Older women’s homelessness is often hidden from view.
The 2016 Census estimated that 6,866 older women were homeless and a further 5,820 older women were living in marginal housing and may be at risk of homelessness. Older women are the fastest growing group at risk due to lower lifetime incomes, less access to financial assets such as superannuation because they are more likely to take on informal care responsibilities, relationship breakdown, and the consequences of family and domestic violence.
With zero per cent of private rentals in Perth affordable to singles on government income support the choices are limited.
This event highlighted the issues older women are currently facing and experiencing with an exploration into solutions across permanent and appropriate options for homes so older women on low incomes can age well.
In 2015, Liz Lennon was experiencing what many older single women are living every day – low income, difficulty finding work and no safe home. She decided to research how older single women on low incomes could age well and continue to contribute to their communities of choice. Her mapping research tried to understand the forces that help and hinder providing homes for low-income older people, and specifically older single women.
“I always look big picture, I try and understand,” she said.
Drawing on the World Health Organisations social determinants of health, Liz argues older single women on low incomes are pretty much near the bottom of the social ladder and therefore more vulnerable to illness. “We need to be seen in the national narrative as assets, not burdens,” Liz said. “We need a complete shift in the way we are written about as if we are to blame, as if it is our fault, as if we have nothing to bring to the table. We bring social, creative, and intellectual capital to our communities. We are always utilised, often as unpaid labour. Let’s work from a strengths-based approach rather than a deficit narrative about ageing.”
Lens of Attention
For many older single women systemic issues and political failures have placed them into poverty, housing stress and homelessness. Liz asserts we need to understand this “as where a government puts its lens of attention is where it puts its money”. “A shift in the national narrative that pervades government policy and planning regarding ageing, older people and poverty is needed,” she said.
“Where government puts its lens of attention.”
Personal to Political
Buoyed by the need to address both visible and invisible homelessness, prevention and housing supply at the same time Liz became interested in housing options for older single women. The result was Reimagining Home – A Framework for Creating Home with Older Single Women on Low Incomes.
“I put together the wicked problem to try and get a sense of what the structural and individual issues are and not just housing. We need to look at other aspects as well,” she said. Shelter WA was proud, in partnership with Connect Victoria Park and Lisa Baker MLA for Maylands, to launch a Reimagining Home report, summary and look book.
Diverse Housing Developments
Liz has highlighted more than 30 examples of different kinds of housing developments that are focused on older women, older people, people on low incomes, and diverse population groups. In making decisions on what works Liz has incorporated five critical elements into the Reimagining Home framework: Beautiful, Affordable, Sustainable, Connected and Powerful.
Health and Housing
Despite an increasing awareness of older Australian women being at risk of homelessness, little is known about how their health is affected by the lack of safe and secure accommodation.
Titled, Study of the Health Needs of Older Women Experiencing Homelessness in the Perth Metropolitan Area, Dr Gloria Sutherland’s PhD addresses older women’s health, an area nobody has looked at extensively, particularly in older homeless women.
Dr Sutherland has a rich background in public health. Here roles have included Program Manager of the WA Cervical Cancer Screening Program, Population Health Director (WA Country Health Services) for the Kimberley Region, coordinating the roll-out of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program in WA and several Policy Adviser roles in the WA Department of Health.
This study sought to investigate the personal life circumstances and healthcare needs of older women experiencing homelessness in the Perth metropolitan area and if current services are addressing their health needs. It highlighted that complex and inter-related social and economic factor had contributed to their state of homelessness, including family breakdown, history of trauma and abuse, and financial insecurity.
It found that access to safe, affordable, long-term housing with wrap-around and ongoing social and healthcare support services is essential to meet the immediate and ongoing health needs of older women experiencing homelessness and address their underlying and ongoing trauma and mental health needs to prevent further episodes of homelessness.
Read the thesis here.
Connect with Home
Connect with Home is a peer support network project which started last year. It is funded by the Department of Communities and is an initiative of Connect Victoria Park. The group are all women in housing stress who are searching for better affordable and secure housing options for themselves.
“It was a classic case of my generation.”
Wendy Morris, the groups Project Officer has lived experience of housing stress. “It was a classic case of my generation of older women who have worked and then taken time out of the workforce to raise a family,” she said. After multiple challenges in her relationship and “coercive control” Wendy left with no assets and would spend her next 26 years living in private rentals.
Attending a housing and mental health conference event one day it dawned on her the significant connections between the two. Later she would meet and learn of the work being done at Connect Victoria Park.
“Luke Garswood (Chief Executive Officer, Connect Victoria Park) was motivated by this idea of a one-stop shop information centre providing information and support for older women trying to navigate the housing system,” Wendy recalled. “He asked if it was something I would be interested in if funding was approved.”
A Department of Communities grant was approved, and they were underway “despite a starting hiccup with COVID-19”. “I couldn’t meet face-to-face with a lot of people in doing the research, but we managed OK.”
The early research paid off and an Age-Friendly Rental Housing Guide was produced by Wendy. It investigates options to meet the current and future needs of older women renting in the community and received input from the Connect to Home group in form of tips and stories of lived experience.
Anne Saw, through her story, highlighted how important Connect with Home had been for her.
“We had to move five times in seven years.”
“My situation began because of a family illness,” she said. “I left work twice as my two daughters were both in serious road accidents which resulted with me taking on a carers role as they acquired brain injuries.” Sadly, Anne’s marriage did “not survive the trauma”. As a result she was away from work for eight years. With medical commitments in Perth, Anne was forced to leave her country town. “We had to move five times in seven years.”
Anne is now on JobSeeker, at the age of 65, and with the small amount of superannuation left she now lives in a small private rental, a converted garage. It has limited facilities and no lease. “I could be asked to leave at short notice,” Anne said. “Through our peer support network at Connect with Home, it has been invaluable to me. I’ve met the most wonderful people, the most intelligent women. We are a small representation of the growing needs in seniors housing.
“They don’t have a voice and are very seriously disadvantaged.”
“It is a welcoming place, it provides many people with housing and social opportunities. It provides more than a housing option … participants are welcomed and given a reason to interact and feel included and welcomed. This is my personal story but I’d like to speak on behalf of the half a million women in the country, it’s incredible, who for many reasons find themselves on the edge of homelessness. They don’t have a voice and are very seriously disadvantaged.
“We do need support and we need secure, safe and long-term accommodation”
Connect with Home continues to raise awareness and meet with politicians on the needs of housing women and to continue to build on its one-stop shop of information.
Find out more here.
Michelle Blakely’s “My Home” initiative is based on the Housing First model and is delivered on land provided by the Western Australian State Government at a peppercorn lease in partnership with St. Patrick’s Community Support Centre. Michelle is a local architect, with a keen interest in social and low-income housing.
“Our first site in North Fremantle will have 18 single occupant houses and is fully funded,” she said. “We will be able to start construction on the first houses by the end of August. Due to the nature of the prefabrication each of these houses, if you could imagine a flat pack from Ikea, the wall, roof and floor panels are delivered to site and each house is erected in three hours. A builder then takes over and completes the fit out, plumbing and electrical work.”
The residents will be older women experiencing or at risk of homelessness and will be managed by St Pat’s. “My Home” has secured other sites in Berwick Street Victoria Park, a Church site in Dianella and Geraldton. The Western Australian Planning Commission has said it would continue to provide land once the first houses are completed and demonstrate the model. Construction of the houses is funded by the private corporate sector. The governments are not required to provide any funding.
Have a read of further “My Home” information here.