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The changing face of Australian homelessness



I used to meet Tracey every week around 9pm. We met in a city location that was part of Melbourne's Vinnies Soup Vans route. Despite being in her fifties, Tracey appeared much older due to the harsh effects of sleeping rough for several years. Unfortunately, her situation is not uncommon An increasing number of middle-aged Australian women experience homelessness. It’s fair to say that as a society, we are only beginning to comprehend the scope of the various issues that make women and children more susceptible to homelessness and poverty.

These difficulties that women and children face are wide-ranging and while circumstances make some women and children more vulnerable than others, problems may be experienced by women from every socioeconomic and cultural background. The list of issues is long. Aside from poverty, difficulties faced by women include domestic and family violence, financial stress, gender and pay inequality, lack of affordable housing, and challenging cultural and historical expectations. These issues are multifaceted and often have severe repercussions for individuals, their families, and society more broadly. Due to their complexity and sensitivity, they can be difficult to talk about.

It was at the Vinnies Soup Van where I first learned that a key consequence of these problems faced by women and children is homelessness. The image of the ‘homeless person’ is stereotypically of an older man who is rough sleeping. We don’t often think of middle-aged women, such as Tracey, as among the cohorts sleeping rough on any given night. Part of the reason for this is that they are often so-called ‘invisible homeless’— they may be couch-surfing, sleeping in their cars, living in unstable and unsafe accommodation. They may not even understand their situation as one of homelessness. Tracey and other middle-aged women I met during nights at the Soup Vans often told me that they felt safer sleeping on the street or in their cars than going home that night. Particularly startling was when I'd speak to women who would attend the Soup Vans wearing office attire, who said that they felt it was unsafe to return home from work that evening.

Then there were the elderly women attending the Soup Vans who had experienced elder abuse, who were forced by family members out of their homes. These women were left homeless, which was a completely new and overwhelming experience for them. Sadly, some of these women blamed themselves for their predicament, despite the fact that their poverty was the result of a lifetime of wage discrimination in both paid and unpaid work. They had been unable to accumulate enough savings, as their work histories were often discontinuous or consisted of part-time or casual employment. Additionally, they carried the burden of historical factors such as forcing women to resign when they got married or pregnant, a discriminatory practice prevalent until the 1970s.

Over 400,000 older women are at risk of homelessness in Australia, with 165,000 in the 45-55 age bracket, and 240,000 in the over 55 age bracket. Of the 167,388 women and girls that accessed homelessness services in 2020-21 in Australia, 68 per cent were aged 18–55 years, and 24 per cent were aged under 18. The group experiencing the fastest growth in homelessness is women over 55 years old with their numbers increasing at double the rate of other groups.


'When it comes to domestic violence, we must reconsider our approach to addressing the issue. Instead of asking why the victim doesn't leave, we should question why they are the ones forced to flee the situation.' 


For women and children experiencing homelessness, domestic and family violence looms large as the primary driver, accounting for 38 per cent of those seeking support from homelessness services. The second key factor is financial insecurity, as women tend to earn lower incomes than men and are more likely to struggle with affording housing and coping with rising rental costs. Poverty is the root cause of housing instability for 29 per cent of women and girls experiencing homelessness.

However, the factors that make some women more vulnerable to homelessness are more complex. As the Council to Homeless Persons points out, women who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, women with disabilities, those from migrant or refugee backgrounds, and those with mental illness are more susceptible to experiencing homelessness. These disparities require a targeted approach to provide the necessary support to those who need it most.

The 2022-23 Social Justice Statement by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, titled ‘Respect: Confronting Violence and Abuse,’ delves into the root causes of domestic and family violence. The statement acknowledges the impact of cultural factors on society as a whole and within the church, and shockingly, reveals that women and children account for ninety-three percent of victims of domestic violence. As its foreword declares, ‘The message of the Gospel is not a message of domination of one person over another but a message of mutual esteem and kindness.’

