Older women facing homelessness in Australia: from awareness to action

Robert Mowbray • 30/09/2021

In recent years there have been plenty of articles in the media about older women who suddenly find themselves facing homelessness. One recent article looked at the experience of women in Byron Bay on the NSW North Coast. Women are living in their cars, often with their children, renovating buses and trucks to sleep in, moving into caravans, bedding down in bushland, or down by the Brunswick River in makeshift encampments; driving up and down the highway searching for safe places to rest for the night, sending plaintive email requests to potential good samaritans, applying for community housing, for which the waiting list is up to 10 years. This issue hit prominence around the time of Anwell Crawford’s excellent essay in 2016 entitled 'Nowhere to go – older women and housing vulnerability’. She wrote: 

The number of older women who are rental tenants in Australia is growing, and these women ... are increasingly vulnerable to poverty and homelessness ... Housing affordability and security for rental tenants will only become a more pressing issue as Australia’s population continues to age.

Back in August 2020 Housing for the Aged Action Group (HAAG) produced a policy summary entitled: ‘At Risk: 405,000 older women risk homelessness without urgent policy reform’. The full report this is based on is available here.

    On Friday, 17 September 2021 HAAG organised the online forum, ‘At Risk 2021 Forum’, hoping to move us on from an acknowledgement of the problem to real action to address it. The half day forum brought together advocates from across the housing and homelessness sector, researchers, journalists, decision makers and women with lived experience. Here’s what Linda Hahn of the Housing Older Women Movement in Queensland told participants on the day: 

    I am just one of over 400,000 older women in Australia who face the daily challenges and ongoing trauma that arise from not having a safe, secure and affordable home … I never imagined I would experience homelessness. Only when I discovered I was not the only one that this had happened to did I stop feeling ashamed of my situation. I’ve come to realise that my experience is not my fault, nor due to poor choices, but rather the inevitable result of systemic, economic and societal factors which increase women’s vulnerability to homelessness.

    When opening the forum Senator Jane Hume, Minister from Women’s Economic Security, provided an overview of the Federal Government’s current efforts, but her address provided limited new insights. This was followed by a ‘Politicians’ panel’ featuring Tanya Plibersek MP, Senator Larissa Waters, Zali Steggall MP and lived experience advocate Penny Leemhuis. This panel pushed the conversation about older women’s vulnerability to homelessness forward in useful ways.

    The panel discussed the gender pay gap as a significant, continuing cause of women’s insecurity, and the need to address this but also other continuing inequalities and gender bias in policy. An example in current housing policies is negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions. These tax settings have been a driving cause of the housing unaffordability that women are particularly vulnerable to, and yet women’s structural disadvantage means they are also less able to invest and take advantage of these settings. A number of the speakers spoke of the challenge of getting settings right, given that housing is a shared responsibility across federal, state and territory governments. It requires a multi-partisan approach and shared commitment to addressing the housing crisis.

    Let’s listen to Linda Hahn again:  

    Older women are generally the invisible homeless who quietly struggle to get through each day, not yet often visibly homeless on the streets, but only a step away from that. It could happen to any woman you know. Your mother or grandmother. Your sister, aunt, co-worker. Your friend or neighbour.

    I have predominantly worked in community-based organised where pay is lower than in other sectors. Some positions have been part time. And I’ve taken career breaks to raise my family, care for my elderly relatives, and I now provide childcare for my granddaughter.  Historically, society has relied predominantly on women to undertake these unpaid carer roles, which in turn impacts our ability to build a secure economic platform for our later life.

    Following the pollies’ panel, there were three concurrent panels. The first covered older women, housing and family and domestic violence. The second discussed how local-scaled solutions can provide housing for older women at risk of homelessness. In the third panel, activists in other campaigns (Every Australian Counts – leading to the establishment of NDIS, Everybody’s Home, Marriage equality and Building Better Homes) shared insights about how their campaigns have successfully influenced political change. They highlighted the importance of:

    • building coalitions
    • letting people tell their own stories
    • setting achievable micro goals so that small gains along the way reinforce morale
    • and the importance of making our problem their problem!

    The key take away from the forum? 

    All speakers tied the issue to a strong gender bias in current housing policies. This is a good reminder of the importance when formulating policy to always ask: what is its gender impact?  

    And of course Housing for the Aged Action Group provide clear next steps. They believe it’s time to move beyond words and shift the agenda to action in a campaign for older women’s housing. They are calling on the Federal government to:

    1. Increase the availability of safe, affordable and appropriate housing for older women at risk of homelessness by developing a National Housing Strategy, and investing in new stock to address the shortfall of 500,000 low-cost rental homes.
    2. Invest in service responses to support older women before they reach crisis by increasing funding for Assistance with Care and Housing (ACH), making available funds to establish housing information and support services for older people based on the Home at Last model, and increasing the base rate of income support payments as a matter of urgency.
    3. Adopt specific measures to address gender inequality and ageism in Australia.



    You can click the slides to watch the panels of interest to you. Indeed, you can click here to watch the whole playlist. There’s a letter you can personalise and send to your Federal MP and Senators. You can join an online forum. Catch everything at the link here.

    Be part of the action.