Older women are the fastest growing demographic among the homeless population in Australia, with years spent out of the workforce contributing to lower superannuation funds, lower incidence of home ownership, and lower personal wealth overall to draw on in retirement.
Kay Dolman had been a stay-at-home mother primarily involved in school activities, volunteering, and sporadic cleaning work when she got divorced in 2007 after 36 years of marriage.
“I found myself waking up from a bubble of feeling secure, to a situation where I didn’t have a secure roof over my head,” said Dolman. “I knew that I couldn’t continue living with family and friends, and it was such a deep pit of despair.”
As some of her friends began to retire and live off their super, Dolman started house-sitting to at least give her somewhere to sleep each night. But it was insecure and temporary, and left her with a feeling of anxiety.
After contacting a women’s support organisation, she joined the waiting list for affordable housing and was provided with an apartment after a year-and-a-half.
“As soon as I was given this unit, my home became my haven,” said Dolman, whose rent is now set at no more than 30 percent of her income.
Felicity Reynolds, CEO of the Mercy Foundation, sees an increasing number of women experience housing instability in older age.
“The largest growing group of women in this situation is conventional women who haven’t necessarily had a housing crisis before, but who have found themselves having a housing crisis or homelessness later in life,” she said.
“Many don’t see themselves a homeless, they see themselves as having a bit of a problem, and they’re going to get through it,” said Reynolds.
According to the recently released ANZ Women’s Report, one-in-five women yet to retire has no superannuation, and, on average, women retire with half as much superannuation as men. Women also earn, on average, $700,000 less over their life than men.
Penny Leemhuis, like Dolman, ended a relationship in mid-life, and found herself with very little financial resources to draw on. She had taken time out of the workforce to raise her children, and her earnings were affected by both the gender pay gap and a disability she acquired.
She reached breaking point when a bunch of bills arrived, her car broke down, and the rent was due all at once. She realised that renting privately was no longer an option.
“All those things individually may be able to be managed, but when they’re cumulative, that’s when women, and there are 600,000 of us nationally, find ourselves in this position,” she said.
Now 56, she has a place in shared rental accommodation. She’s secure for now, but is conscious that a rent rise or landlord deciding to sell could place her back into the same situation.
“There’s no point in finding somewhere to rent when all your income goes on rent,” she said.
Reynolds believes the onus is on the federal government to put policies in place to create affordable and secure housing.
“It’s just not happening at the moment,” she said.
Senator Michaelia Cash, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, believes the solution is a combination of support for the homeless through state and federal assistance, and encouraging women back into the workforce so they are receiving a wage and accumulating superannuation.
“We need to ensure young women know that they need to start putting money away towards their retirement incomes so they don’t become one of these statistics,” she said.
Claire MacKay, a financial advisor with Quantum Financial, says that financial education and discipline are the key tools for young women to plan for their financial future. She emphasises that future planning should be considered from the first entry into the workforce or into long term relationships.
“The key thing I say to them is, is make sure you know where your money is,” she said.
“People hate the word budget as much as I hate the word diet, and the reality is it’s very similar to having a sensible eating plan and regular exercise,” she said. “There’s no magic bullet for losing weight, and there is no silver bullet for setting your finances in order. It is hard work, it is regular and you start with baby steps.”
Mackay also emphasises that discussions around pay and superannuation equity are important in both businesses and government.
“Having these discussions and working with some real facts is really important in terms of furthering policy decisions,” she said.
Women are vastly underrepresented in leadership positions, holding only a third of seats in parliament, leading some to question awareness at the top level of the specific issues faced by women – including those facing a housing crisis.
“Well certainly there are not enough women in parliament,” said Cash.
She has recently been commissioned to put together a report, along with Senator Linda Reynolds, to suggest strategies to increase female representation in politics.
“We’re talking about women who have raised the next generation,” said Mercy Foundation’s Felicity Reynolds. “They have given back to their communities, volunteered in their communities… I think we need to do a bit better by them.”
“It’s not something that I consciously thought, that I could be a homeless person,” said Leemhuis. “Because without safe, secure housing, that’s what I am.”