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Is there a homelessness gene that women do not have?

10 September 2013

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

Homelessness for women remains 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.

Common Ground, a not-for-profit housing development and management organisation conceived of and founded by Rosanne Haggerty in New York, provides innovative housing opportunities for homeless people. The Common Ground model has been successfully adapted worldwide and is at work here in Australia in Canberra.

Diane Kargas AM, a Director on the Common Ground Canberra Board notes that much has been said about homelessness in Canberra and the region over the past few years and its indicators are changing: “We are told that the chronic causes of homelessness are often: mental illness, marriage breakdown, low income and the difficulty in keeping employment, but since the GFC we are seeing a new level of poverty being housing stress.”

The Australian Common Ground Alliance found that a night’s accommodation for a homeless person in Melbourne costs:

. Common Ground $63.00

. Crisis accommodation $133.00

. Prison $276.00

. Emergency Room $439.00

. Mental Health bed $702.00

. Hospital bed $1,100.00

According to Dr Andrea Sharam, who has done a lot of research work in the space, homelessness is considered a male phenomenon, but Sharam makes some startling revelations about female homelessness and the coming social tsunami we’re facing in her 2010 paper, “A predictable crisis: older, single women as the new face of homelessness”. (For more of this fascinating paper, read here.)

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.

Sharam notes that her mother was homeless (after she left her marriage, Sharam’s mother moved in and cared for her parents), a state that went unrecognised for a very long time: “My mother's homelessness, which went on for many more years than that of my brother, is completely unrecognised because the steps she took – her adaptation – rendered her homelessness invisible. She did what women do.”

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 the women who cannot find a partner? Do they become carers, move 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.

What do you know about female homelessness? You can write, email or talk to your local and Federal member about the need to address homelessness in the community. (Common Ground Canberra asks people to give time, share marketing ideas, write stories and assist with resources, letter box drop, or simply help spread the word to others in the Canberra community.)




  • Louise Upton

    Louise Upton 6 years ago

    I find the lack of research around this issue - except for a very few papers that have been done on the issue - to be very frightening. I personally know at least a handful (five) women of varying ages, who are faces of this form of homelessness.

  • Jill Hannaford

    Jill Hannaford 6 years ago

    More research in theis area dn the area of hsousing affordability for older women would be a step in the right direction and then governments must take not of what the research tells us