In order to address the challenges facing Indigenous communities, it is essential for non-Indigenous individuals to acknowledge and respect their unique connections and traditions. Rather than making assumptions about their needs, we should ask how we can assist them in achieving their goals.

When it comes to domestic violence, we must reconsider our approach to addressing the issue. Instead of asking why the victim doesn't leave, we should question why they are the ones forced to flee the situation. McAuley's 'Safe at Home' program is a step towards addressing this issue, allowing women and children to remain in their homes safely while the perpetrator is removed. However, we also need to provide safe and affordable housing options for those who choose to leave and support them through the transition.

It is also crucial to focus on the needs of older individuals, particularly those experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Despite the significant demand for specialist services for older people, only a small fraction of homelessness services in Australia are funded to serve them. Furthermore, there is a severe shortage of affordable rental accommodation for older individuals on the Age Pension.

What can we do immediately? We can keep the conversation going. To create meaningful change, we must continue to engage in conversations about these issues within our homes, schools, workplaces, and communities. Although the systemic issues that have created discrimination towards women — especially older women — must be addressed, societal changes in attitudes and cultural shifts towards respecting and valuing women that will ultimately have the greatest impact.




Danusia Kaska is the Co-ordinator of the Xavier Social Justice Network, a Network of parents, past-parents and past-students and other members of the Xavier College community. The Network facilitates volunteering with approved agencies and engages in advocacy and education.

Main image: Woman wearing hoodie. (Getty images)

Topic tags: Danusia Kaska, homelessness



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Existing comments

I have a woman friend who, a couple of years ago was approaching 70, unwell,and at the risk of homelessness.Having escaped domestic violence in another state and estranged from her relatives, she was living on a temporary basis in a friend's home. A difficult adult daughter there made my friend's situation untenable. Thankfully, it became possible for her to rent at a retirement village where she has settled happily with supportive friends as well as help when her health problems become severe. It seems to me that many older homeless women would benefit from a group situation and suggest that maybe some kind of commune or hostel where residents have a private room and bathroom with shared communal living might meet their needs, both physical and psychological. Achieving this type of residence would need cooperation between Government bodies and private welfare organistions. How could this begin?

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 10 March 2023  

Lets consider Wellcamp in Toowoomba.
The 1000-bed facility opened in early 2022 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It cost taxpayers more than $220 million in set-up and running costs but only about 730 people stayed there during the pandemic. The Qld Govt lease runs out in April '23.
The owner of the facility says it ill now be used to house agriculture sector workers- presumably fruit pickers from Europe and the Islands to ensure crops are fully utilised.
But is this its highest and best use? Long term homelessness action would require the Federal Government to step in and either buy or lease Wellcamp. Perhaps like the aged care model, prospective tenants may pay an agreed percentage of their welfare or pension to live there. As a suggestion perhaps they could supplement their income by agreeing to work in the agriculture sector to improve their lifestyle.

Francis Armstrong | 15 March 2023  

"There are about 300,000 Queenslanders currently experiencing housing insecurity." ABC March 2023. That's up to 22%. The highest in the country. Yet we have a Premier who wants to tear down a perfectly good Gabba and spend $2.7 billion on a new one the State does not need.
The Olympics will last 3-4 weeks. Where is the priority here? It makes no sense especially as the State does not have $2.7 billion in savings to waste on this short term popularity contest.
I know a couple of companies that repurpose shipping containers into granny flats at a cost of $15k each. If the Qld Government spent $2.7bn on those they would house 180,000 people.
Doesn't solve the problem but a pretty good start. I always thought Labor was about the people but apparently not.

So its a question of logic and political will.
Italy with a population of circa 59.1 million has only 50,000 homeless (approx). War torn Syria has 6.6 million homeless. 7.7 million Ukrainians Displaced across Europe (UNHCR, 2022) as a direct result of Putin's invasion and land grab.
Charity begins at home.

Francis Armstrong | 03 April 2023  

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