By Christine Kent
There are more homeless women than homeless men in Australia, yet we know very little about them. The public image of the homeless is still drunk old men sleeping on park benches, but research shows that a mere 6% of the homeless are living on the streets. The rest are living, hidden from public view, in insecure, impermanent, unsuitable, overcrowded and often unsafe places. They have a temporary roof over their heads but not a home. Increasing numbers of women are living this way, so who are these women and how can they be helped?
What do homeless women look like?
Homeless women are mostly single women who look like everyone else
45% of single women over 45 are earning the minimum wage or less and all of these are either already homeless or at risk of homelessness, as the minimum wage is no longer able to pay the lowest rentals. 330,000 women fall into this category.
You will see child care workers, primary school teachers, secondary school teachers and even TAFE and university teachers amongst the ranks of homeless women. You will see nurses and allied health professionals. You will see all manner of office and clerical support staff, retail workers, restaurant workers. You will even see highly skilled IT and other corporate workers. You will see many women who have been sick or disabled, and you will see many women who have been used and abused by the man in their lives.
Very few are mentally ill before they become homeless, and very few are sleeping on park benches. Very few are criminals. Very few are professional beggars. They are mostly perfectly ordinary white collar workers or pensioners.
Why are single women too poor to afford housing?
Women are routinely underpaid
Women’s work is routinely underpaid compared to men’s work. The lowest paid roles in our economy are the care-giving roles, which are either unpaid or underpaid. And women still do the bulk of the care-giving work. They may have been employed all their lives, or they may have stayed out of the workforce to care for others, but, at the end of the day, they are not paid well enough or consistently enough to accumulate savings, save house deposits, pay off mortgages, or build up good superannuation balances.
Women’s work is increasingly casualised
Low paid jobs, particularly women’s roles, are becoming increasingly casualised. Workers in casual jobs have no security of employment, and no secure number of hours in a week. They may accumulate some superannuation, but not enough. Most importantly, they cannot take out loans as they do hot have a secure income and cannot guarantee repayment of a mortgage. They may even struggle to consistently pay rent as income fluctuates. So casualised workers cannot invest in houses, no matter what their hourly rate, and may default on rent.
Women are increasingly victim to age and gender discrimination in the workforce
Workplace discrimination against women is still rife, and that multiplies as the woman ages. If she is not safe and secure in a permanent role by the time she is 40, she is very unlikely to gain a safe and secure permanent role after that age. The combination of gender discrimination and age discrimination will make it increasingly likely that she has to take low paid casualised work as she ages. This also applies to women who have been highly paid in the corporate contract economy. The hourly rate may be high, but the annual income diminishes yearly as she ages.
Women walk away from relationships leaving assets behind
When women leave a relationship, they all too often walk away without their fair share of their accumulated wealth. They often find themselves with half the house and no share of their partner’s superannuation. Even if they get the value of half the house, if they are not able to obtain secure high paid work, they are unable to get a loan to either pay their partner out or purchase another house. They are not earning enough to pay a mortgage. If they want to dispute their settlement, they are often not earning enough to pay the legal fees.
Abused women walk away from relationships with nothing
This situation is made much worse if the partner is violent or if there are children to protect. Women who escape physical abuse will often be further endangered if they pursue their partner for their fair share of the assets. They frequently leave the relationship with nothing and are just relieved that he is not pursuing them. They are often traumatised and unable to deal with the additional stress of legal disputes.
And why is the social safety net not catching them?
The safety net has ceased to offer safety
We live in a culture which prides itself on having a safety net to catch those who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in serious trouble. We still implicitly believe, as a culture, that we are benevolent, and that every worthy person will be helped when they really need help. This is no longer the case. The safety net is no longer functioning as it was designed, and particularly for the “worthy”, who have no idea how to exploit the system. The various welfare options designed to catch everyone who falls are now shot through with serious holes, the most serious of which is that welfare payments can no longer pay for the most basic housing.
Single women are most at risk. Many women who have managed their affairs perfectly well, can no longer pay rent. They went through a time of moving from houses to flats, from flats to studios, from studios to converted garages and sheds, and from sheds to various forms of temporary accommodation, and finally to rooms in boarding houses or other overcrowded dwellings, where they are subject to ongoing daily bullying. And far too many of these women are old women.
Massive inflation of house prices has caught everyone out
The massive inflation of house purchase prices, flows through to rentals. Rentals are set at around $100 for every $100,000 of worth on a property. Once it was possible for those on minimum wage, on unemployment benefits or the age or disability pension to pay that price. Now it is not. Pensions have remained pretty much stable, while house sale prices and the associated rents have sky-rocketed.
If these women are not being housed, where are they hiding out?
Homeless women have devised a range of options to keep a roof over their heads …
However, most of these options require them to be fit, healthy and emotionally strong.
- They couch surf with friends and family, often thinking that they are not really homeless and will find somewhere soon. When they do not find somewhere soon they find themselves running out of friends who will accommodate them.
