Older women are often the forgotten face of homelessness.
Stereotypes dominate the average view of what a homeless person looks like, but at a time when the number of older women couch-surfing has doubled in just four years, times are changing.
In Australia in 2016, 1618 women over the age of 50 who presented at homelessness services were couch-surfing – an 83 per cent increase over four years.
In Tasmania, about 17 per cent of the homeless population is aged over 55, with the most common reason for displacement being accommodation issues such as housing crisis or inadequate or inappropriate dwellings, according to Homelessness Australia.
We may not see them on the street, but right now, there are many older women in our community who are not sure where they will sleep tonight.
So why is it that older women are particularly at risk of homelessness?
For many women, and men, not having a stable roof over their head is something they unfortunately grew up with, and as they follow in the footsteps of their parents, the cycle of intergenerational poverty continues – a cycle that needs increased levels of support from all levels of government to be broken.
But for some women, this is an issue that starts from their very first day of work where, on average, they will earn $26,000 less than males each year.
Less earnings means less money being transferred into superannuation – right now the average woman will retire with about half as much superannuation as men.
There are many reasons why this is currently the case, ranging from taking time off to have and raise children and a higher percentage of women in part-time or casual work.
Boards across Australia are also only made up of an average of 25 per cent women, a number which has remained static for many years.
So when women retire, especially when they are on their own, having enough money to simply cover the basics can be difficult.
In a submission to the Achieving economic security for women in retirement Senate Inquiry, Homelessness Australia and the Equality Rights Alliance said “the dire financial situation of older, single women is well-established”.
“Economic insecurity combines with a lack of affordable housing to increase housing risks for older, single women,” the submission said.
“On the precipice of this structural vulnerability, a relationship breakdown, death, job loss or change in health circumstances is all it takes for an older, single woman to become homeless.”
The two leading authorities went on to recommend there be a national increase in affordable housing targeted to older women, increased support, and that the nation’s superannuation system be reformed.
While there is no simple fix when it comes to combating the nation’s affordable housing crisis, there is much more that we could do to address the issue.
For a long time, we have had a taxation system that privileges a house as a wealth-generating asset rather than a home. At the same time, both State and Federal governments have invested less and less in public and social housing.
In Tasmania, a place where rental vacancy rates are currently sitting below 1 per cent, we need to include more affordable accommodation into our planning scheme, we need increased crisis accommodation, and we need to provide incentives to landlords to offer their houses to low-income tenants.
Taking a broader view, we need to be working towards a legitimate state of gender equality in Australia.
This means creating a space where men and women are paid equally, where both genders are set up to take on leadership roles, and where women can retire with appropriate funds in their superannuation.
Everybody in our community deserves a home, a place they feel is their own, a place where they feel safe, stable, comfortable, and happy.
There is no short-term solution to Australia’s housing affordability crisis, but if we don’t start making a change now, the problem will only grow.
Because no one should have to call the streets their home.