MARG’S NORTH BRISBANE townhouse looks innocuous from the outside. But when she ushers me inside, the chaos of her interior world becomes evident. Boxes and baskets overflow with clothes, paper, fabric and books. They line the corridor, mass on kitchen benches, cover the dining table and fringe the two sofas in the living room. Marg describes her home as ‘disorganised’, which she explains as a ‘downside of depression, unemployment and housing instability’. Newstart payments leave her with $11.70 a fortnight to live on after paying $690 in rent. ‘If my sons weren’t helping me, I think I would have become homeless by now,’ she says.
Fifty-five-year-old Marg is part of a growing cohort of single women over fifty who encounter housing instability for the first time later in life. They are women who held jobs and cared for children and sometimes parents; most had married or partnered. They had rented – and often owned – a home. However, after a lifetime of gender-based discrimination, events such as a health problem, a relationship breakdown or loss of a job can lead to the brink of homelessness.
According to the 2016 census, older women are the fastest growing cohort among the homeless, with a rise of 31 per cent in five years. In addition to the 6,866 older women identified nationally as homeless, a further 5,820 were deemed to be in marginal housing and at risk of homelessness. Some, like Marg, are paying unaffordable rents; some are house-sitting; others are tucked away in share houses, disused motel rooms and worn-out caravans.
These women are not easy to locate; many have little or no involvement with homeless support services. They prefer to stay under the radar, disguising their ‘almost homeless’ status in a bid to stave off a stigmatised identity. When people ask Natalie, fifty-four, where she lives, she refuses to answer. ‘It’s none of their beeswax,’ she says. Her ‘home’ is a twenty-square-metre room in an otherwise deserted motel in Tweed Heads. ‘It’s rubbish, absolute rubbish,’ she says. ‘It’s been neglected for years.’
While there’s a rich history of ethnography in the field of homelessness, most of it is based on informants living on the street or in homeless shelters. Marg and Natalie are among thirty women who took part in ethnographic fieldwork I undertook in 2019 that captured the experience of a ‘still housed’ cohort of women, the hidden nature of which has contributed to a limited understanding of their pathway to later-life homelessness. The field site for this work was the 250-kilometre strip of Australia’s east coast between the New South Wales Northern Rivers and Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, a ‘sea-change’ destination for some.
IN HER PREVIOUS life, Natalie owned a house with her first husband; later, she ran a business with her second husband. She did not spend her life preparing for the moment she would be rendered homeless. ‘Business, a family, mortgage, a couple of good cars and a holiday every year and you don’t think, “God I’m going to be homeless in twenty years, what should I do?”’ she says.
The downhill trajectory for these later-life entrants into the realm of homelessness leaves them with the sense that they have ‘lost out’ in terms of the normative life course in Australia’s homeowner society. They don’t hold out any hope of home ownership at this stage of their lives. ‘Even if I could earn more money, I probably wouldn’t be able to get a loan or anything for housing,’ says Natalie, whose only income is a Disability Support Pension.
Most of the women disclosed mental health problems, including clinical depression and anxiety. Many are also dealing with physical illness: in the majority of cases, autoimmune conditions that struck them down severely, took a long time to stabilise, and will flare up episodically for the rest of their lives. Natalie suffers from Hashimoto’s disease, a thyroid condition that ‘affects everything’. She describes herself as clinically depressed, with ‘these health shackles around me the whole time’.
In It could be you: Female, single, older and homeless (2010), a significant Australian study funded by an alliance of homelessness services, Ludo McFerran concludes that gender is missing in discussions of the ageing population and growing homelessness. The gendered pay gap, which stands at 17.3 per cent between men and women for a full-time base salary, combines with women’s superannuation deficit of 58 per cent of their male counterparts’ to prevent single older women from achieving home ownership and adequate superannuation.
Data from the 2016 census shows that 18 per cent of single older women are renting in the private market, with 45 per cent of them spending more than a third of their income on rent (spending above 30 per cent on housing is regarded as unaffordable). For women with limited financial means, such as those on Newstart, a Disability Support Pension or the Age Pension – all of which have stagnated over the past two decades – this can quickly tip into a housing crisis.
Single older women do not usually experience homelessness in the stereotypical ‘rough sleeping’ way. After decades of ‘getting by’ in the private rental market, firstly as sole parents and later in single-person households reliant on casual employment, many have cultivated an ability to remain housed, no matter how unsuitably. ‘I could make myself literally homeless if I challenged my substandard illegal housing, as the landlords would not bother to fix it,’ says Natalie. ‘But I am not willing to rock that boat.’
