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'I'm living in my car': Older people and homelessness in NSW

Robert Mowbray • 21/06/2022

UNSEEN chrome car art installation. Three women profiles are seen - barely - in the car seats.
UNSEEN Chrome Car, www.unseen.house/unseen-car/
Published with permission from Creative Director, UNSEEN

This is the UNSEEN Chrome Car. The UNSEEN multimedia arts project shares the hidden experiences of women and homelessness. Some women experiencing homelessness sleep rough. Many others remain UNSEEN, hidden from view through fear of stigmatisation. The UNSEEN Chrome Car reflects this hidden nature of their experiences of homelessness and housing insecurity. Because, for some, a car is the only safe place to live. You can check here for venues where the work of UNSEEN artists is displayed. Thanks to the UNSEEN Arts Hub for allowing us to use their graphic.

The experiences of these artists are very real. Similar stories regularly are picked up by the media.

Merrilee, aged 80 years, faced homelessness. She shared her experience recently with the Sydney Morning Herald. Often, she says, she curled up foetal on the couch and wept, because every time she inspects another property there’s as many as 70 other applicants for the same place. Moss, aged 70 years, was sitting alone in her car and listening to ABC Radio Perth when she heard a discussion about rental affordability and decided to call in and tell her story. "At the moment I'm living in my car," she told the presenter.

Indeed, the UNSEEN artists, Merrilee and Moss are just some of the many older people, particularly older women, who face homelessness. Some find accommodation in caravan parks, but others are sleeping in cars and vans, or resorting to short-term holiday letting like Airbnb, hotels, tents, and shipping containers. Indeed, older, single women and women fleeing domestic violence are the fastest-growing cohort at risk of homelessness.

Back in September of last year we picked up this issue in a blog called ‘Older women facing homelessness in Australia: from awareness to action’. The action is bearing fruit. The Standing Committee on Social Issues of the New South Wales Legislative Council currently is conducting an Enquiry into 'Homelessness amongst older people aged over 55 in New South Wales'. You can read the full submission by the Tenants’ Union of NSW here.

Two stories from our submission

Priscilla is a renter aged in her 70s in Western NSW, who was renting through an agent. She has significant health issues. There are four units in Priscilla’s block, where all tenants are aged over 60 and have been living there for many years. The landlord took advantage of the significantly increasing property prices and sold the block of units. The new owner wanted to increase the rent by over $100 a week, and issued all four tenants with 90-day no grounds termination notices. The agent was quite upset about four older tenants being made homeless. She had a meeting with all of the tenants and said that they could each move into a different unit within the same building. However, Priscilla could not afford the increased rent and so she had to leave.

Yvonne is a 70-year-old grandmother living on the age pension. She recently received a 90 days ‘no grounds’ eviction after years of living in her current rented home. Yvonne has been a passionate gardener for decades, but one day recently the landlord sent workpeople over to come and remove the entire garden. "I thought I was meant to have ‘peaceful enjoyment’ of the property. I nourished the garden for years, but it’s horrible that since I’m a renter at any time they can come and ruin it. I don’t feel welcome." Yvonne believes she received the eviction notice, at least in part, because her landlord thinks she is ‘too old’ to keep the house and garden maintained as well as a younger renter. Yvonne has been trying to find alternative accommodation for months, but without any success.

What needs to change?

Genuinely affordable housing is needed. In our submission to the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry we say significant investment in public and community housing by the NSW government is urgently required. The provision of housing by governments, whether it takes the form of public housing or funding delivered to community housing, is the most effective means of addressing the lack of genuinely affordable rental housing available.

Reforms to provide greater stability and security for people who rent their homes are needed. Eviction is a significant driver of homelessness. Eviction drives adverse financial and other outcomes for households, whether older persons or otherwise. For renting households, eviction can lead to significant financial disadvantage, poverty, negative health impacts and negative impacts on employment. Improving security and stability for renting households can significantly reduce homelessness. We write about this in our report entitled Eviction, Hardship, and the Housing Crisis, published in February 2022.

We address other key issues, like implementing a meaningful ‘ageing in place’ policy, pet-friendly rentals, adequate funding for Tenants Advice and Advocacy Services and the funding of a specialist seniors housing support service.

Our recommendations

We’ve come up with a set of nine recommendations to help address the growing problem of older people facing homelessness:

  1. Commit over the next 20 years to building new, additional public and community housing that adequately meets current and future need to provide housing that is genuinely affordable for people currently experiencing housing stress and/or homelessness.
  2. Lower the age criteria for priority housing assistance from 80 to 55 years old.
  3. Reform NSW tenancy law to set fairer limits on the amount rents can be increased within an existing tenancy and between tenancies.
  4. Remove ‘no grounds’ eviction provisions (sections 84 and 85) of the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 and replace them with a range of 'reasonable' grounds for ending a tenancy.
  5. Where a renting household is evicted for reasons other than breach, compensation for moving costs be payable by the landlord.
  6. Implement an explicit policy within the NSW Ageing Strategy (or other relevant strategy) on ‘ageing-in-place’ and establish benchmarks against which wider government policies can be measured regarding consistency.
  7. Prohibit blanket ‘no pets’ clauses in rental contracts.
  8. Increase current funding of the Tenants Advice and Advocacy Program to more adequately and appropriately resource free, independent legal advice and advocacy services for renters. Maintain funding in proportion with demand for services. Ensure assessment of adequacy of resourcing takes into account the additional funding required for effective and accessible provision of information, advice and advocacy supports for older renters, as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander renters, renters from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, and renters with a disability.
  9. Establish a state-wide housing information and support service for older people to provide a central point of contact for older people at immediate risk of homelessness and those who wish to plan for their retirement housing futures.

You will find more submissions and recommendations to the Standing Committee here.