- They may house-sit, moving from house to house every few weeks.
- If they have some money, they often buy some kind of mobile home, a truck or van they can sleep in, and hit the road, going around the free campsites, meeting up with other women for safety.
- They may take rooms in boarding houses, or take a room in a share house with strangers, where they can be bullied at will.
- If they are very lucky they might find an old caravan in a run down caravan park they can afford.
- Some go overseas and live in third world countries.
- Some volunteer for Australian Volunteers Abroad,where the stipend is better than an Australian pension.
- Some of the younger and fitter, volunteer to work on organic farms through schemes like Wwoofers & HelpX, in return for food and accommodation.
- Some even sign on for courses so that they can gain student accommodation.
… but these solutions are all short-term or insecure
All these options are temporary and some are unsafe or abusive. Women following these options have no form of tenancy rights or protection, and often find themselves having to be obedient to unreasonable house rules. This lifestyle is not sustainable over the long term and can only be considered while longer term solutions become available. However, longer terms solutions are not becoming available.
Surely the housing providers are helping homeless women?
Homeless women are not getting the help they need from public and social housing providers
The public housing waiting lists are so long now that anyone applying for public or community housing must be a priority case to make their way up the list. To make themselves a priority case they must be able to show that they are incompetent for mental or physical health reasons. It is no longer enough to be at risk. It is no longer enough to be old. And even when a person gets themselves placed on the priority housing list, they may still languish for several years before suitable accommodation becomes available.
Without a mental or physical illness, or currently being in severe danger, they will not make it onto the priority list and never progress up the waiting list. This is particularly important for single people as the bulk of the national estate of housing is family houses, and there is little accommodation available that is identified as suitable for singles (studio or one bedroom).
After a few years of living in fear, physical and/or mental health inevitably do collapse and the woman may then get help, but no guarantees. For these women, mental health issues result from homelessness; they do not cause it.
There are few projects around the country targeted at housing women, who are merely vulnerable, in safe, secure, long term housing.
So what help do under-financed women need?
Women need housing solutions that provide safety and privacy
Housing solutions, such as they are, do not take into account women’s needs. When housed, women’s highest need is the combination of privacy and safety. Place a woman in a block of flats with substance abusers and she has no safety, place her in a converted motel room or caravan park and she has no privacy. Without privacy, she can be watched and if she can be watched she can be stalked, and harassed, so even if she can lock her door, she still feels unsafe when she walks outside.
The greatest danger to homeless women is homeless men. This is a strong statement, but unfortunately true.
When women are empowered to find and manage their own accommodation, they instinctively find themselves somewhere to live that offers both privacy and safety, and away from substance abusing men. Housing providers are not so sensitive to women’s need for safety, and randomly place both substance abusing men and “clean” women, from the waiting lists, into housing that is neither private nor safe.
Women are disproportionately at risk of sexual harassment and physical or sexual abuse. Homeless women are far more vulnerable than homeless men, and must be catered for as a priority.
New affordable housing must be designed with women’s needs in mind
Women need tailor-made affordable housing, with safety and privacy designed in, and in addition, stability and community. This is a design issue, not a cost issue. Housing suitable for women (which also suits men) does not need to cost any more, but safety, privacy, stability and community do have to be designed in from the start.
Surely housing solutions are already being implemented?
Unfortunately we do not seem to know what problem we are solving
There is much discussion about affordable housing, but the discussion is largely muddled and ill-informed. There is no agreement on what problem we are solving, let alone what is required to solve it, so little action of any meaningful kind is being taken.
There are at least four aspects to this problem:
- We have to identify and fix the root economic cause or causes of homelessness, which means re-aligning house prices with incomes.
- We have to take a fresh look at gender inequality in employment and how it is leading to increasing levels of female homelessness.
- We have to pay attention to tenancy law and protect good tenants from bad landlords
- We have to create interim programs to house the existing homeless in suitable accommodation.
We have to identify and address the root economic cause of the mis-alignment of incomes and house prices …
We need a long-term national strategy to re-align house prices with wages. There are many suggestions for how this can be achieved, that I am not equipped to discuss here. Suffice it to say that we need a national strategy that addresses the reason that house prices have left the low paid behind. Any measures that do not cause house prices and wages to re-align are pointless in the long term.
Our governments have allowed house prices to outstrip incomes, and our governments have to fix it. However, this is a long term problem that will take time to turn around, and in the meantime, people have to be housed.
We have to take a fresh look at gender inequality in employment …
We also need to take a fresh look at all the sexism and gender discrimination issues in Australia that have led to Australian women being significantly financially disadvantaged compared to men, and so more vulnerable to homelessness in mature age. The expected improvement in women’s financial security has not eventuated and we need to know why.