Divorce, separation and being a single parent are contributing factors to entering later life without assets. Karly, sixty-five, who bounces between share houses and housesitting, spent her property settlement making up for the deficit in the Parenting Payment while bringing up her daughter. ‘Look at it this way, you give your child a life because you can’t on the single-parent pension unless you’re a wizard,’ she says.
Despite the various forms of makeshift or precarious housing these women hold fast to, they struggle with feelings of loneliness and social exclusion. A sense of insecurity and compounded loss permeates the lives of single older women with no place to call home. While remaining sheltered in a physical sense, they are feeling emotionally traumatised because of their proximity to homelessness. Marg’s precarious housing situation contributes to her feelings of loneliness and depression. Her townhouse is indisputably unaffordable for her, but she feels trapped by the costs of moving: ‘Most days I just sit here and cry,’ she says.
Gabbi, fifty, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, lives on Newstart in a caravan with her dog. ‘I think I’m always going to be a slip-between-the-cracks kind of girl,’ she says. ‘I’m not quite hopeless and destitute enough to get the level of help the destitute, hopeless people can get. I’m not quite successful enough to do it on my own.’ She recently posted her weekly $35 grocery shop on social media, presenting her straitened circumstances as ‘the life of a minimalist’. At the top of her list was ‘Two packets of pre-cut stir-fry vegetables, rice and soya sauce’, which will make four dinners. At the end of the list, she concludes: ‘I’ve worked out that my limited selection of easy-to-make-in-a-caravan dinners cost on average $2 a night. I am the QUEEN of the $2 dinners!’
MANY OF THE women expressed a strong preference for living alone, an objective often thwarted by their dependence on income support payments. Those living alone were either spending most of their income on accommodation, such as Marg, or existing in uncomfortable settings, such as Natalie. Newstart, in particular, renders women almost unable to live alone. Using the widely accepted ‘30 per cent maximum allowance for affordability’ leaves between $150 and $200 available for rent. According to Anglicare Australia’s most recent Rental Affordability Snapshot (April 2019), of the 69,485 properties listed nationally for rent on 23 March 2019, 552 were affordable and suitable for a single on the Age Pension, 317 for a single on a Disability Support Pension and just two for a single on Newstart. In conclusion, Anglicare Australia’s Executive Director Kasy Chambers states that ‘the Australian dream – a place to call home – has become a nightmare for many renters’.
For most of the women I spoke to, sharing could result in living in a better location with improved facilities – plus money left over for other expenses. However, many of them were ‘dancing around’ the decision to share. They were avoiding the prospect, even when it struck them as inevitable.
Zoe, fifty-seven, is currently housesitting interstate after spending three months in a homeless shelter (the maximum allowable), twelve months in transitional housing and then a year in an unaffordable two-bedroom unit. ‘I don’t like the idea of sharing, but I feel like I’ve been chasing rainbows for so long,’ she says. ‘We’re all damaged to a greater extent than normal wear and tear. And we’re wary, and we’re scared, and we’re frightened…and we find it hard to trust people, reach out or let people in.’
When faced with no alternative but to share, many turn to a clutch of regionally based private Facebook groups open only to older women looking for, and offering, affordable accommodation. The woman behind these groups is Alex, a sixty-nine-year-old former community worker and single parent. These are not run-of-the-mill renting or house-sharing groups; they have a specific purpose ‘to help women connect so that they can organise share accommodation’ in order to avoid homelessness. Alex began three and a half years ago with the Gold Coast group and now facilitates twenty groups across much of the country. ‘It’s doing a job – there are around 6,000 members,’ she says. Alex’s vision is to foster ‘intentional sharing’, which she defines as house shares that allow women to feel that they ‘truly are equal partners in their own home’.
IF MOST OF these women are waiting for social housing, this is also something of an impossible proposition for them. The effects of decades of government underinvestment and undeclared policies favouring the roofless mean that single older women in marginal housing can face long waits, often longer than their expected life spans. (Natalie was told that the wait time in her area for social housing is approximately thirty years.) For these women, ‘priority housing’ is the nirvana, as it can decrease social housing wait times down to two years or fewer if particular requirements are met. Natalie has applied for priority housing twice – her paperwork was lost the first time, and she was declined the second. ‘The wording in the letter they sent me was something along the lines of: “We deem that there is affordable housing out there for you.” I wrote back to them. I said: “Please show me where this affordable housing is because I can’t find it.”’
