It’s time for a national agenda for action to fight older women’s housing insecurity and homelessness in Australia
For more than a year now the National Older Women’s Housing and Homelessness Working Group – a coalition of housing and homelessness policy leaders, researchers and practitioners from across Australia – have been examining national policies that need change and advocating for more effective strategies so that older women (women aged 50 and over) can access affordable, safe, secure and appropriate housing and enjoy good health as they age. The Working Group was brought together by the Mercy Foundation, in recognition of compounding concerns about older women and housing insecurity.
The end product of our work, Retiring into Poverty – A National Plan For Change: Increasing Housing Security For Older Women was launched on August 23 at an event hosted by the Parliamentary Friends of Homelessness and Housing Affordability, at Parliament House in Canberra. Our work is timely because of the opportunities presented by a looming federal election. It outlines a series of reasons why a focus on older women and housing insecurity is warranted, some based on new and emerging evidence and others on well documented trends which have remained unaddressed for too long.
The reality is that older women are at greater risk of financial and housing insecurity than older men. They are also more likely to be living in poverty. These realities are linked to a number of compounding structural and systemic factors. Women in this age group today have generally not benefitted from compulsory superannuation during their working lives, were more likely to have been paid at a lower rate than their male counterparts throughout their working lives and likely to have taken time out of the paid workforce to have children and fulfil caring roles. Additionally, many older women, especially the cohort currently aged over 60, have suffered lifelong systemic discrimination in relation to past employment practices for married or pregnant women, and financial discrimination that made it impossible for many single women to enter into a home mortgage until the 1970s. Older women have limited capacity to earn additional income to buffer against increasing housing costs, housing crisis or changes impacting their life and living circumstances.
Australia’s superannuation system has not benefited women in the same way it has benefited most men. Our superannuation system was not designed for workers who move in and out of the workforce during their lives. It was not designed with women in mind. Accordingly, the superannuation system requires re-design to ensure future older women will not face financial and housing insecurity at retirement.
Older single women have emerged as the fastest growing cohort of people experiencing housing stress and homelessness. Recent Census data bears this out clearly. Between the 2011 and 2016 Censuses there was a 31% rise in homelessness amongst older women. Poverty is a key driver of homelessness for this group. In the ten years to Census 2016, there was an incredible 97% increase in the number of older women forced to rent in the private market, and at time of increasing unaffordability and instability in that market. Notably, people who do not own a home and who are living on a low income, such as a Centrelink benefit, are not able to afford to rent privately or purchase a home. This latter point is important given the National Rental Affordability Index shows a severely unaffordable private rental market for single aged pensioners and Newstart recipients. Simply, Newstart, the Age Pension and Commonwealth Rent Assistance are currently too low for older women (and other recipients) to afford housing.
Additionally, it is important to recognise that older women experience homelessness differently to men. Most will not self-identify as homeless, instead describing their situation in terms of ‘housing crisis’. Homeless women generally move from place to place often in a downhill trajectory in terms of mental and physical health as their situation becomes untenable. Alarmingly, as noted in work by Dr Maree Petersen and Dr Cameron Parsell from the University of Queensland on Older Women’s Pathways out of Homelessness in Australia (2014), most older women who are homeless have not been homeless before.
Government programs have not yet been designed to meet the needs of older women at risk of homelessness. And, among the more than 1,500 homelessness services across Australia only three are funded as specialist services for older people. The one program that is specifically funded to help this group, the Assistance with Care and Housing (ACH) Program funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health is poorly resourced and has a low profile. Aged care services are in an excellent position to assist high risk older people but assessments do not identify housing problems and they are generally not well connected to housing services.
Critically, housing is older women’s most basic need. This cannot be overstated. Provision of appropriate and long-term housing is an important health intervention; with housing an important social determinate of health. Women’s health needs generally increase as they age and are exacerbated for those women who are living in precarious housing, at risk of homelessness or who experience homelessness. Appropriate housing is the cornerstone to wellbeing, health, social participation, utilising community aged care to maintain independence and preventing premature entry into residential care. Housing must therefore be at the centre of ageing and health policy because it is central to wellbeing in later life. This need is brought into a sharper focus when considering the needs of older women experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
Older women will often not get access to priority social housing as they are usually homeless due to their low incomes, not because of having complex needs. The limited stock of good quality, safe, secure, long term, affordable housing options – including social housing options – creates considerable instability for marginalised older women. A significant increase in the supply of public and community housing is the long term solution to ‘housing crisis’.
Finally, women are disproportionately impacted by domestic and family violence and elder abuse, with clear impacts on household resources and life circumstances, including housing pathways and housing security.
The evidence and national policies reviewed for our work highlights the need for Australia and its jurisdictions to develop a tailored response that raises older women and their financial and housing insecurity to the policy forefront. Such a tailored response – what we call A National Plan For Change for Increasing Housing Security For Older Women, must include eight distinct elements. These elements are what the federal government needs to do now, with the policy and funding levers it controls, to address the unacceptable and growing number of women impacted by, or facing, housing insecurity.
1. Develop a National Housing and Homelessness Strategy that includes actions and measurable targets to create additional permanent social and affordable housing options for women in each State and Territory, and particularly for older women.
2. Implement a comprehensive Federal Government Strategy to address the current financial insecurity of older women. The strategy must review and rectify inequities in superannuation policy and legislation and examine the national income support system and Commonwealth Rent Assistance with a view to improving financial outcomes for women.
3. Special measures are required to assist women currently at retirement age who have not had the opportunity to accumulate superannuation due to lower lifetime earnings, and caring duties with the imposition this placed on superannuation contributions. Gender inequality and discrimination have to be recognised and addressed culturally and within multiple policy domains to prevent deprivation in older age for women.
4. To prevent problems for older women continuing to happen in the future (i.e. for those women who are currently younger) there needs to be a comprehensive Federal Government Strategy to address the underlying causes of gendered economic inequality. Work by the McKell Institute – Guaranteeing Women’s Super: How to Close the Gender Gap in Superannuation – offers a logical and costed way forward here to directly address the superannuation gender gap and improve the equity of the superannuation system more broadly.
5. Establish a Seniors Housing Gateway Program to better address the housing support needs of vulnerable older women. This program must include locating a central older persons housing information and support service in each capital city with state-wide reach.
6. Expand the Assistance with Care and Housing (ACH) Program both geographically and through the provision of brokerage (untied) funds at the same time as improving inter-sectoral collaboration at both State/Territory and Federal levels.
7. Ensure that National aged care policy and programs also address housing adequacy – especially for those programs that are predicated on delivering care to women in their own homes, to support women to be healthy, safe and secure in their own homes as they grow older.
8. Develop better national datasets and better data informed responses based on gendered data collection and analysis. Such datasets will inform better policy and strategy for programs that target older women and their circumstances and needs.
There is a role for all of us in addressing the life-impacting challenges facing older women in Australia. We need to demand more of those governing us. We all need to ask our elected representatives not to forget our fellow Australians who are not reaping the benefits of prosperity. Failure to respond to key social issues such as entrenched poverty, housing insecurity, homelessness and gender inequality will quite simply ensure a more unequal community, more demand for expensive interventions to assist people in crisis, and costs for individuals, families, communities and Australia that are simply unacceptable.
The paper Retiring into Poverty - A National Plan For Change: Increasing Housing Security For Older Women is available on the Mercy Foundation website at https://www.mercyfoundation.com.au/latest_news/retiring-into-poverty/.
Sources and case studies of women facing the situations described are provided in the paper.
About the author:
Dr Selina Tually is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Housing, Urban and Regional Planning at University of Adelaide. She has a PhD in Geography (Regional Economic Development) from Flinders University.
Selina’s areas of research interest include homelessness, women and housing, sustaining tenancies, disability and housing, housing policy, social inclusion and local, regional and community economic development. She has worked across these areas of interest since 2000.
Selina has written about and spoken extensively on women and housing and on homelessness and has undertaken research for a range of government and non-government agencies. She is currently the lead researcher on the research underpinning the Adelaide Zero Project: an ambitious person-centred system reform project to end street sleeping in the Adelaide inner city. She is also part of a research team investigating social housing pathways for the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute and has been involved in a number of research projects for AHURI over more than a decade.
Membership of the National Older Women’s Housing and Homelessness Working Group
Felicity Reynolds, CEO, Mercy Foundation (National, based in New South Wales)
Jeanette Large, CEO, WPI (Victoria)
Dr Maree Petersen, Academic, The University of Queensland (Queensland)
Dr Alice Clark, CEO, Shelter SA (South Australia)
Karyn Walsh, CEO, Micah Projects Inc. (Queensland)
Jeff Fiedler, National Development Worker, Housing for the Aged Action Group (Victoria)
Frances Crimmins, CEO, YWCA Canberra (Australian Capital Territory)
Dr Selina Tually, Academic, The University of Adelaide (South Australia)
Gloria Sutherland, Women’s health researcher, The University of Notre Dame (Western Australia)
Sally Kingdon Barbosa, CEO, Midland Women’s Health Care Place (Western Australia)
Debbie Georgopoulos, CEO, Women’s Housing Company (New South Wales)
Helen Dalley-Fisher, Manager, Equality Rights Alliance (National - based in Australian Capital Territory)
National Older Women’s Housing and Homelessness Working Group
Contact: Dr Selina Tually, Centre for Housing, Urban and Regional Planning, The University of Adelaide - mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
 A philanthropic organisation with national reach focussed on ending homelessness in Australia.
 Note: the Group has restricted its work and advocacy to issues that are the responsibility and remit of the Federal Government; issues of national relevance and for national action.