Older women and homelessness: the fight continues

18 November 2011 | Posted In: #117 Spring 2012, Ageing, Homelessness, Planning for People and Social Issues, | Author: Holly Miller

By Holly Miller

In the heat of the 1970s feminist movement, Germaine Greer said scathingly: “The house wife is an unpaid employee in her husband’s house in return for the security of being a permanent employee”.

And in the background, the battle raged on. Women chanted with placards in the streets, waving bras in the air that burnt with fire that couldn’t match the fierceness with which they fought.

They fought for liberation – liberation from the shackles that came with being a woman. They fought for equality – equal rights, equal opportunities, equal pay. They fought to be equal with men.

With time, the feminist movement had, for the most part, cast the domestic trappings of womanhood aside. Women had moved on and out and into the workforce, into higher education, into the political arena.

And that seemed to be that.

Over the 30 or so years that have passed since the movement’s heyday, feminist voices have become quieter. For a long time now, the mainstream media have questioned whether feminism is, in fact, dead.

The reluctance of younger women to be associated with what became known for a while as “the F word” was hailed as a clear indication that, regardless of whether or not feminism was dead, being a feminist was no longer a mainstream political stand.

And in the Australian political arena, if you’re not mainstream, you’re generally not relevant, and you’re certainly not powerful.

Perhaps feminism did die. Perhaps, as scholars have suggested, it moved on to join other elderly social movements and historical eras such as modernism and colonialism in the ‘post’ category (in which it is academically contemplated, but serves little other function.

Wherever feminism is now, it is not here, in NSW, in 2011.

While there are indications from time to time that society is still concerned with gender issues (the Rudd government’s introduction of the paid parental leave scheme in 2009 was definitely a step forward), there is a general understanding that men and women are now equal.

It is perceived that, on the whole, the need for feminism has ceased to exist.

A frightening thought, really, given that age-old gender issues are still tightly enmeshed in the very fabric of Australian society. And today, they are having profound, devastating and very real effects. For instance, older women are quickly becoming the most prevalent demographic suffering homelessness in NSW.

The parameters of the problem are outlined in a ground-breaking report published by the Older Women’s Network (OWN) in 2010. Ludo McFerran of the Domestic Violence Clearing House at the University of New South Wales worked with Sonia Laverty of OWN to compile the report, chillingly titled, It Could Be You: Female, Single, Older and Homeless.

McFerran says that the report was commissioned in response to alarm bells raised by Homelessness NSW: “They came to us and said that older women had started showing up at services in increasingly alarming numbers. Since then, it’s gotten to the point where older women are coming into services more than men”.

And so the investigation began.

McFerran says: “Obviously with research, the more people you interview, the more sound the results. But with this, it took just speaking to a few women to realise that the stories all sounded the same. I thought, “Wow. We’ve really struck something disturbing here”.

And how did the stories go? Not the way you’d probably expect. A 2008 report from the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs attributes homelessness to disability, mental illness, and the abuse of drugs and alcohol.

These findings confirm the stereotypes of homelessness that exist in the minds of the general public. However, what they do not do is distinguish between the reasons for homelessness in women and men. And this, says Sonia Laverty, is the key policy issue that must be addressed.

In a speech given in August 2011, Laverty told the OWN forum in Lismore that the 31 women interviewed in the study did not conform to the findings of the Department’s report. In fact, if disability, mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse were elements in these women’s lives, they were the effects of homelessness, not its causes. She said, “Most of the women we interviewed had worked throughout their lives, raised children, and endured abusive and difficult relationships”.

McFerran says, “It became apparent that we were dealing with a very clear chain of events and circumstances that had led women to homelessness and this was a process that was happening to me and others like me, too”. The path leading women out of their houses and onto the streets is a path that starts in childhood, says McFerran: “Research shows that boys get more pocket money than girls”.

The fact that women still don‘t receive equal pay may seem like a small remnant of gender inequality left behind in the wake of the feminist movement, but its effects are dire, and tend to go unrecognized.

Women are usually forced to retire in their mid-50s, whereas men are forced to retire in their mid-60s.

