The stereotypical image of a homeless person is a bearded man in dirty clothes, sleeping rough and rummaging through rubbish bins for unfinished cigarettes.
But the stark reality of homelessness, however, is that it can affect people from all walks of life, at any stage of life. And increasingly, it’s affecting older women.
Homelessness can take many different forms. It can involve couch-surfing, staying in temporary accommodation with supportive friends, staying in refuges or shelters, or being forced onto the street.
At its essence is the loss of protection and stability that comes with a permanent home.
NSW is facing a silent crisis of female homelessness. It’s silent because it falls outside our perceptions of who homeless people are, and because we – as a community- have failed to see the warning signs.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics at least 600,000 women in Australia are at risk.
The Sydney Morning Herald has also exposed the impact of the rising cost of housing on homelessness for older women, noting a 19% increase in the number of older Australians in homelessness between 2011 and 2016.
Limited superannuation savings, the sky-rocketing cost of private rent and domestic violence are all fuelling this crisis.
By the time they reach retirement age, many older women have been in and out of the workforce several times, especially if they’ve had children or have been a carer for their own parents. As result, they have significantly less in superannuation than someone who has worked consistently.
Furthermore, the Federal Government’s superannuation guarantee only applies to people earning $450 a month from one employer. So women who juggle several part-time or casual service sector jobs may not qualify, even if their total earnings are more than the $450 minimum – therefore they fall further behind people with one steady job.
This has a material impact on the wealth of older single women. In fact, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the average amount in superannuation that women have once they reach retirement age is just 53 per cent of the average male’s superannuation savings.
Domestic violence is also a major factor in homelessness for women. ABS figures show that around 17% of Australian women aged over 18 have experienced partner violence. One in four women who have experienced an incident of physical violence is aged 45 years and older.
Furthermore, NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) figures show that reports of domestic sexual offences have been increasing. In fact, reports of domestic sexual assaults rose by 14% between 2011 and 2016, while domestic indecent assaults rose by 17.6%.
I have met with a number of older women who have become homeless after leaving violent relationships. I know from speaking with these women directly that they have found it very difficult to access emergency shelter accommodation.
Unfortunately, the Baird Government’s flagship Going Home Staying Home policy on domestic violence has had the perverse outcome of making it more difficult for many women to access desperately needed support.
In an attempt to put a broom through the homelessness services sector via a rushed and bungled tender process, the Government wiped out a number of dedicated refuges that met the specific needs of women. Services in rural and regional NSW were hit particularly hard.
It was a one-size-fits-all approach to homelessness, and it predictably failed.
Sadly, Going Home Staying Home wasn’t an isolated mistake. It was, in fact, emblematic of the Baird Government’s ham-fisted approach to services. Whether it’s the privatisation of hospitals, cuts to TAFE or destruction of social housing communities, the Baird Government has form.
With more older women becoming homelessness every week, the State Government must learn from its own mistakes, and must also learn from what other States are doing well.
Victoria, for example, has completely reformed the way it approaches domestic violence, and is investing heavily in better support services for women and in driving cultural change.
That’s why I believe a comprehensive strategy is needed to address the complex problem of older women and homelessness in NSW.
The strategy must tackle three core issues: ensuring vulnerable women across NSW have access to dedicated women-only refuges, increasing access to affordable and social housing that meets the needs of older women, and delivering a whole-of-government plan to reduce domestic violence.