We have to pay attention to tenancy law and protect good tenants from bad landlords …
Anyone who has rented knows that rental provisions designed to protect good landlords from bad tenants permit massive abuse of good tenants. The entire tenancy system must be reviewed. There are some good models overseas that support long-term tenancy, with tenants able to expect long term tenure, and the right to decorate and keep pets. The need for a sweeping review of the rental system is urgent, so that good tenants, particularly older people, who find moving house increasingly difficult and costly, do not become victim to bad landlords.
… and in the meantime we have to house those who are currently homeless
The current conversation about housing solutions tends to focus on programs for one demographic at a time. However, there are many different demographics whose needs are quite different. One size does not fit all.
Old men on park benches
Most of the conversation is about old men on park benches, who need supported accommodation options while they recover their physical or mental health, and care until they identify themselves as ready to live unsupported.
Young couples “on the up”
Some of the conversation is about young couples getting their first mortgage who are not currently homeless. These young couples are “on the up,” and can expect to increase their earnings over time. They need support getting into the currently inflated home ownership market. For this group, “affordable housing” is new housing entering the market at below market value, and there are government programs to require developers to sell a percentage of new developments at 75% of market value.
Once this kind of “affordable housing” has sold, it can be re-sold at market value. So it is effectively a one-off bonus for a young couple who are well enough off to be able to afford current rentals and to save a house deposit. They were never homeless. This kind of subsidy to create “affordable housing” will not reduce current levels of homelessness.
Those on pensions and benefits whose finances cannot be expected to improve
Very little of the conversation is about solutions for those on low incomes and who simply need secure rental at prices they can afford. This group comprises older people or sick people, and mothers with school age children, who cannot expect to increase their earnings over time. This group needs support to find permanent, secure rental housing, or entry pathways into ownership that can be maintained on a low income.
This kind of “affordable housing” is the traditional public or community housing, with rentals set at 35% of income. This option provides permanent housing for those on fixed low incomes, at a fixed percentage of that income. Or at least it used to. The national estate of this kind of housing has been reducing over many years, while the population has been growing, so it is not keeping pace with the existing need of it’s traditional demographic. We need to build more suitable public housing, with security of tenure, to bring the ratio of public housing to private housing back to it’s earlier and more optimum levels, sufficient to house those who are dependent on welfare payments. This alone might require as much as 50,000 new residences, and would be a massive building commitment in it’s own right, but for which there is currently no political will.
If the proportion of households in social housing (4.8% in 2006) had been maintained through to 2016 (when 4.3% of all households lived in social housing) then an extra 49,302 households would have been living in social housing. [Percentage of Australian households in social housing, 2006 to 2016]
The new homeless
None of the conversation is about the new homeless, those who have traditionally housed themselves until they were priced out of the housing market simply and only because their income has not kept pace with house price inflation. This is by far the largest contingent of the currently homeless and it is being completely left out of the conversation.
Public and community housing cannot and should not be expected to cater for the new homeless demographic. For this group we need new rental arrangements that create both accessible rents and security of tenure for rental tenants.
It is critically important that those who have been independent all their lives are able to remain independent, and the public housing systems does not allow that. The process is humiliating, and almost all right of choice is removed. It is bad policy to force otherwise self-managing adults into a dependent relationship with the state when they would rather remain independent.
Our governments have allowed this problem to develop to it’s current crisis level, and our governments must accept that they have the responsibility to fix our broken economic system; a system that is creating increasing levels of welfare dependency in a demographic that has, until the last few years, managed their own affairs.
We need a crisis response!
This is a national emergency that requires a nationally coordinated crisis response
We are currently in a crisis that has been brought about by economic mismanagement. Uncontrolled speculative house price inflation is endemic globally, and is the responsibility of national governments, not the individuals who have been caught in an unbalanced economy. Faulty economic management has thrown perfectly able and responsible citizens out of house and home.
Those people who have been rendered homeless for economic rather than personal reasons need safe housing, while the government sorts out the economic mismatch between house prices and incomes. Provision must be made to house the 200,000 households currently on the public housing waiting lists, and for those being added to the lists daily.
There is enough existing housing for everyone: it’s just not affordable
In a nation that has 300,000 speculative vacancies (empty homes not used in a 12 month period, identified by zero water use), 89,863 houses rented through Airbnb alone, and massive numbers of caravan and cabin parks for tourists, this should not be hard to do. All that is lacking is the will to do it.
Do we care that this country
has turned single women and mothers into
refugees in their own land?
Do we care that women and children fleeing violence are forced to return to their tormentors because they cannot find long-term affordable housing? Do we care that old women who have contributed a lifetime of care-giving to this country are sleeping, terrified, alone and in pain, in their cars?
Let’s make this the major election issue in every state and federal election from now on. The only way we will get action is if one of the two main parties is guaranteed to lose the next election if they cannot present a fully costed and budgeted program to provide housing safety for all at-risk women and children within 12 months of being elected — and all men within two years. We have the numbers. We just have to get the message out there and get ourselves mobilised.
This article was originally published on Housing Alternatives (for women).