Middle class, hard working and homeles by Julia May
An alarming number of older women in Victoria are becoming homeless. Many are middle-class and reluctant to seek help.
It was hot water Joan Lansbury missed the most. If she felt some warmth in the kitchen tap she'd strip off and race to the shower, no matter the hour. "It didn't last long and you didn't know when the hot water was going to come on again," says Lansbury, 71.
Normally, she would fill the kitchen sink with water she had heated on the stove and sponge herself down. "Try that in the middle of winter. It's not much fun."
I don’t think I ever could see myself living on the street ... But the costs of living are so high that it really can happen to anyone.
That was 2012, and Lansbury was living in a rundown flat in Pascoe Vale, in Melbourne's north, with dodgy hot water, a leaky toilet and appliances that didn't work properly.
Joan Lansbury nearly found herself on the street when her rent was raised: ‘Things were so bad at some stages that I didn’t care whether I was alive or dead.’ Photo: Justin McManus
She put up with it for as long as she could, too scared to complain in case the owner of the flat she had rented for 15 years put the price up - because she knew she couldn't afford 2012 rental rates.
But suddenly, he did just that, raising it from $280 to $500 a fortnight. That left Lansbury, then retired after 25 years as a nursing aide, just $70 a fortnight to live on. She didn't know where to turn. "I must admit that things were so bad at some stages that I didn't care whether I was alive or dead," she says.
Lansbury is one of a soaring number of women who find themselves on the verge of homelessness in older age after living relatively conventional lives. These are women you might call middle-class: they have had careers or stayed home to raise children, they have owned a home or rented long-term.
Most have never had any interaction with welfare services. But a confluence of events or a sudden calamity can trigger a housing crisis.
Lansbury had the strength and courage to raise two children alone after escaping a violent marriage. She had put herself through nursing training and worked full-time for 25 years in aged care, earning long-service leave and a little, but not much, superannuation. But none of this safeguarded her from the unexpected and she was left to turn to a charity to put a roof over her head.
In 2012-13, some 4800 Victorian women aged over 55 sought assistance from homelessness services, an increase of 34 per cent on the previous year, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Housing sector advocates say the jump is no surprise as the labour market shrinks, property prices and rental rates skyrocket and baby-boomer women hit retirement with low levels of superannuation.
Jenny Smith, chief executive of the Council to Homeless Persons, says a shortage of public housing compounds this dramatic feminisation of poverty and homelessness. She says the old formula of working, paying off a house or living in a long-term rental and retiring on superannuation or the pension is no longer relevant: the spiralling cost of living leaves many people, particularly women, without a buffer.
"The population is ageing and the numbers are going to get larger,'' Smith says. ''We're very concerned that without the appropriate responses now, we are allowing a perfectly able group of people to fall into a merry-go-round of homelessness and crisis accommodation."
Lansbury was lucky. A friend referred her to the Housing for the Aged Action Group. It was able to arrange new accommodation - a modern 2-bedroom social housing flat in Heidelberg, which costs her $330 a fortnight.
Two years later, Lansbury is as happy as a lark and the physical benefits of having stable housing are evident: she's quit smoking, lost 14 kilos and though diabetic, is able to manage her sugar levels without insulin.
She has a wardrobe full of lovely clothes bought from a local second-hand shop. "In the other place I just gave up and thought, no one cares, so why should I? But here, I think, you've got a nice place, you can't be sloppy, you don't want people in the area to think you're a no-hoper."
A new report, Older Women's Pathways Out of Homelessness in Australia, commissioned by the Mercy Foundation, gathers the most recent research and makes several recommendations. Its authors, University of Queensland researchers Maree Petersen and Cameron Parsell, found that while scant attention had been paid to older people's homelessness internationally, in Australia people were becoming more aware of the problem.
While some have had long-term difficulties and transient lives, the highest proportion of older women in housing crisis - those 55 and over - have led conventional lives, turning the stereotype of the bag lady on its head.
Petersen and Parsell concluded that if action was taken quickly to rehouse these women, most would go on to live independent lives. But two crucial elements were needed: greater engagement between support services and older women, and more affordable housing.
More than a quarter of older women seeking housing support were escaping family violence, while more than 40 per cent reported a housing-related issue: financial stress, inadequate housing, or the end of a tenancy, the report found.
While a sudden crisis such as the death of a partner, the end of a relationship, loss of employment or a health problem can also lead to homelessness, underpinning all of these issues was a shortage of secure, stable housing.
In the past decade, Australian house prices increased by nearly 150 per cent but incomes grew by 57 per cent. For renters it is equally dire: city rents have risen at twice the rate of inflation and there's a national shortage of around 500,000 rental properties for lower income-earners (those earning less than $32,000).
But demand keeps rising: in the five years to 2011 the number of older Australian women renting privately jumped by 70 per cent to 135,000.
