Not just personal choices: older women and homelessness

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Felicity Reynolds, CEO of the Mercy Foundation, shares her thoughts on why increasing numbers of older women are seeking help for homelessness.

It is not easy to face a national audience of strangers and talk about one of the most devastating experiences of your life. It was important for us to hear from the courageous women on Insight who shared their stories of homelessness, insecure housing and rental stress. I sincerely thank them for that.

Whilst the personal story is a powerful, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes uplifting approach, it has its limitations. It can be difficult to pick up the thread of systemic and structural factors that may have contributed to the personal narrative being shared. In this instance, the older women experiencing poverty and homelessness clearly had a wide range of experiences and were solving their housing insecurity in a diverse (and inventive) number of ways.

Those of us who have been working on this issue for some years know that no single factor, not one personal decision and not one government policy setting has created the homelessness of any one woman. Years of systemic inaction and poor policy has resulted in more women over 55 now facing poverty and homelessness.

We need to talk about the structural reasons why some older women are homeless:


Government Disinvestment

All Australian States once had a commitment to ensuring that all citizens, regardless of income, had access to adequate affordable housing. The post war housing commission building booms in every State were testament to this commitment.

In recent decades, disinvestment in public housing has seen this option move from a dignified housing opportunity for those on low incomes to a largely unobtainable one. Reduced stock, tighter targeting and long waiting periods are the main culprits.


Affordable Housing Gap

Affordable housing in most cities has disappeared. Speculative capital investment has become the focus, rather than rental income. This really took off when the capital gains tax discount was introduced in 1999. This is aided and abetted by tenancy legislation in many states that keep tenants on short leases and provide for eviction without cause.

Did you know that about a million houses in Australia were empty on the night of the 2016 census? 

Without a place to live, Di Hill has recently moved into a converted bus.
Without a place to live, Di Hill has recently moved into a converted bus.


The Working Woman

It is women who carry and give birth to children and this will never change. What can change, however, is the way in which our society responds to that uniquely female responsibility.

We have still not ended the gender pay gap, we still don’t have universal and adequate paid maternity leave and women still must spend time out of the paid workforce if they want children.

This is time she is not earning a wage or superannuation. It can also lead to part-time or more junior job opportunities when she returns to the workforce. 


Age Discrimination

We all know that a full-time job lifts people out of poverty, but once a woman (and probably also a man) reaches a certain age, unfortunately there are not large numbers of employers lining up to employ them.

In conjunction with changes to the age pension, which by 2023 can only be accessed at age 67, must come greater commitment by public and private sector employers to ensure older people can access jobs.

It is impossible to house and feed yourself on Newstart without the help of others. The resilient women on Insight made that abundantly clear.


Baby Boomer Barriers

The current cohort of women aged over 65 grew up in a different Australia. An Australia where single women, even if paid enough, often couldn’t get a home loan. An Australia that until the 1970s insisted some women in some job categories resign their position upon marriage.

There was also no superannuation guarantee. It sounds ridiculous now, but all this (and more) very slowly created a lifetime of discriminatory disadvantage for those women. 

It should be troubling to us all that that too many of the women who cared for their elderly parents, the women who gave birth to the next generation and the women who worked their whole lives ... are now living ‘on the edge’.

I think Australia is mostly a civil society and we have much to be proud of. We long ago agreed that everyone deserves an education and that health care should be available to all, regardless of income. Those systems aren’t yet perfect, but we have them and they work most of the time.We have also agreed that we need good roads, decent infrastructure and adequate transport. So, I am really struggling to understand when and why adequate affordable housing fell off this list of civil things we do as a nation.

It should be troubling to us all that that too many of the women who cared for their elderly parents, the women who gave birth to the next generation and the women who worked their whole lives until an accident, trauma or illness made them unemployed, are now living ‘on the edge’ and unable to find appropriate permanent affordable housing. 


Felicity Reynolds is the CEO of the Mercy Foundation, a community organisation advocating for the end of homelessness. Catch up on Insight's look at the rising number of older women who are becoming homeless, here: