News & Events

Homelessness and older women

August 28, 2017

Last week’s Insight on SBS on older women becoming the new face of homelessness in Australia was compelling watching.

We heard from Sharon Bedson who once had a six-figure salary and investment properties only to lose it all and now lives in transition housing with nine other women; Doris Perkin who had a hairdressing business which went under after two floods and fire and who now lives between her two children; and Kath Reynders who has had limited job opportunities after being injured in a car accident and who now lives in her car.

Homelessness among older women is growing worse, and yet it remains a hidden problem largely because women do not sleep on the street. Instead they live with family or friends or in cars.

As CEO of the Old Colonists’ Association of Victoria (OCAV), I regularly hear similar stories to those seen on Insight. OCAV was founded almost 150 years ago through a gift of land from the first government of Victoria and by a group of prominent Melburnians who wanted to ensure that older Victorians in need had somewhere secure and affordable to live, support when and if they needed it, and a community in which they felt engaged.

Today around half of our current residents once lived in insecure, inadequate or inappropriate housing such as private rental, public housing, or with family or friends before moving into an OCAV village. Seventy nine per cent of our residents are women, and 81 per cent of these women were single when they moved into OCAV. Only 39 per cent of the female OCAV residents owned their home before moving into OCAV, with 45 per cent in private rentals.

Like Sharon, Christine and Kath, many of our women residents had led conventional lives, rented while working and raising family, and had not used welfare or support systems. The housing provided by OCAV enables our residents to avoid homelessness at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives and to continue to lead independent, fulfilling lives.

I know from talking to our residents in Berwick, North Fitzroy, Euroa and St Helena that there are many complex reasons, mostly deeply structural, that turn once relatively well-off lives around and into homelessness.

These include taking time out of the workforce to have children or care for an elderly parent; having insufficient savings/superannuation to fund the costs of living, the death of an income earning partner, poor health, separation or divorce, and family violence. Indeed, as the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports at 38 per cent of people requiring homelessness services did so due to family violence in 2015.

Then there is the vexatious issue of housing affordability. Even for those of us who work, the one-time guarantee of owning a home is becoming less certain. In five of Australia’s eight states and territories, housing affordability was said to be the most common reason for accessing homelessness services.

I agree with many of the viewers and people participating in Insight that a national campaign is needed to shine a light on older women’s homelessness but the focus must be on action not awareness raising. We know the issue exists. There is no reason for any woman, or any man, to be homeless in Australia.

In my view, and as head of an effective retirement village and aged care provider, I believe that there needs to be more choice around affordable retirement living, especially choice that does not involve ownership but leasing/rental models that provide long term security.

OCAV operates a distinct financial model which was established by its founders. It involves government gifting land and philanthropic and corporate input into building pleasant accommodation suitable for older people. Embedded in the model is the commitment to provide approximately 50 per cent of housing to residents who cannot afford to contribute a one-off, means-tested contribution on entry. Our model works, and it is sustainable.

Solving homelessness is not impossible but it does require a change in attitude as well as funding for a range of choices, including retirement living.

 

"I love the fact that Rushall Park residents and volunteers are so active – contributing to life in the village. The sense of the community is strong which is why I put my name on the waiting list" - Maggie Birkett.

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