At 50, Jane Matts was living on $7 a day. After leaving a domestic violence situation and trying to start again, she was unable to afford rent in Sydney.
“I’d lost everything, I’d gone back to nothing,” she says.
“I just needed some help to break back into the workforce.”
Despite having a background as a business consultant and a university tutor, she struggled to find a job after working as a contractor for some years.
“I had no funds… If I had to up skill it would cost me thousands of dollars,” she says.
With rent taking up most of her financial assistance, she was left rationing $110 a fortnight, living on about $7 a day.
When living becomes surviving
Jane became “part-time homeless” alternating between rental living and sleeping in a camper van, before permanently residing in the camper van for nine months.
“I showered in a McDonald’s disabled toilet. I would wash my clothes in the disabled toilet,” the 52-year-old says.
“We would go late to woolies to see what was marked down. I wasn’t the only one…there was a camaraderie.”
Without a lock on her camper van she says the sense of danger became a priority, and returning to the workforce and studying felt increasingly distant.
“You’re trying to do applications but you’re caught up in survival mode,” Jane says.
“If you’ve got younger mothers I’d hate to think what would happen…I’m in my fifties and I had a knock on my door asking for sexual favours.”
The new face of homelessness
A recent Australian study found that 90 per cent of respondents perceived homelessness exclusively to be sleeping rough. While rough sleepers are highly visible in urban environments, 94 per cent of the homeless are not sleeping in streets or parks. Instead they’re in transitional housing, couch surfing, living in cars, Like Jane was, or moving between homes of friends and children. Over 116,000 Australians are now thought to have no permanent home.
“You make sure you don’t look like a homeless person, it’s about managing perception,” Jane says.
“You can’t tell people ‘I’m homeless,’ because people don’t want to know.”
Jane has since received a Start Safely grant which provides short to medium-term rent support for people escaping domestic or family violence.
“Without the grant there was no chance of having any form of rental property,” she said.
Jane is part of a growing number of older women experiencing homelessness in Australia.
The 2016 census statistics found a 14 per cent rise of overall homelessness between 2011 and 2016. During this time, the number of older homeless females increased by 31 per cent nationally and in NSW by 48 per cent.
Hal Pawson, professor of housing policy at the University of New South Wales, believes these numbers are a reflection of failing government policy.
“If you’re relying on pension or state benefits your income is rising at a much slower rate than rent,” says Hal.
From 2015 to 2016, 41.2 per cent of all Commonwealth Rent Assistance recipients were experiencing rental stress.
As the difficulty to buy a house increases, Hal says those who are more well –off are staying in the rental market longer.
“Richer people living in the private market can out-compete other people and it pushes up rent,” he says.
“The market isn’t fixed but when demand increases there is a tendency to rise.”
“There’s a policy fix which is a logical one here.”
Hal says the climbing price of rent at the bottom of the market is also caused by the increasing shortage of social housing.
“One of the ways out of this situation would be to restore a policy of social housing so it would grow at the same rate of the need,” says Hal.
“The other way out is for the part of the benefit income helping with high housing cost, at least that part should be indexed by level of changes in rent.”
At a state level, the NSW government recently added $61 million over four years, largely focused on providing emergency care and support services.
“Generally speaking, older women don’t actually need the support services, just somewhere to live,” said Katherine McKernan, chief executive of Homelessness NSW.
“At a federal and state level we need a huge investment in social and affordable housing and policy that addresses that it is so unaffordable.”
“Federally there is not even a Housing Minister.”
You can watch Insight's episode about the increasing number of older homeless women here: