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Female homelessness - the hidden issue

28 August 2017

Retirement Security And Housing Affordability

When you think about homelessness do you have specific images in mind? Do they include someone similar to your mother?

Homelessness for women remains largely hidden. The consequences, however, for those affected by homelessness - the women, their families, communities, the health system and the economy - are financially and socially disastrous.

Causes of homelessness are often mythologised as being due to mental illness, alcohol or substance abuse, or out of ‘choice’. The actual circumstances leading to homelessness are many and complex and may include marriage breakdown, domestic violence, changes in income and issues with employment, mortgage stress, etc. Increasingly, we are seeing increased levels of homelessness, especially among older women. (Insight SBS TV August 22, for more)

According to Dr Andrea Sharam, who has done a lot of research work in this area, homelessness is considered a male phenomenon, but Sharam continues to uncover startling revelations about female homelessness. In her 2010 paper, “A predictable crisis: older, single women as the new face of homelessness” (for more of this fascinating paper, read here), she predicted a social tsunami – one that governments continue to ignore.

Gender in homelessness has been infrequently examined, leaving government and non-government responses to the issue, especially housing and accommodation options, skewed to a point where they will not be able to cope with the looming crises. The majority of options are for men.

Sharam notes that her mother was homeless. After Sharam’s mother left her marriage, she moved in and cared for her parents – Sharam’s grandparents. Her mother’s was a state that went unrecognised for a very long time: “My mother's homelessness… is completely unrecognised because the steps she took – her adaptation – rendered her homelessness invisible.”

Sharam goes on to put forward her thoughts on why homeless single women is a crises for which we are unprepared: “A recent national study of women and housing by Tually, Beer and Faulkner (2007) used ABS demographic modelling to show that a sizeable proportion of female baby boomers are single, poor and facing significant housing insecurity. In short, the new face of homelessness will be single older women by virtue of a combination of the sheer number of women in the cohort, their poorer economic status and social changes that occurred in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. This forecast appears as a startling departure from the existing statistics. More women than men use the homelessness service system (HSS) but this reflects the response to family violence which is aimed at women. Single women (as a group distinct from those seeking assistance because of violence) receive only about 4% of the national funding for homelessness. Single women are currently but minor players in the homelessness statistics. In part the absence of single women can be explained by the historical size of this cohort, but as Tually et .al. (2007) highlight, this will shift from a trickle to a roar in the space of generation.

“Whether or not gender is a factor in homelessness is infrequently examined. Yet, we should be asking questions about why it appears that men are more likely to be homeless than women if family violence is taken out of the picture. What are the protective factors that women have, or their characteristics or behaviour, or whatever, that means they do not end up in the HSS or the street? Is there a homelessness gene that women do not have? If we understood this powerful force would we not want men to get some of it? It is a rather mind boggling idea when women's poorer socioeconomic status is taken into account. Surely, we, at least intuitively, understand that there is something wrong with this picture?”

One of the compelling theories for the hidden nature of female homelessness is partnering and re-partnering to solve the “I need a roof over my head” dilemma. Getting “romantically” involved to solve the issue is a tenuous situation at best, and if women tend to adapt to the threat of homelessness through partnering, what then becomes of those women who cannot find a partner? Do they become carers, moving in with elderly parents, couch surf or live in their cars? The lack of research leaves so many questions and no clear strategy for how to deal with the issues of single female homelessness in the future.

The Australian Common Ground Alliance, a not-for-profit housing development and management organisation, provides innovative housing opportunities for homeless people and is modelled on a concept first developed in New York. In NSW the Mercy Foundation works with various providers of accommodation and also carries out research into homelessness and ways to combat the issue under the auspices of the organisation’s model.

In 2016 Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey found that all five of Australia’s major metropolitan areas (cities with a population of more than 1 million) were 'severely unaffordable' for the 12th year in a row.

In Victoria Nightingale Housing was set up to deliver affordable multi-residential housing in cities, that's environmentally sustainable, financially affordable and socially inclusive.

Nightingale notes that most Australian cities do not have minimum design standards in apartments and many are designed not for living but as speculative financial assets.

Jessie Hochberg

Jessie Hochberg (above) is the CEO of Nightingale Housing. She explains the venture in this way: “The model is based on five features, one is capped profits, the other one is transparency, environmental sustainability and involving purchasers in the process and the last one is creating a building which gives back to the community in which it exists. So, that is different from a traditional model in a lot of ways but just on that last point, the speculative development model that so many people are concerned about, their concerns are based around the fact that often these developments exploit the value of a particular place, the culture, a feel, and sell it for private profit. And Nightingale projects try to embed their projects in the community and give back and contribute.”

A research paper on Security in Retirement: The impact of housing and key critical life events adds further fuel to the fire around homelessness.

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