The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge. Council to Homeless Persons is using the day to raise awareness of a growing crisis of older women’s homelessness in Australia. After a lifetime of gender-based discrimination, older women are likely to have a lower income in retirement. An unexpected event such as a health problem, losing a partner, or unemployment, can mean older women who are renting find themselves at risk of homelessness for the first time in their lives.
Older people and homelessness
The risk of homelessness is growing for older people generally, as less and less people retire owning their own homes.
As house prices rise, would-be home buyers are forced to wait until they have the savings and income required to buy a property. With higher house prices, many people reach retirement still with unaffordable outstanding payments on their home loan, and have to sell and switch to the rental market.
As a result of this and our ageing population, the number of older people renting in Australia is due to increase by a huge 48% in the next ten years. Worryingly, one in four older renters will be in rent stress, paying a significant amount of their income towards housing costs.
Why are older women vulnerable to homelessness?
Older women are particularly vulnerable to rent stress and homelessness. During their lifetime, many women work for less money than their male counterparts, work fewer hours, or take more time away for caring responsibilities.
After a lifetime of structural gender inequality, it is common for women to have lower levels of income and a smaller superannuation fund than their male counterparts – resulting in many single older women living on the edge of poverty.
Under these circumstances, an unexpected life event – a health problem, loss of a partner or job, or a large bill – can quickly eat into savings and superannuation. For the first time in their lives, women can find themselves with no money for housing costs and the essentials, and at risk of homelessness. Women who do not work full time, are in private rental, or are single parents are particularly vulnerable.
How big is the problem?
The 2016 Census revealed that 6,866 older women were without a home across the country, with a further 5,820 in marginal housing and at risk of homelessness.
Women over 55 are the fastest growing group of people seeking assistance from homelessness services. Between 2013 and 2018, the number of women experiencing homelessness in Victoria increased by 48.3 per cent.
The rate of “hidden homelessness” in older women – who are less likely to be sleeping rough and are more likely to be sleeping in their car or couch surfing – means that many women experiencing homelessness are more likely to go unnoticed.
What can be done?
Older women’s homelessness is complex, and can often be a reflection of the economic disadvantage and structural gender inequality women face in society. That’s why a combination of responses is needed to address the problem and support women over 55 into secure, affordable, long-term housing.
Adequate income support
Losing employment or income later in life can leave women at the mercy of government income support, which can make it impossible to for people to afford housing costs. As shown in last year’s Rental Affordability Snapshot by Anglicare, a single person on JobSeeker looking for a property in Victoria would be able to afford 0.0 per cent of rental listings, and a single person receiving the Age Pension could afford 0.8 per cent.
Raising levels of income support would mean older women stand a far higher chance of attaining and retaining a rental property on the private market, and is an essential step in supporting women in their later years.
Affordable and social housing
Investing in affordable and social housing, which the Victorian Government has committed to with its historic $5.3 billion investment announced last year, is an essential step in supporting older women. First, it can help alleviate demand for lower priced properties on the private market, making it easier and more affordable for people to access rentals they can afford.
Second, if people are unable to afford their mortgage or a rental on the private market, social housing can offer a safety net and provide secure accommodation that is adequate for the needs of older women.
Housing and homelessness services are there to support older women experiencing or at risk of homelessness. However, with limited funding, services targeted at this cohort are often small in scale or have limited geographic coverage. Additional resources must be provided to these essential services.
Innovative solutions are required for early intervention and prevention of women’s homelessness, which meet the needs of older women and take into consideration women’s income, assets, and capacity to work. This includes structural changes that can help change the playing field for older women, such as initiatives and partnerships between governments, not-for-profit, and private sector organisations, to enable older women to secure long-term housing and live in dignity and safety during their later years.
Find out more about International Women’s Day and how you can support it, and learn more about older women’s housing with the following resources: