Forget the stereotype, Linley Wilkie reports on the new face of homelessness - middle-aged women.
When Jenny’s partner started beating their son, she felt they had no choice but to leave. They stayed with friends for a while and eventually slept in her car. Jenny*, 48, had no job, no money and no child support.
“I felt abandoned,” she says. “It was really frightening, as I had never experienced that before. I come from a stable home, went to a private school and don’t have any dependency issues. It was the worst time emotionally.”
Constantly worrying about where they were going to live, and not eating properly, Jenny felt she had hit rock bottom.
Wesley Mission helped with food vouchers and arranged social housing in the eastern suburbs, where Jenny and her son have lived for more than a year alongside people in similar situations. “There are other kids for my son to play with,” she says. “It’s a community.”
Jenny is one of a growing number of women affected by homelessness. According to Mission Australia, about 20,000 Victorians are homeless – and about 45 per cent of them are women. Many defy the alcohol or drug stereotype and they are often blindsided by their situation.
Annette Seymour was in her late 50s when she was forced to live in her car. The single mother was living in community housing until mould in the house made her so ill that a doctor ordered her to leave immediately. She remembers wondering how her life had reached that point. ‘‘How did I end up here?’’ she thought. ‘‘I’m not stupid and I’m always prepared to help myself. How did this happen?’’
After various short-term arrangements, Seymour rented a van in a caravan park, something she had done years earlier when her sons were young. Friends would keep an eye on the boys and feed them lunch on Sundays while Seymour drove taxis. She’s also pumped petrol, towed cars and had various jobs in administration – “everything but prostitution and drug-dealing to feed them and put a roof over our heads”.
Now 71, Seymour settled in Brunswick a year ago. She lives in a comfortable apartment, neatly decorated with family photographs and colourful knick-knacks that hint at her sunny demeanour. The apartment is owned by Women’s Property Initiatives (previously Victorian Women’s Housing Association) and Seymour pays 25 per cent of her income in a subsidised rent arrangement.
Women’s Property Initiatives is the only Victorian community housing organisation that focuses solely on women. The group owns 65 apartments and houses in Melbourne, providing long-term accommodation for 173 women and their children.
The spotlight has recently been directed towards middle-aged women, who are becoming increasingly vulnerable to homelessness, mainly because of their minimal savings and the high cost of renting.
“It’s a huge growing problem and sadly it’s not going to go away any time soon,” says Seymour. ‘‘Life tends to take unexpected turns. I’m probably kidding myself, but I do try to plan ahead in life as much as I can. But things like illness can happen to anybody. It can throw your whole life out of kilter. It’s not something you can plan ahead and cover.”
Mission Australia CEO Emma Cassar agrees that middle-aged women are at increasing risk of homelessness. “We’ve got women in their 50s and 60s who, for a range of reasons, separate from their partners and aren’t financially solid in terms of their super and their benefits. Six months later, they find themselves without money and might have lost the home or can’t afford to keep the home. It’s devastating.”
Cassar says Mission Australia is considering a program aimed at older women. More recently, the organisation joined Melbourne Citymission to launch the Restart project, one of 10 the state government has rolled out as part of its four-year Homelessness Innovation Action Plan.
Cassar says the project will help house women leaving prison, among others. It aims to break the homelessness cycle by providing long-term accommodation for women and children, along with support such as mental health and trauma counselling, drug and alcohol training (if required), employment and childcare – “anything the woman needs to remain in the house and remain engaged with the community,” Cassar says. “We’re tired of seeing women on the streets. This is about providing homes and saying, ‘Here’s a home, which can be a long-term home for you’.”
Last year, the Salvation Army commissioned Swinburne University research fellow Andrea Sharam to undertake the Women and Housing Affordability Survey, after observing a rise in the number of women on Centrelink benefits with inadequate income to support them through retirement.
Of the women Sharam surveyed (all single and aged 40-plus), a third were at immediate risk of homelessness and most were at potential risk later in their lives. “I think there’s the perception that homelessness happens to poor people, or people who have issues like mental health,” Sharam says. “I don’t think people realise it’s an increasing issue affecting middle-class women.”
Sharam says that about a decade ago, housing organisations began to see a rise in single older women becoming vulnerable to homelessness. While the trend is affecting baby boomers, she says it’s not just about demographics. “Most people tend to want a partner and many of them want to have children. That’s just a kind of normal life’s course, but it doesn’t always work out,’’ says Sharam. ‘‘Fifty per cent of couples separate and it’s the woman who tends to be the one with the children. Not only are their working lives and superannuation accumulation disrupted by having children, but, when they have to look after them on their own, they don’t have the opportunity to earn as much.”
Since completing the survey, Sharam has run focus groups to determine a potential market for affordable housing, where women are the buyers but others such as
a tenant or boarder contribute to costs.
“When women were asked whether they would like the model we were proposing, they were 100 per cent unanimous that they’d really love it,” she says.
Women’s Property Initiatives CEO Jeanette Large, who spoke in October 2011 at the launch of Sharam’s Women and Housing Affordability Survey report, says a “tsunami of older women” face the prospect of homelessness. The subject is of such concern that it will be addressed at the National Housing Conference in Brisbane in November.
Large says that when a working woman doesn’t have access to affordable housing, it becomes her main priority. And if she loses her job, life takes a downward spiral. “More and more people are realising that unexpected things happen and impact on your life and not everyone is all that different,” she says. ‘‘If I didn’t have family or friends around me, I could be in exactly the same situation. Some of us have more support around us than others, that’s the bottom line. It makes such a difference, to know their kids are settled.”
Seymour has experienced this first hand. “Where do these women go? It’s all very well to say, ‘leave’,” she says. “Women will want to protect, we’re a bit like wolves with our cubs.”
Today, Jenny has a casual job as a cleaner and is working to establish a graphic design business from home. “We are getting back to a reasonably normal life,” she says. “It’s good now, but I reckon I have aged 10 years.”
Annette Seymour, who is enjoying the recent arrival of her first grandchild, feels grateful to have a stable home in Brunswick. “We need to look after the most vulnerable in our society,’’ she says. ‘‘If you put in place the enablement of affordable, secure, good housing, you create a platform for people to build on. That, to me, is creating social capital and an investment for the future.”
*Name has been changed to protect her privacy.
homeless1: homeless2: Mission Australia CEO Emma Cassar.