A Precarious Home: Older Women, Housing Insecurity and Homelessness

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By Ruth Quibell

Photo: Pixabay

For many women, home is a provisional place. This has long been true. Violence, dispossession and poverty are not new. What is recent is the increase in the number of women over the age of 55 experiencing housing stress, insecurity and homelessness. On the 2016 Census night, for instance, there were an estimated 6,866 homeless older women in Australia. This was an increase of over 1600 women, or 31 per cent, since 2011.

The Mercy Foundation’s 2018 Retiring Into Poverty report describes an associated trend, with a rapid 97 per cent increase in older women renting privately between 2006 to 2016. While renting in itself is not a problem, in Australia the private rental market offers little ongoing tenure security and increases in rental costs are linked to homelessness. There is also a new global dimension to rental insecurity, with some private rental markets shrinking due to the rise of the home sharing economy. Taken together, these factors suggest that many older women are only temporarily housed in private rentals. The forced end of a tenancy, such as through ‘no cause’ eviction or an inability to meet a rent increase, can be what first pushes an older woman into homelessness.

Older women often seek to ‘solve’ their housing problems by staying temporarily with friends or family, ‘couch-surfing’, sometimes staying in unsuitable, overcrowded and dangerous housing, and even spending periods living in their cars. This may technically keep them from living on the street, but it hides their homelessness, even from themselves.

While renting in itself is not a problem, in Australia the private rental market offers little ongoing tenure security and increases in rental costs are linked to homelessness.

Older women’s homelessness is often dismissed as less significant or ‘real’ because street homelessness and ‘rough sleeping’ are taken as the standard. While it is more visible and tangible, only seven per cent of homeless people actually sleep rough, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Men make up two in three rough sleepers. Rough sleeping is dangerous, particularly for women, who go to great lengths to avoid it.

In 2007, the University of East London’s Professor Sophie Watson made the point that ‘women’s own sense of themselves as not fitting the image they carry of homelessness, which is nearly always masculine, serves to undermine defining themselves as such and ultimately reinforces passivity and inability to do anything about it.’ How women view their own situation can also make their housing needs seem far less urgent to service providers as they do not appear recognisably in need, until they deteriorate in a dramatic way.

Just as absolute poverty is used to trivialise the relative poverty of those on Newstart and other Centrelink payments, so too does the stereotype of street homelessness diminish women’s experiences of homelessness and the structural causes which disproportionately impact women as a group. It also fails to recognise the detrimental impacts on their lives, such as loss of connections with people and places, declining mental health and even suicide.

Even if older women and others do not recognise it, their needs are real, and they are at significant risk. Sociologist Matthew Desmond, in his 2016 book on eviction in the United States, describes how ‘the violence of displacement can drive people to depression and, in extreme cases, even suicide.’ There have been similar findings in Sweden. The group of psychiatrists who identified this risk described the damaging personal impact of eviction as ‘a traumatic rejection…a denial of one’s most basic needs, and an exquisitely shameful experience.’  In Australia, where ‘no cause’ eviction is considered part and parcel of renting a home in the private rental market, little attention is paid to its personal toll.

How women view their own situation can also make their housing needs seem far less urgent to service providers as they do not appear recognisably in need, until they deteriorate in a dramatic way.

I want to push these housing experiences and patterns away to a safe distance. I know that this is because at 45, I can no longer deny that this is one of my possible futures. There is unlikely to be any cosy retirement in a little cottage by the sea. Like many women my age, the rented roof over my head is by definition a temporary home. I spend far too much time worrying about it. All the time and energy spent worrying about rent increasing, a lease ending, or finding a temporary place to stay, is needlessly wasted.  Yet, it does not have to be this way.

The Retiring Into Poverty report argues that the chief cause of all homelessness is poverty. For older women, poverty and housing insecurity is shaped by gendered social and economic inequalities which lay like traps, ready to make their full effects known in later life. Discrepancies in income with our male counterparts include a wage gap that is, for full-time workers, on average, $239.80 per week less as of February this year. That’s even before considering the wage gaps by industry which, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, ranged from a low of 5.1 per cent for those working in public administration and safety, to 26.9 per cent for those working in financial and insurance services industry. Lower pay rates in ‘feminised’ industries show up over the course of a lifetime as lower earnings, savings and other forms of financial security.

These inequalities build up over the years and may be compounded by different identities and experiences. ‘Older single women’ is an umbrella category for a diverse and complex cohort of women, including marginalised women such as LGBT women, women of colour and Indigenous women. Despite our differences, it is women who still do the bulk of unpaid caring, for children or older relatives, resulting in reduced time in the workforce, more career interruptions, higher levels of part-time work, and lower levels of superannuation at retirement. Some individual women are exceptions to these patterns, but most women will retire poorer than men and a significant number will face more precarious housing futures because of it.

For older women, poverty and housing insecurity is shaped by gendered social and economic inequalities which lay like traps, ready to make their full effects known in later life.

Stable housing was once the expectation of mature adult life in Australia and a foundation of our social security. Having a secure, ongoing place to call home is well-established as good for our wellbeing, health and relationships, and this is why government policies explicitly support ageing in place. As the Mercy Foundation’s report makes clear, there are no justifiable reasons for these problems to persist. Insecure housing and homelessness are not fixed, unalterable qualities of individuals, but shaped by the social, economic and gendered expectations of our time. We know how to remedy the various inequalities of wages, social welfare, superannuation and residential tenancy systems to ensure far better outcomes.

A basic, dignified life with stable secure housing shouldn’t hinge on approximating the norm of the ideal male worker, in perfect health with uninterrupted earnings. It’s a simple enough point: in 2019, women should not have to face an uncertain housing future because of structural inequalities, but we still do.


Ruth Quibell is a sociologist, essayist, and the author of The Promise of Things (Melbourne University Publishing, 2016). She is currently writing her next book on the politics of home, assisted through Arts Tasmania by the Minister for the Arts.

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