With the stereotype of the older homeless man on the street, it surprises many people to learn that the average person experiencing homelessness is, in fact, a young woman – often with a child in tow.
Women are the “hidden homeless”, secreted away in refuges, concealed in emergency shelters, couch surfing in a friend’s spare room or eking out a day-to-day existence in hotel rooms, caravan parks, or even in their cars to avoid sleeping rough on the streets, where the threat of violence is ever-present.
As an ambassador for the Wayside Chapel (a homeless crisis centre in Sydney’s Kings Cross) I have met many of these women and seen how – as a nation – we neglect them.
According to figures released by Homelessness Australia in 2013, domestic and family violence is the number one reason why women approach specialist homeless services, with 55 per cent of female clients citing this reason.
For most women, fleeing the violence is only the beginning of the inevitable spiral into homelessness. Many know their desperate escape will plunge them into a financial abyss as well.
Due to gender-based workplace inequality, women – on the whole – earn less than men. They find it difficult to re-enter the workforce after having children and are reliant on part-time wages and parent payments to make ends meet. Seventy-five per cent of part-time workers are women.
There has been a 10 per cent increase in homelessness among women since 2011, and latest census figures show housing outcomes become worse as women age.
In 2016 the number of older women in Australia living with homelessness increased by 31 per cent to 6866, up from 5234 people in 2011.
But the housing market is skewed against women in other ways as well.
Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and migrant woman face cultural, social and language barriers.
They can find it bewildering to navigate the complex bureaucracy and red-tape that surrounds social housing applications and forms.
Due to higher birth rates they sometimes require larger homes with four or five bedrooms, which are in short supply both in the social housing and private rental market.
New arrivals to Australia are particularly vulnerable to homelessness.
Seventy-four per cent, or 13,088 people, who were born overseas and arrived in Australia in the last five years were living in “severely” crowded dwellings and 13 per cent (2350 persons) were living in boarding houses, according to census data.
The figures are damning and women are at the epicentre of the crisis. They can’t afford the rising rents. They are discriminated against by landlords. They slip between the cracks. Their worsening plight has been described as a “tsunami of need” by housing advocates.
Jenny Smith, Chair of Homeless Australia, says homeless services have to turn away 250 people each day.
“We need to recognise housing has become an ‘activity for investors’, not (as it should be) ‘shelter for people’.”
My role at the Wayside is to raise awareness about the desperate plight that 116,000 of our fellow Australians find themselves in each night. Men, women and children.
We’ve allowed them to become the forgotten people; the abandoned people. We step over their crumpled bodies as we rush to work in the morning and carelessly drop a few coins into their outstretched hands at the train station.
We need to do more. We must do more.
We need to declare homelessness a state of emergency.
We need to create a national social leasing scheme, similar to Defence Housing, we should consider converting vacant office blocks into social housing, placing transportable units on vacant land reforming tenancy laws; replicating successful overseas models where homelessness has all but been eradicated.
And we need to remember is that homelessness is solvable.
Indira Naidoo will present SBS’s three-part documentary Filthy Rich & Homeless from 14 -16 August. Watch the trailer here. Join the conversation #FilthyRichHomeless