A home for healing
That is how Annabelle Daniel, CEO of local not-for-profit Women’s Community Shelters, describes the situation facing thousands of over 55 Australian women in the coming months.
A ‘perfect storm’ is on the horizon, as older women impacted by the pandemic’s ‘pink-collar recession’ and already the victims of systemic financial inequality will have the support of coronavirus supplements and the moratorium on evictions pulled from under them.
“It was a tsunami before that, though,” Ms Daniel says.
“We were finding at our Northern Beaches Women’s Shelter, there have been more than 300 women a year, many of whom are older women that have led very conventional lives.”
Women over 55 make up the fastest growing cohort of people facing homelessness in Australia.
Currently, there are 450,000 women Australia-wide who are over 45, on low incomes, and do not own their own home.
“Every single one of them is, technically, at risk of homelessness. When I talk about a tsunami, those are the kinds of numbers we’re looking at,” Ms Daniels elaborates.
Put frankly, the entrenched inequality in our economy is leaving women financially vulnerable in old age.
The pay gap, which has remained stagnant at between 14 to 19 per cent for the past two decades and breaks in superannuation due to childrearing and caregiving are putting women at a disadvantage.
On average, women retire with around half the superannuation savings of men, while one in three women retire with no super at all.
Meanwhile, workplace ageism curbs those looking to re-enter the workforce, with older women the least likely of any applicant to receive an interview.
Locally, in Sydney, less than one per cent of the private rentals are attainable for someone on welfare or the pension, with affordable housing stock particularly low in affluent suburbs such as Mosman, Cremorne, Kirribilli, and North Sydney.
According to Ms Daniel, this problem is exacerbated by a close to 30-year lag on new social housing developments in NSW.
Add to this domestic violence and women are often forced to choose between a roof over their head or a life of physical or emotional abuse.
COVID the final straw
As the restrictions of the recent COVID-19 pandemic ease, it is becoming clear that responding economic policies and the impact of recession and lockdowns may have only worsened the situation.
“We’ve had the rental eviction moratorium, however when that ends [in March] it puts a big question mark over things,” Ms Daniel explains.
“For the last nine months, there’s also been the coronavirus supplement on top of your regular Centrelink income and that has helped people maintain a rental if they haven’t before but, again, that’s ending.
“The other issue is that you’ve been able to draw down on your superannuation twice. So, a lot of women have actually drained their super accounts entirely.”
In a recent report commissioned by several community housing bodies, it is predicted that women in NSW will be at the greatest risk of housing stress in 2021, forming the majority of the 360,000 people projected to be unemployed by July.
The report, by Equity Economics, also found there is a ‘strong link between unemployment and domestic violence’, with North Sydney forecast for the highest increase in domestic abuse due to job losses at 5.5 per cent.
Ms Daniel says she ‘is really concerned about the next 12 to 18 months’, as higher welfare payments along with increased violence at home has likely seen many women establish themselves in unsustainable tenancies to find safety in the short term.
Such concerns have led Ms Daniel and her team at Women’s Community Shelters to establish Mosman House, a new initiative that will provide secure housing for 18 women over 55 at risk of or experiencing homelessness.
North Shore aged care provider Twilight Aged Care has gifted a former private hospital site in Mosman to the shelter to offer transitional housing for two years free or at very low cost.
Partnering with local social housing provider Link Housing, Women’s Community Shelters will then ensure the women are lined up with long term housing solutions before moving on from the property.
“We didn’t want it to be a situation where they were exiting into homelessness later,” Ms Daniel says.
“To me, it’s a moral issue. It would be cruel to give someone they’re own place for a short period of time and then say, ‘Well, we don’t know what’s next.’
“In the meantime, we wanted to create a beautiful space for these women that says, ‘you are valuable’.”
Most of the women will be directed to the transitional housing from the Northern Beaches Women’s Shelter, with Ms Daniel highlighting the issue of older women’s homelessness is prevalent across Sydney.
She tells a story of an 80-year-old North Shore woman, forced to seek shelter with her brother and sister-in-law after a financial adviser defrauded her of her entire portfolio.
Another of a local woman who thought she owned her property but then her partner died, revealing he had overdrawn on the mortgage leaving her in huge debt.
What needs to change
To stop the tsunami in its tracks, Ms Daniels says it is important for all levels of government to place a gendered lens on homelessness and create policies that reflect the different drivers for men and women’s poverty.
Organisations such as Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WEGA) have been trying to shift the discourse this way, releasing a report on the Gendered Impact of COVID-19 for the federal government in May 2020, but so far none of its recommendations have been adopted.
“These are women who have given their lives in jobs, in service to others, in caring responsibilities, in volunteering. They are the glue that holds community together and they should not get poverty in their old age as the reward for that,” Ms Daniels asserts.