Only one of these women has been officially categorised as homeless, though her living conditions were similar to several others. Shelly, sixty-seven, was living in a caravan with her small dog on an acreage just outside Nerang, on the northern fringes of the Gold Coast, when I met her. Three months later, she showed me through the social housing unit that she now calls home. Her housing support caseworker had ‘prioritised’ her housing needs.
And despite their commitment to the long wait for social housing, many have serious reservations about it. Janet, sixty-four, is among them: she lives alone in a unit in Brisbane. In 2018, after she suffered a stroke and spent six months on a Centrelink Sickness Allowance, she only managed to hang onto her long-term unit with the assistance of a loan from her adult son. ‘If I wasn’t supported by my son, I would have been evicted,’ she says.
Now back at work at a university three days a week, she has put her name on the social-housing list, realising that her post-stroke disability is ‘slowing her down’ and she may not be able to continue teaching for much longer. However, the stories of dysfunction in social housing that are regularly circulated by the media have made Janet ‘terrified’ about the prospect. ‘It really worries me that I’ll end up somewhere where there’s a whole crowd of drinkers, or abusive people,’ she says.
None of the choices confronting single older women in marginal housing appeals to them. These women are already reeling from their inability to embrace the normative life course experienced by those entering their senior years – perhaps as a doting grandmother or a semi-retiree with the resources to pursue leisure activities and travel. Their housing stress adds another layer of social exclusion.
ROS, FIFTY-FIVE, LIVES in an old 1960s bus in a nudist retreat in the backwaters of the Sunshine Coast. Suffering from chronic illness, she exists quietly and uncertainly on a Disability Support Pension with two dogs, two cats and a guinea pig. ‘I’ve got the whole crazy cat lady stuff going on in here,’ she says with a laugh.
Five years ago, when she found herself at the very edge of homelessness, Ros came up with an innovative way to feel somewhat at home. After spending eighteen months in bed with a debilitating autoimmune condition brought on by contracting Ross River fever while travelling around Australia with her three children a decade earlier, she withdrew some of her scant superannuation to buy a bus:
When I went off travelling around Australia with the children, we developed a relatively close relationship. We all worked as a team, whereas before it was always Mum shouting: ‘Get your socks on, pack these, clean that, do the dishes, get on the school bus.’ It changed the dynamic. I looked back at that and I started to think about what a wonderful experience we had as a family.
In early 2019, the bus failed its registration and became a stationary dwelling rather than a mobile home. ‘I’ve been quite depressed about not being able to travel,’ Ros says. The bus, parked in the nudist retreat for $550 a year, is now an ‘unhomely’ burden for her.
Ros spends her days applying for affordable housing in semi-rural locations. ‘Once they see that I’m on a pension, a lot of the real estate agents don’t go any further,’ she says. Then there’s the problem of her pets. The few houses Ros has qualified for have been disappointing – isolated and in poor repair. But, as cultural geographer Emma Power claims in ‘Renting with Pets: A pathway to housing insecurity?’, poor-quality housing is more likely to be pet friendly.
Like many, Ros relies on her pets for companionship. Living in her caravan, Gabbi claims that her dog, now certified as an Assistance Dog, has ‘saved her life’: ‘She licks my tears when I cry and snuggles me when I feel sad…she doesn’t judge me because I’m homeless and not “successful”.’
Ros and Gabbi both know that it is not the location that makes a place feel like ‘home’. A home is much more than a physical shelter – it is a setting in which people feel secure and centred, a place where they feel a sense of belonging. Single older women on the edge of homelessness are carving out their own sense of home, even while feeling extraordinarily out of place.
ALTHOUGH ALL THESE women are mothers, they cannot rely upon the support of their adult children when they enter housing instability. Asked about the prospect of living with their adult children, some were horrified, while others dismissed it on practical grounds. Janet ‘desperately wishes’ she was near her son in Sydney and hopes to live with him and his family one day. But she admits there are ‘no guarantees about those things’. Like many of these women, she doesn’t want to be a burden on her child.
