A Place to Call Home: Episode 3 - Homelessness in older women
4:06AM Jun 27, 2023
Beverly Barker OWN
This is the third episode in our series on homelessness law for community workers on the go a place to call home. In this episode, I speak to Beverly Baker, the Chair of the Older Women's Network about homelessness experienced by older women.
riI want to begin by acknowledging that this recording was made on Aboriginal land and to acknowledge and pay respect to Aboriginal Elders, past and present, and to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people listening to this podcast.
Beverly, welcome to the homeless podcast. Would you please tell us about your role at the Older Women's Network and the work that you do in the network?
Look, certainly, I am the chair of the New South Wales Older Women's Network, and the President of the National Older Women's Network. The role of the Older Women's Network is to be the voice of older women, so that they can live with dignity and respect as they age and be treated as, as human beings rather than as objects. And that that is for both levels of the organisation. We are not only just advocates for older women; we provide services for older women, so friendship services, book clubs. Anything that they would like to do, we try to accommodate that and put them together with other people with similar interests.
Have you observed any particular causes of homelessness in older women?
Look, the causes are many and varied. The thing that can't be escaped is that the pension is too low if people are not in their own home, and Newstart for women over the age of 45, it's just too low. It's too low. You cannot rent anywhere in the metropolitan area if you are either on an age pension, and it's a joke, if you think you're going to be able to rent anywhere, virtually anywhere, if you are on a pension or not on a pension on unemployment benefits. They are ridiculously low and are punitive in nature. And I think that is the major cause of homelessness, is that people cannot afford the rent, and they cannot afford the travel to move to places where they might be able to afford the rent.
In your observation is domestic and family violence, one of the causes of homelessness for older women?
Absolutely. We are a generation that have put up and shut up, quite frankly. And as we have looked around the world, we realised that we don't have to do that anymore. That we don't have to stay with abusive men. And when you finally get the courage to leave them, you find yourself in a world of financial trouble.
Look domestic and family violence is a major, major cause of homelessness in older women. We're a generation of women who put up with all sorts of behaviours, because we were raised in an era where that was our job. As women get older and they look around, they discover that that doesn't have to be their job. So that once their children have left, and once they are fed up with being spoken to or treated or bullied or being denied financial access, they finally say "That's enough, I'm leaving." That's when they find themselves in a terrible situation. And the terrible situation is that they have to choose between staying with the abuser or leaving and finding themselves in a homelessness situation.
We know that homeless women is in fact the tip of the iceberg. I mean the people living on the street are the tip of the iceberg. Most older women are not rough sleepers. Most older women are couchsurfing, staying with friends, dropping in on family, staying for a couple of days. All manner of activities to keep a roof over their head, but they are in fact homeless.
Beverly, what about legal issues that older women experience when they're homeless?
If the man has decided to leave, he's usually made that decision in advance, and has made sure that the finances are all tied up, that the woman doesn't know where those things are or how to access them. And so she is vulnerable because unless she's 80, she doesn't go on a priority list for housing. And she's then competing with the scarce number of properties and a market where people are absolutely are bidding each other to get a roof over their head.
Anyone homeless has no fixed abode, they've got no address. So most of the government services require an address. They don't have one, they can't give them. So then when they need services, there's no way that they can access them because they don't have one of the things that is desperately needed and then that's an address.
When you look at them getting older, with no fixed abode, how do they access homecare? How do they access aged care? How do they access any of the things that we have, as a society support people as they're ageing, when they have not even the basic and that is a home of their own? Somewhere where they can say "This is my address. This is where I live" that saying, "Oh, well, I I don't have an address" and "Oh no my email is on my phone, and I can't afford to put my charge on my phone". So it's magnifying all of the problems that young unemployed people have on to older people, who don't have the resilience and the know how, and the networks to actually work out how they can get around the ridiculous rules that we have, and the punitive structures we have for people who are in need.
Beverly, would you have any tips for community workers helping homeless older women?
I take my hat off to the community workers working in this field. The staff in my office, deal with this on a daily basis. and I know the destructive nature it is to them. They are suffering trauma, when they hear the stories that are heartbreaking, of women who have spent their lives caring for someone and found out that they are they're homeless, and nobody's going to lend them a hand.
The people working on the front line are heroes, in my view. My tips to them are, thank you, but please listen. Don't judge a woman because of her age. Listen to her story. Because age doesn't define us. What defines us is the passages we've taken through life and how we've ended up in this position. And when you find that out, you find out most of these women are in this position, not of their own volition, not of their own making. We know that during divorce, women fare worse than the men do. We know that in employment, women face not only sexism, but they face ageism as well.
All of the checks and balances that are in place, break down, as soon as you reach a certain age, and you're viewed as valueless. And the aged care workers, the people who are frontline workers looking at in the homeless sector, they know this. And that is why they are continually calling government to build more homes. We're now caught in an absolutely perfect storm. We don't have any like any labourers. All of the building companies are stalled. You can't get building work done. It doesn't matter how much money the government throws at it. There aren't the workers there to do the jobs, to build the houses that we desperately need. We need government to step up and we need government to have a look at the decisions that they have made over the last 30 years and start clawing some of that back.
If you want to get capital gains or negative gearing, then there has to be an agreement that you will let your place and if it isn't let for more than three months, a year or more than six months a year, then you can't claim any of those benefits back because you are not contributing to the housing sector, which the tax benefits were developed to enable you to do.