Non-equal pay and the fact that female-dominated industries command less income are significant contributing factors to homelessness in older women.

Furthermore, research by the Brotherhood St Laurence shows that women are being pushed out of the workforce 10 years before men.

Lower incomes mean less savings and less superannuation. When women are no longer able to find or hold down work, paying a mortgage or renting privately becomes impossible without a significant nest egg.

And these are not the only gender issues forcing women out of their homes late in life. Increasing rates of divorce and separation are also contributing to rising levels of homelessness. Says Ludo McFerran, “when the family home is sold, women are usually the losers”.

McFerran also notes that the financial status of women in contemporary society is compounded by the fact that women and men have different relationships with money.

Women tend to choose to provide financially for their children throughout their lives, whereas men are more inclined to keep their money close to their chests.

And herein lies the crux of the issue.

As McFerran points out, women in their 20s are benefiting from the work of the feminist movement. They’re out in the workforce, earning money, and for the most part, keeping up with their male contemporaries (despite their generally lower rates of pay).

It’s when they reach their 30s, however, that women are “cut off at the knees”. And it’s one factor in a woman’s life that disempowers her financially in one foul swoop.

The enduring and seemingly unshakeable role of the mother – woman – as the primary care giver remains the central reason that women continue to be financially disempowered, and at risk of finding rights as basic as housing inaccessible.

Sonia Laverty points out: “The fundamentals have not changed in 40 years. Women continue to carry the burden of family care responsibilities and domestic work. They have broken patterns of part-time and casual labour-force participation in a highly gender-differentiated workforce, resulting in wage inequality”. These are precisely the conditions that feminists fought so long to abolish.

And so it seems that 1970s feminism left behind it a myriad of gender imbalances that continue to have profound and devastating impacts on women’s lives. McFerran says, “We let gender fall off the agenda. Back in the ’80s, we stopped looking at housing and homelessness as gendered issues. We stopped talking about how these things affect women”.

Apart from the fact that women are becoming homeless in a way that is different from men, women being homeless presents different issues from those faced by homeless men.

The ever-present threats of rape and violence mean that women living on the streets or in boarding houses become nocturnal, sleeping during the day to maximize their personal safety.

And this threat is not being adequately addressed. In the inner Sydney area, there is only one refuge that caters exclusively to older women, and it is not a government-run facility. There are no female-only boarding houses, and nor is social housing designed to cater for the needs of women, which can differ vastly from those of men.

So, what needs to happen to address the fact that – put simply – women are increasingly unable to access their basic human rights?

Ludo McFerran cautions that “the problem is not going to get smaller. It’s going to get a lot, lot bigger. We have to come up with new ideas, because the ones that we’ve been working with for 40 years haven’t worked out well for women. New feminism needs to tear to shreds what we’ve done… We need to start thinking outside the box”.

McFerran’s proposed solution is exactly that. She argues that men and women should lay the foundations of their working lives in their 20s, by acquiring skills in the workplace and starting their education.

At 30, she advocates, it should become mandatory for everyone to work part-time for a decade, which would properly level the playing field. It would give both men and women the opportunity to partake equally in the child-rearing process, and equal opportunities to pursue careers that would ensure long-term financial security for both parties.

Regardless of whether this is, in fact, the solution that feminism should be fighting for, one thing is certain. Feminism should be fighting. Feminists should be fighting to address the current “one size fits all” approach to policy. They should be fighting so that issues as dire as severe homelessness in older women are not invisible to policy makers. They should be fighting, as they once did, to ensure that the opportunities of women are equal to those of men.

Feminists need to get back in the ring, this time with greater wisdom and the benefits of experience.

In the 1970s, women fought for the freedom to get out of the home. Now we must fight to keep them in it.


For services and support if you find yourself facing homelessness, contact:
Homeless Persons information: 1800 234 566
Domestic Violence Line: 1800 656 463
After Hours Temporary Accommodation Line: 1800 152 152

To search for a service in your area, visit the Homelessness NSW website.

Originally published in Inner Sydney Voice, Issue 115, Summer 2011