Ways to tackle homelessness among women over 50 in our regions

Maree Gardner at her home in Unanderra. Picture: Adam McLean
Maree Gardner at her home in Unanderra. Picture: Adam McLean

Older women have been recognised as being among the fastest-growing groups of homeless people in Australia in recent years.

It was estimated last year that about 240,000 women aged 55 or older and another 165,000 women aged 45-54 were at risk of homelessness.

In the final instalment of our Regional Housing Solutions series, the Australian Community Media property team explores potential retirement solutions for women over 50 within our regions.

Michele Adair. Picture: Supplied

Michele Adair. Picture: Supplied

Why are older women at increasing risk of homelessness?

Community Housing Industry Association NSW chair Michele Adair said there were various contributing factors increasing the risk of homelessness among older single women.

"It's not so much that there are different drivers for those women in the regions compared to the cities, but perhaps some of them are exacerbated by living in the regions," she said.

"One of the biggest drivers for women in that age group, is much of their working life was pre-compulsory superannuation, and we know historically that women's ability to be able to continuously contribute to their super is interrupted because of child rearing and the like.

"Another element is we know that women tend to occupy either casualised or lower paid jobs. And also there is a gender pay gap in many fields."

Ms Adair said some of these issues were played out to a greater extent in the regions, where employment economic infrastructure could be lacking, or work could be seasonal, such as tourism-related jobs.

She said another challenge was in situations whereby a couple had owned their home, but later divorced.

Ms Adair said when this happened later in life, older women were often unable to secure a mortgage for another property as their borrowing power was limited.

She said another key factor during the past 18 months amid the COVID-19 pandemic was large numbers of people having migrated from cities to the regions and therefore boosting property prices.

Maree Gardner. Picture: Adam McLean

Maree Gardner. Picture: Adam McLean

'Freedom to live my life'

Maree Gardner, 65, said she understood how older women could find themselves at risk of homelessness.

"I know women that are a similar age to me," she said. "They never bought a house, lived their life very fully, and have nothing to show for it in the sense of an asset.

"There are a lot of women who have brought up children, divorced from their husbands and got the money from half the house, and might just leave and have nothing else.

"I know women who can't retire... They thought they had a future, but life circumstances changed, and found themselves in a difficult financial situation."

Ms Gardner has never married or had children.

Now single, she has a casual job working in disability services, which she said was physically demanding at her age.

She was gaining extra income by renting out spare rooms at her Unanderra home to university students.

"Then COVID struck, there were no more international students and that was a source of income that just ended for me," Ms Gardner said.

"So I had to work more to make up the difference. But the physicality of it was getting to me. At age 65, I was feeling I should be allowed to stop working, but if you don't have much super, it's difficult."

Ms Gardner had long been looking for an affordable retirement option, but was feeling priced out of the market.

Her mortgage wasn't entirely paid off, and she had withdrawn some of her superannuation to use for house repairs and operations.

"Money was vanishing left, right and centre... I was getting a bit worried," she said.

"I knew I could sell the house and downsize, that was my Plan B."

Therefore, she recently sold her home.

"I knew if I sold and I re-bought back into the community, I would have to keep working forever to keep maintaining the house.

"I thought, 'this isn't going to work'... I was wondering how I could exist without having to work too hard, because at 65, disability work is very strenuous.

"It was, 'how do I stop working, and still live, and still have some quality of life?'"

She said she found an answer in the form of not-for-profit retirement living and aged care provider IRT's collaborative retirement housing precinct for women over 55, Jasmine Grove.

Jasmine Grove is part of the new retirement village Henry Brooks Estate at IRT Kanahooka, and aims to provide a more affordable retirement living option for a group of eight single women.

Ms Gardner will be moving into the precinct next month.

"Financially it's great, it was affordable for me, and I wouldn't have to compromise my privacy, living in my own self-contained villa," Ms Gardner said of this model.

"I think the collaborative living idea is a good one, because I can share my knowledge of various hobbies and interests with others.

"It will be peace and quiet, and people who want to be there, who have entered into the collaborative situation where we're sharing and caring. It's freedom to me, and freedom to live my life."

Ms Gardner said there needed to be more support for initiatives such as Jasmine Grove.

"There is a chronic problem with older women and homelessness," she said.

"We don't look after the homeless... I hope that things are brighter for the future, because we really need to focus on putting roofs over people's heads."

Jasmine Grove.

Jasmine Grove.

An 'innovative' model

IRT has retirement living options throughout regions such as the Illawarra, South Coast and parts of Queensland.

The aim of Jasmine Grove was to support single older women to live together in a collaborative housing precinct.

Construction of Jasmine Grove will be ready for residents to start moving in from October. Deposits have been taken for all eight villas.

