Retirement can seem a pretty abstract idea to a young woman in the workforce. I have to admit that until recently I’ve been rather optimistic about my “older” years, naively presuming I will live in my own home, using my hard-earned superannuation to fund a comfortable life.
Living in poverty is not part of my golden plan, but when you consider that unprecedented numbers of older, single women are experiencing a housing crisis, my vision for the future is rose-coloured to say the least.
While there are different pathways to homelessness for older women, such as inter-generational poverty or a history of ongoing housing disruption, what we are currently witnessing is a cohort of “conventional” women who are experiencing a housing crisis later in life.
These are women we all know: they have been in the workforce, raised families and contributed to their communities as volunteers. Despite being part of a generation who have benefitted from the right to work, they are in a financially vulnerable position.
The gender pay gap means women not only take home less pay than their male counterparts, they accrue less superannuation and savings. We can expect to earn about $700,000 less over a lifetime than men, and retire with half as much superannuation. If a woman takes extended time out of the workforce to have children, she has even less financial stability.
And, as Project Coordinator for Equality Rights Alliance (ERA) Hannah Gissane explains, it can take just one trigger for a woman to find herself in a very precarious housing situation.
‘That’s the thing for a lot of older women, it could be a job loss, it could be a relationship breakdown, illness or acquiring a disability,’ she says.
‘These are the sort of shocks in life that we should be able to weather but because these women are financially on the precipice, it can spell homelessness or really severe housing stress.’
In their joint 2015 submission to the Senate Standing Committee, ERA and Homelessness Australia reported an estimated 600, 830 women over the age of 45 were on low-median incomes and not in outright home ownership.
‘So you’ve got these issues of poverty, issues of superannuation gaps, and rates of divorce mean that often women are retiring without home ownership and they’re going into private rental later in life,’ Hannah says.
The private rental market in Australia, as many of us are well aware, is expensive. While share-houses are an option for younger generations, many homes simply do not cater for the needs of our older, aging women.
‘There’s a real lack of action from governments to boost affordable housing supply and so you’re stuck in this limbo land of a private rental market that just doesn’t cater for your needs,’ Hannah says.
‘It’s harder to find accessible housing, it’s harder to find housing that meets your needs, it’s harder to find it well located and affordable and you’ll get stuck on the public housing waiting list for up to ten years in so many places.
‘Our safety nets are just not adequate.’
The safety nets available are almost non-existent. Knowing who to turn to for help in the first place is a major obstacle for older women, as many have never had to navigate services such as Centrelink or government housing.
It can be daunting to reach out, and even if they do seek assistance, the help they receive is usually limited. The demand for public housing in each state far outweighs what is available and homelessness services often just don’t cater for older women.
‘A lot of homelessness services do things tailored around life skills and getting a job. They’re tailored to younger men often and to really different experiences of homelessness, whereas for these women, they just need somewhere to live and the rest of it they can do,’ says Hannah.
‘So I think a homelessness service that is tailored for older women would be focussed on community, on bringing women together on addressing social isolation and on getting women back into affordable housing.
‘The longer women are in that situation of homelessness or prolonged housing stress or insecurity, the worse it becomes – but if you can do this rapid transition back into housing they can handle the rest.’
With a severe lack of infrastructure and support services, Australia is now seeing the creation of what social activist Penny Leemhuis calls “OWLs” – Older Women Lost to housing.
It’s a situation Penny deals with personally on a daily basis. After acquiring a disability in her 30s, she was classified as totally and permanently incapacitated and unable to work.
‘I did get a payment but that went towards modifying my car, bathroom, kitchen and all those essential things so I could actually function on a day to day basis,’ she says.
‘So that cut off my access to superannuation, in combination with the fact that I had basically stayed at home and contributed to my community like many other women of my generation by being the canteen mum, the sports mum, the family daycare mum, with very low wages and no superannuation.’
An inequitable settlement following a relationship breakdown eleven years ago, coupled with Penny’s inability to obtain full-time work, led her to crisis point.
She has moved almost ten times, including interstate from Victoria to Canberra, in an attempt to find affordable housing that is also accessible, and leaves her with enough money to pay for food and car expenses.
Penny currently lives in Queanbeyan, New South Wales. While the rent is kept at a minimum, there are 16 concrete steps at both the front and back of the house to navigate. Despite daily challenges, Penny maintains a sense of humour and leads a busy life.
In 2014, she founded the Older Women Lost in housing website, which provides information for other older women experiencing housing crisis. Since its launch, it has received over 800,000 visitors.
In her work as an affordable housing advocate, she is championing for equitable and systemic change for women in Australia, regularly presenting at forums and conferences on the issues facing older women.
‘There are a number of reforms that I think we really need to look at,’ she says.
‘We need a campaign that educates the population about the issues facing these women, the causes of these issues, and preventative measures. I don’t think it needs to be just an ad on TV or radio, it needs to go into schools and it needs to be across both genders.
‘What I found after a recent event where I gave a speech to students was interestingly, the young men had been going to their dads (and telling them about the speech). One of the dads, a CEO, said “Who is this bloody woman? My son keeps going on about we need equality, how much are you paying the women, what about their super?” and I was like “Yes!” because that’s what we need to target.
‘I’m very preventative and solution driven – I can see a cause, but you can’t just put a bandaid on it and say we’ll build more affordable housing, it needs to run much deeper than that.’
One solution to the current housing crisis, Penny says, would be to offer sustainable and needs-appropriate options such as independent co-housing and shared land equity.
YWCA Canberra has demonstrated this kind of model works with Lady Heydon House. Each of the five women living at Lady Heydon has her own bedroom, sitting room, ensuite and kitchenette, and shares a larger kitchen, dining room and two living spaces.
With more than 600,000 women facing housing crisis, clearly more funding is needed to boost the number of affordable housing projects.
‘We’re at a stage in our advocacy where we’re showcasing these example of organisations responding to the needs of older women in a way that caters to their experiences, so that’s YWCA Canberra’s Lady Heydon House in Canberra, and Women’s Property Initiatives in Melbourne,’ says Hannah.
‘The thing that’s lacking there is scale, so we want to go to government and say we’ve got the model, but it’s the scale, it’s the funding, it’s the political will and attention that’s missing.’
Penny agrees that political inaction is a key factor in the housing crisis, but says we need to work as a community to drive change.
‘We all need to get on board – the developers, the builders, financial gurus – because they’re all driving the track of housing that then puts people into poverty,’ she says.
As she poignantly points out: ‘If we don’t address this now, what kind of future will there be for women of your generation and your daughters?’
Image: Andre Robillard