis means that many people on low incomes are paying far more than they can afford in private rental, and teetering on the edge of homelessness,” Smith says.

“They often come to Australia later in life and haven’t been able to buy a house. Or they might have come to live with their family and if it hasn't worked out, they have nowhere to go.”

Migrants and people from diverse backgrounds

According to Housing for the Aged Action Group (HAGG), people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are also at a higher risk of becoming homeless.

Gemma White, project officer from HAGG, says this is in part because of discrimination due to language and cultural differences, family breakdowns and lack of financial security. She adds that CALD communities most at risk are Chinese, South Asian, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Herzegovinian and those from Arabic speaking-backgrounds.                                                                               

“More people are also reaching retirement without having bought a house, and it’s a particular issue for people with CALD backgrounds,” she said. “They often come to Australia later in life and haven’t been able to buy a house. Or they might have come to live with their family and if it hasn't worked out, they have nowhere to go.”

White explains that many older migrants, especially Chinese and Indian, come to Australia under the Assurance of Support visa, which means that their family is responsible for entirely financially supporting them for 10 years - they have no right to Centrelink payments.

“That really puts them at risk of homelessness if that relationship breaks down,” White says.

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Poorer seniors who can't afford independent living

White notes that the majority of elderly homeless and at-risk people are capable of living independently but simply can’t afford to do so.

In Australia, elderly disadvantaged people are eligible for a government-sponsored bed in an aged care centre, but only if they meet a strict criteria and are physically unable to live unsupported.

“It’s an awful situation; a lot of these people are frail and some simply wouldn’t survive if they were on the streets.”

What can we do about it?

Homelessness is a deeply complex issue, White explains, especially when it involves older people who should be able to enjoy their senior years in comfort and dignity.

“It’s an awful situation; a lot of these people are frail and some simply wouldn’t survive if they were on the streets.”

Smith believes we can stop the high number of older people living on the streets by supporting them before their problems become too overwhelming.

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“For older people that crisis could be death of a spouse, health problems, loss of a job or other income. Providing the support they need to maintain their housing through this crisis is critical,” she says.

“This support may be in the form of paying rental/mortgage arrears, or assisting them with a short term subsidy to meet their housing costs while they address their other life issues.”


Watch episode one of 'Filthy Rich and Homeless', a new three-part documentary series exploring the experience of being homelessness on SBS On Demand below.

If this article has raised issues for you and you would like to talk to someone, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website by clicking here. For information about services from St Vincent De Paul, click here or for services offered by Salvation Army, click here.  

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