IRT CEO Patrick Reid said since announcing Jasmine Grove in September 2020, there had been more than 200 inquiries lodged by Illawarra women.

Partially funded by the Australian Government through the Building Better Regions Fund, Jasmine Grove has been designed to encourage participation, sharing and a sense of community, while offering residents their own private and secure homes.

Eight private one-bedroom fully self-contained villas are set around a community building featuring a share kitchen, family-sized dining and lounge area.

Outdoors will include a barbecue area, additional storage and shared vegetable garden and green space.

The villas are also pet-friendly.

IRT innovation manager Myra Basic said it was one option for women who had modest savings to have a secure home for the rest of their lives.

"It's a preventative solution," she said. "It tackles the risk of homelessness early on before there's a need for social housing and affordable rental housing."

There were three different pricing options, with the lowest being an upfront payment of $199,000, and the highest $366,000.

Those paying $199,000 also contribute a weekly installment of $230 a week. Those paying the higher amount don't pay this installment.

"A lot of women have around $200,000 in savings, and instead of whittling that away over the next ten years in rent, they can put it into a villa and have that secure for the rest of their lives," Mrs Basic said.

"That gives them the option to do that, rather than being priced out of the private market elsewhere.

"And they can also make decisions as to how they'd like to use the spaces - they have a lot of ownership over what activities they'd like to do, what they'd like to plant in the garden. They can set up their community how they'd like it to be."

Mrs Basic said while collaborative housing was not a new concept per se, this method was focused on creating a new type of supportive community for retiring women.

"This type of innovative housing is really providing something new for affordability, but also that social connection, which is just as important for women's well-being," she said.

Future Jasmine Grove residents (left to right) Heather Waters, Robyn Oliver, Dianne Shiels and Jenny Hodge discussing furniture options and colour schemes for Jasmine Groves community room. Picture: IRT

Future Jasmine Grove residents (left to right) Heather Waters, Robyn Oliver, Dianne Shiels and Jenny Hodge discussing furniture options and colour schemes for Jasmine Groves community room. Picture: IRT

Mrs Basic said she hoped the model could be expanded to other regions, either via IRT or other housing organisations.

She felt it could work in various regions throughout the country, provided it was established in an age appropriate, community-friendly and affordable way.

She said a key aspect of collaborative housing was co-design, whereby the providers speak with members of the demographic they were building for. This would help tailor it to different regions.

"It's something we want others to do, as we've heard from the community that there's a need for it," Mrs Basic said.

Other measures

Yumi Lee is manager of the Older Women's Network NSW, an advocacy group for older women.

Ms Lee said one of the measures they were advocating for to help address homelessness for women over 50 was to launch a specialist housing service for older people.

"You have specialist housing services for younger people, and for women fleeing domestic violence who are generally younger women with children," she said.

"But there is no specialist housing service for older people."

It would include information on where the housing providers are located to help older people through the process of securing an affordable home, and take them through it step-by-step.

Ms Lee said they were advocating for this because a lot of older people find themselves "housing insecure".

"They have never had to interact with the social services sector before, and all of a sudden, they find themselves either homeless or in a precarious housing situation. And they don't really know where to turn.

"They don't want to consider themselves homeless, so the first thought would not be for them to go to a homelessness service. If we had a housing service just for older people, that would help a lot. It could help prevent homelessness, because it would be providing help sooner rather than later, and be proactive."

She said regions like the Illawarra and Newcastle were among the areas where this service should be rolled out, given the number of people who are housing insecure in those areas.

Ms Lee also called for the creation of more social and affordable housing, with at least 5000 dwellings per year statewideneeded over the next ten years.

Her other proposal to assist older women was for the government to reduce the priority age to access social housing from the current 80 years to 55.

"The solutions are out there, we just need the political will to fix it," she said.

Furthermore, Ms Lee said some of the "so-called innovative solutions" wouldn't sufficiently address the scale of the problem.

She said measures such as groups of older women pooling resources to buy property, or the creation of tiny houses could potentially reduce the number of people who were housing insecure, but were largely "band aid solutions".

"They are smoke and mirrors to hide the fundamental fact that we have a shortage of affordable housing," she said.

"Tiny homes are not suitable for everyone, because if they have a mobility or accessibility issue, it's not for them."

Ms Adair said all three levels of government needed to recognise their responsibility to help provide safe, secure and affordable rental properties.

She said where there was government-owned land located close to facilities, it should be made affordably available to not-for-profit community housing providers.

"If the land is not suitable for affordable rental housing, sale to the private sector should be on the condition that the proceeds go towards affordable housing supply elsewhere," she said.

This story How we can tackle regional homelessness among women over 50 first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.