Katherine Campbell*, a housing worker for a large Melbourne council, says a "giant squeeze" has been under way for a decade. Baby-boomer women are coming of age in a contracting labour market, needing to rent, but lacking a nest egg to support them - the median level of superannuation for women over 55 is $48,000, compared with $104,000 for men.
It is difficult, however, to connect women in crisis with support services because they fly under the radar. Men are much more likely to stay in boarding houses or sleep rough, while women tend to be stoic and resourceful - sleeping on friends' couches, house-sitting, sleeping in a caravan or even their car - and will construct a narrative to conceal their problems.
They tend to avoid boarding houses because of a fear of violence. Even then, few define themselves as homeless.
Campbell recalls meeting an 80-year-old woman who had lost her home and spent her savings on motel rooms. "She didn't want to fill out a housing application form and when I asked her why, she said: 'I've never used drugs.' She thought a homeless service was just for someone who had used drugs."
Campbell says her clients are shocked when they realise they are classified as homeless. "They find it labelling and confronting."
Smith says services need to be promoted in places where such women would be likely to look, such as Centrelink, the supermarket, a doctors' surgery or senior citizens club. ''We need to … give people face-saving ways to find help.''
Jeff Fiedler, the co-manager of the Housing for the Aged Action Group, says about 70 per cent of the group's clientele are older women like Lansbury. "Private rental housing is fundamentally insecure and unstable because it's unregulated,'' he says. ''So we encourage people to contact services like ours early, before they get into a situation where they might have legal action taken against them."
Lansbury had been on the waiting list for public housing for 14 years; with the group's support she was prioritised and rehoused after five months.
Transitional housing helps women get back on their feet, particularly those fleeing domestic violence.
Karen Thompson* is one such woman. The university-educated mother of three children had paid off her own apartment before marrying her former husband. She sold it to fund a move to Toorak, and took time out from her work as an IT trainer in financial services to have children.
But after seven years of abuse from her husband, she fled in 2012 with the children. She hasn't been able to achieve a financial settlement and lives on a single parent pension.
A counsellor referred her to HomeGround, a homelessness support agency. "HomeGround told me they'd help me with a bond through the Department of Human Services and also help me pay the first month of rent. Once I found [a private rental], I approached them and they did all the paperwork. They were fantastic."
Though still in her forties she worries about her chances of securing a job after eight years out of the workforce, but says having stable housing was the first crucial step.
"I don't think I ever could see myself living on the street. I thought no, it's not going to happen to me. I was so proactive, going to organisations and finding out what it was that I needed to do so that I would not end up living on the streets. Having said that, I didn't even know that homeless meant couch-surfing - I didn't know what homelessness was. But the costs of living are so high that it really can happen to anyone."
Thompson's story is not unusual, even in wealthy areas. In 2010, in response to the growing number of women seeking support, Boroondara Council, which encompasses the suburbs of Hawthorn, Camberwell and Kew, held a forum with the Salvation Army on older women and homelessness. It reported that family violence was a major reason for women seeking help, as well as reverse mortgages leaving no equity in homes and one-off triggers such as a job loss or health problems.
It called for new models of housing for older women, such as well-supported rooming houses and affordable singles housing.
The Mercy report notes that these kinds of co-operative housing models haven't been embraced by the community sector or government. It called for greater preventative action, such as advocacy for older women in negotiations with private landlords and an increase in social housing stock.
Fiedler and other leaders have called for economic and taxation reforms to stimulate the supply of new and affordable housing. Last month, the federal government said it would provide $115 million to extend a national homelessness agreement for another year - $44 million less than Labor promised.
Fiedler is concerned that this funding cut will come at the expense of new emergency accommodation for vulnerable older women. "Services and facilities go together. They both must be maintained if we're to not reach the absolute tipping point of crisis on the streets."
That announcement followed the release of the Victorian government's social housing framework. It included $149 million to upgrade old housing and a plan to reinvest money from the sale of old buildings into contemporary housing.
But Smith and other advocates say it fails to address the 34,000-strong waiting list for Victorian public housing. "We would have liked to have seen a plan that increases the [housing] stock. That's the thing that drives the homelessness service system being at crisis point, because there's no other way to get people back into housing they can afford."
She says a mix of more social housing - comprising public and community housing - and funding for rental subsidies are needed to give vulnerable older women the "leg-up" they need to get back to normal and, ultimately, take the pressure off the health services and emergency departments - where they end up when they slip through the cracks and things go wrong.
For Joan Lansbury, the impact on her life of being in comfortable, affordable housing is simply and beautifully illustrated at the supermarket checkout.
"I used to put all the important things first, then the semi-important things,'' she says. ''Then there'd be a gap and a few special things, like cashews. I'd say to the girl, 'I'll only put that through if I've got enough' - but half the time I'd have to take the semi-important things back. I'd be so embarrassed.
''Now I go through the checkout and the cashews roll past without me even thinking about it."
She cackles. "Mind you, I make them last a month."