So I think we've really got to seriously start having a look at the rorts and the tricks that people who are owning 90 properties are using to minimise their tax, costing us money to support people, and not renting their houses out to people who are in need, but putting them on Airbnb for a couple of weeks a year. And claiming all of the benefits, all of the interest, all of the negative gearing and then the capital gains breaks. So I think we've really seriously got to have a look at the language that we have been using and the decisions that we have been making that have made housing affordability a nightmare, and made it leaves us with over a million places empty on census night, a million places. If every single one of those could be turned over to rental, to house people, we would not have a housing crisis at the moment. But because our tax policies have enabled people to accrue wealth, rather than use the properties for the purpose for which we are giving them the benefits the problem isn't going to go away in a hurry.
Thanks, Beverly. I wanted to ask whether you observed any systemic problems contributing to homelessness in older women and obviously the lack of housing is the main one. Is there anything else that you might add in response to that?
There's a number of things that contribute. As older women we are shocked when we find out our family members turn on us. The number of women that have come to us to say that their children have encouraged them to turn their houses over to them so that they didn't have to pay death duties, which we don't have in this country but nonetheless, the women have believed them. Have signed the properties over to their kids only to find out that kids have either sold them underneath them or booted them out. Those women that are devastated. They don't want to come back and say, "Look, this is my kid". They don't want to make that those claims. But certainly, inheritance greed, inheritance, impatience, are part of the problem where people want the inheritance now. They don't want to wait until the person is no longer with us. We've got a massive ageism in in employment, and massive sexism in employment, where older women are viewed as not being of much value.
And we don't do anything to recognise the enormous value that older women do contribute in child caring in carng a whole raft of issues, something in the vicinity of $49 billion a year, put back into the economy, by people of an older generation who are offering carer services. There's always a look at the cost, but there's never look at the benefit. And it's that benefit that we should be tapping into. Oolder women are invisible and as as woman hits 40, she starts to realise that she's not being noticed as much. So all of us as a society should be saying, "Well, what do we want, when we for ourselves when we are older?" and go out of your way to make sure that people who are already there actually have those same services. Because if we don't, when younger people become older people, as bad as it is now it is going to be 1000 times worse for them.
Beverly, if you could ask government for anything to alleviate homelessness, what would it be?
It would be a wraparound service. It would be lowering the age from 80 and putting it on a needs basis. And it would be to increase the amount of money that you are prepared to spend. The state government can use money to rent in any development, they can rent properties. And that's the preferred model is not to have on enclaves but actually have people throughout society, is to rent the properties and make them available for low income, and especially homeless older women.
At the federal level they've made for the first time in, you know, who knows how long, they've recognised that housing and rent stress is an issue. But what they've put towards it is tiny compared to the benefits they give to already wealthy people, like the oil companies and the fossil fuel companies, they really need to increase enormously the amount of money that they are put aside to build low cost and community and social housing. And we need to start saying that the market is failing, and we need a controlled market. We need to be able to discipline the market to say this is what you will do. And one of the things I said earlier, is that you say if you're claiming negative gearing and capital gains, unless you are using your property for rental, then nuh, you're not getting any of those benefits. That is wealth acquisition and you pay for that out of your own pocket. You don't pay for that out of the taxpayer's pocket.
Do you have any good news stories about older women who've experienced homelessness that were able to change their situation?
Look, I have one good story and it was the previous president of our association, who was in fact homeless, but she like others was staying with a family visiting friends. And it wasn't until she was talking about that, that one of the housing providers said "Do you know that you're homeless?" and she said, "No, no, no, I'm not homeless!" And they said, "Well, yes, actually you are." And it just so happened that where her family lives, there was a vacancy and there was no waiting list for that vacancy and they offered it to her. So for the last eight years, she has had her home of her own. But the sad thing is it was because she knew someone who knew someone, not because she had to go through the hoops that other people have to go through. And it would be really nice if it didn't depend on who you knew, but in what you were worth, what your value to the human race was and what you've contributed over your lifetime.
Beverly, is there anything else you'd like to add?
I'm encouraged by the fact that people are now talking about this. This was a hidden problem. And women were blamed, you know, "their life choices", "Why didn't they just leave." All of this sort of rubbish. People are now understanding that it's never that easy. It's far more complex than we have recognised. I think that whole rhetoric of the market has finally fallen flat on its face. And we will start to get back to democracy that is guided, not an open slather. Do what you like. If you've got money, you've got no worries. I think we'll start moving back towards that egalitarian society that Australia always was. And I think that's a really, really positive thing. Because even five years ago, nobody was prepared to get up and say, the markets failing, this is rubbish. Some economics, economists was saying it, but it wasn't the language of the general population. It is now the language of the general population. And that language will flow through to the Reserve Bank. And it will stop using people's mortgages to control spending when they have inflation is not of their making.
I think the dialogue now has a lot more promise to it than it has in well in my in my memory. So, I think that's a really, really positive step. And when people are united, things will change.
That's a really positive note to end on. And for people who are interested in finding out more about the Older Women's Network, the web addresses OWN, ownnsw.org.au. That is the best way, that's for New South Wales and the national address NOWN nownn.org.au and that's www.known.org.au.
Thank you for listening to this episode. You'll find the contact details for the Older Women's Network in the show notes for this episode.
In our next episode, we speak with the Veterans Legal Service about homelessness experienced by veterans and the ways they can help veterans.