When Emma Dawson took to the stage at the National Gallery of Victoria to launch the latest report she authored on women and homelessness, A Home of One’s Own, she was both a woman on a mission and a woman – understandably – running short on patience.
As one of the speakers on the subsequent panel, the Managing Director of the Seven Advisory Mary Delahunty, would later say, “Emma has written about women and homelessness in every way, from every angle, in every font imaginable for years”.
And yet the number of older women experiencing homelessness is expected to double over the next decade, with little done to address the problem.
Emma Dawson is the Executive Director of the Per Capita think tank, and has spent years researching the issue. So when Australians Investing in Women, a leading non-profit advocating for “gender-wise” philanthropy was looking for someone to shed new light on this important issue at a critical time — and help spark a much-needed conversation about the role the private and philanthropic sector can play in addressing the crisis — they chose Dawson and Per Capita to produce a new report.
The report’s top-line finding was shocking: without meaningful intervention, the number of older homeless women will more than double by 2031 to more than 15,000. For years, it has been widely known that older women are the fastest-growing group of homeless people and the greatest cause of homelessness in Australia is domestic and family violence.
Those trends, according to the new report, are clearly accelerating, driven in no small part by the events of the pandemic, which disproportionately impacted women and their economic security, as many feared it would.
Sadly, while the report’s top-line finding was shocking, it was by no means surprising.
“After years of many of us warning that this would come to pass, here we are,” said Dawson with no small hint of bitterness and frustration.
Indeed, here we are.
I understand and share Dawson’s intense frustration. At the height of the pandemic, I received a grant from the Melbourne Press Club to write a dedicated series on women’s economic security for The Saturday Paper, and it was obvious to me right from the start that I couldn’t write about the economic impacts of the pandemic on women without dedicating significant attention to the issue of women’s homelessness.
I will never forget the words of Elizabeth Broderick, who helped put the issue of women’s economic security firmly on the map a little over a decade ago at the start of her eight-year tenure as Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner. “This is a crisis we should have seen coming,” she told me.
Broderick went on to tell me about her first “listening tour” in 1997 when she travelled the country to hear directly from Australia’s women about what they thought should be her priorities. She said she was deeply troubled by the many stories she heard from women who feared poverty and homelessness in old age, including that of a woman named Lerlene who worked in a women’s shelter in Hobart.
“I remember her telling me that because she was lowly paid – that’s the nature of caring work, the fact that it’s highly feminised and the fact that women’s contribution is undervalued historically – meant that when she retired she wouldn’t be able to be a self-funded retiree,” Broderick said. “Lerlene would be entirely dependent on the age pension.”
Broderick added, “it was the first time I really understood a reframing of this whole area…to ask the question: is poverty to be the reward of a lifetime spent caring?”
Fast forward more than a decade and not much has changed. On Monday night, ABC journalist Louise Milligan added to Lerlene’s story – and that of so many other women who live with housing insecurity, often with children.
On Four Corners, Milligan told the story of Kaila Jobson, a single mother from Bellingen in mid-northern NSW who works six days a week cleaning motel rooms and tending the tavern bar while living in a motel room behind the tavern with her kids because she can’t afford private rental accommodation and the wait list for social housing is too long. And Milligan also told the story of Stacey Warn, who also lives in the Coffs Coast region, a disability support worker and single mother who lives with her children in dilapidated social housing and struggles to enter the costly private rental market.
In the intervening decade between Lerlene sharing her fears with Broderick and Jobson and Warn sharing their daily struggles with Milligan, there has, sadly, been little concrete action to address their reality despite dozens of reports warning of a crisis, including the Equality Rights Alliance’s “Retiring into Poverty” report, the Security4Women Alliance’s white paper on women’s economic security, which was recently updated to take into account the impacts of Covid-19, and, perhaps most famously, Senator Jenny McAllister’s aptly named “A Husband Is Not a Retirement Plan” report from the 2015 senate inquiry into the issue.
Now we can add Dawson’s A Home of One’s Own to the growing list of evidence and ask, when will the evidence be enough to prompt real action?
“Now, more than ever, we need targeted interventions through government policy and philanthropic investment are needed to provide safe and affordable accommodation for women,” said Julie Reilly, the CEO of Australians Investing in Women.
Homelessness, put simply, is a feminist issue. And at a time when we are looking afresh at gender equality after a decade of stasis under the last federal Coalition government that saw Australia plunge from 15th out of 153 countries in the 2006 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap rankings to 50th in 2021, women’s housing insecurity and homelessness must be front and centre of the new, or shall I say renewed, feminist discourse in Australia.
It’s all very well and good to talk about getting women into work, as we rightly did at the Jobs and Skills Summit earlier this year. But we also need to talk about getting a roof over their head.