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Older women and homelessness

The Mercy Foundation is an organisation committed to social justice and structural change to create greater social equity and inclusion in the Australian community and is a work of the North Sydney Sisters of Mercy. One of the goals of the Mercy Foundation is to advocate for and support policy and practice responses to homelessness based on evidence and current research.

Ending homelessness, not endlessly servicing homeless people

The Foundation is focused on working to end homelessness in Australia. We don’t believe that a country as fortunate and well off as Australia should have a group of citizens without housing and, in some instances, the ongoing health and community supports to help them sustain that housing. We acknowledge that short-term responses to homeless people, such as food and shelter, are important – but we believe that we must put in place strategies, policies and programs that ‘end’ people’s homelessness through the increased supply of affordable housing and support services. We believe that the answer to the relatively small group of people who have additional health and disability issues and who experience chronic homelessness is permanent supportive housing. The Foundation also commissions research from time to time to better inform policy and practice to end homelessness in Australia.

Women and homelessness

The Mercy Foundation also has a particular interest in homelessness where it concerns women. Women represented 46 per cent of the total number of people who were counted as homeless on census night 2011 (ABS). Often, women are described as the hidden homeless, staying with friends or relatives, in cars or sheltering in women’s refuges.

We knew there were anecdotal reports that suggested some women were becoming homeless for the first time in their lives at an older age. In order to understand this issue better, the Mercy Foundation commissioned researchers Dr Maree Petersen and Dr Cameron Parsell from the University of Queensland to investigate older women’s homelessness and research effective pathways out of homelessness for that group.

Research report

The research report found that there are a variety of reasons why older women may become homeless. These include shortfalls in public and affordable housing, high cost of rental accommodation, domestic violence, an increase in single person households, increasing longevity, lack of superannuation and savings, decreased employment prospects and fewer service options for women who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless. Like all types of homelessness, the primary reason is always about poverty. To quote the researchers, “homeless older women have become a poignant symbol of housing insecurity in Australia”.

Of concern is the fact that the largest proportion of older women presenting with a housing crisis in Australia have led conventional lives, whilst working and raising a family.  Some may have rented all their lives, others may have lost their homes through divorce and have been unable to buy back into expensive capital city housing markets. Few have previously had involvement with welfare and other support systems. In the large majority of these instances, these women’s homelessness will be ended through rapid re-housing, access to affordable and permanent housing, with little need for any additional supports.

Launch of the research report

On April 14, 2014, the Mercy Foundation launched the findings of the research report to the public. The Hon. Anna Bligh, CEO YWCA NSW, officially launched the report and Dr Maree Peterson presented the findings. The research revealed that older women’s risk of homelessness can be lessened by the way welfare and housing systems work and interact with older women. However, there remains a lack of evidence that considers issues of specific concern to older women.

There is a lack of attention to older women’s homelessness internationally, despite recognition of demographic changes, increasing numbers of older people living in poverty, as well as the ageing of people who are already homeless.

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