Natalie doesn’t think her son would want her to live with him: ‘His life is probably not as stable as what it should be either,’ she says. Since her interview, Natalie’s son has become homeless himself, and spent a few nights with his mother in her motel room, sleeping in a swag on the floor.
Some women choose not to reveal the severity of their situation to their children. Karly believes that her daughter, who’s in her late twenties, would help her if she asked for it. ‘But I don’t share my worries,’ she says. ‘She sees me as fairly confident and competent. She thinks, “Mum will deal with it.”’
Janet felt a ‘mixture of embarrassment and relief’ when her son loaned her money after her stroke. ‘Relief that he is able to help, embarrassment that I need to ask him,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to ask him again, as they’ve just had a second child.’
Residing in a space where their social networks are thinned or sometimes severed also deters these women from disclosing their housing status. Friends and family often withdraw at the point where the need for support becomes most apparent. ‘It’s almost like people think poverty is contagious,’ says Zoe.
But the internet has provided a platform for community. Membership of virtual communities on Facebook affords these women a freedom to speak up without being dominated by their ‘almost homeless’ identity. ‘It can get depressing to read about others’ circumstances,’ Zoe says. ‘But it can be uplifting when people are supporting each other. We need a reminder that humans are good and kind.’
Single older women have lately emerged as a cause célèbre for small-scale investors and atypical developers. As the number of women in need increases, the cohort represents a sizeable target market. Housing entrepreneurs, such as new-age boarding-house promoters, are targeting this group, often scaffolding their projects with a charitable overlay; other development proposals involve communities of tiny houses, a housing movement that has evolved on the back of housing unaffordability, particularly in regional areas. For many, neither tiny houses nor boarding houses appeal as solutions to their housing needs, but they are open to new approaches. The model some are drawn to is cohousing. Defined as a form of community living that contains a mix of private and communal spaces – with a garden featuring prominently – cohousing has been an alternative housing model for seniors in northern Europe for decades.
The cohousing model can be attractive because it prioritises a sense of community over other aspects of housing tenure. In fact, it could provide the ultimate network for single older women. But cohousing is a relatively uncharted form of tenure in Australia. While offering a potential alternative for ageing homeowners who wish to downsize without moving into an apartment, a retirement village or a mobile home estate, it will need to receive government subsidies if it is to cater for low-income renters.
DESPITE THE PARTICULAR challenges faced by single older women in the private rental market, there is no smooth pathway for them into social housing. In most cases, they fail to access priority status because their housing stress is due to low incomes, not complex needs. The 2018 National Older Women’s Housing and Homelessness Working Group report claims that single older women are thrice marginalised: ‘they are marginalised in the private rental market, marginalised in the social and affordable housing markets, and even marginalised in the homelessness services sector.’
As the population ages, there is growing evidence that we are facing a ‘generational tsunami’ of single older women in housing stress, prompting research and rhetoric from governments and the homelessness services sector. Most conclude that a focus on prevention and early intervention is needed for those at risk of homelessness. But this is not occurring. Rather, the cohort is ‘disappearing’ further into the gap between suitable housing and homelessness. In ‘Older Single Women at Risk of Homelessness in WA: Invisible, silent and well-behaved’ (2017), Western Australian homelessness advocate Liz Lennon draws a parallel with a public health crisis:
If it was predicted that more than 500,000 people in Australia would be severely impacted by ebola or swine flu over the next 20 years we would see a government, private and public sector response that was integrated, coordinated, collaborative, innovative and hugely well-funded.
Until recently, the hidden nature of single older women in marginal housing has made it easy for policymakers to ignore them. Now that many of them are networking online, they can contribute to public debate. Media can source their opinions and academics can interact with them. Their online communication is also having a politicising effect on them as they grow accustomed to debating issues.
Single older women in marginal housing are ready to help government and the housing support sector comprehend the issues they face. These women are a powerful force with a deep understanding of how it feels to enter, navigate and effect change in this borderland between adequate housing and homelessness. If their experience is attended to and their insights acknowledged, the generational tsunami of single older women in housing stress may be averted.
Note: Some names in this essay have been changed.
Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) 2019. Older women’s risk of homelessness: Exploring a growing problem. April 2019. Sydney. https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/age-discrimination/publications/older-womens-risk-homelessness-background-paper-2019
Power. E. (2017). ‘Renting with pets: a pathway to housing insecurity?’, Housing Studies, 32, 3, pp. 336-360.