You're not alone: The leading causes of homelessness for women in Australia

Jan 04, 2022

The reasons behind women’s homelessness in Australia are many and varied. The most common cause cited is domestic violence – where women are forced to flee an abusive partner. But the issue of homelessness has many more layers, such as women’s experience with mental illness, the cost of housing in Australia, and the gap in earnings that can leave women financially vulnerable.

A new and disturbing trend has seen women over 45 emerge as one of the fastest growing groups of homeless Australians. The 2016 census showed there were 48,720 Australian women who were homeless, a 31 per cent increase from 2011. But this figure is considered to be just the tip of the iceberg, as women will often stay with friends, relatives, couch surf or house-sit.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines homelessness for the purpose of the Census as: “when a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives they are considered homeless if their current living arrangement: is in a dwelling that is inadequate; does not allow them to have control of, and access to space for social relations.”

Add to this, women are much more likely to be part of the hidden homeless, as they are unlikely to sleep rough like men. (The Census showed 58 per cent of homeless were male, versus 42 per cent women.) Women are also more likely to be accompanied by children. Because of this, they will explore safer options than sleeping on the street.

Domestic violence: When home is not safe

Domestic violence is the primary issue that pushes women into homelessness – according to Homelessness Australia, 55 per cent of clients cite domestic violence as the reason they require assistance. Leaving an abusive partner can take a financial toll on women, as they need to look for new accommodation and possibly income support.

The first known women’s domestic violence refuge was established in Chiswick, London in 1971. Before then, women and children had very few options. Today, Queensland women can access the Lady Musgrave Trust Handy Guide for Women with emergency contact phone numbers and important networking and shelter details. In fact, 290,500 Australians accessed specialist homeless services in 2019-2020, while 174,700 children aged 0-17 received child protection services in that same period.

Mental health: Wellbeing and housing

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that 31 per cent of homeless Australians experienced a mental health problem. The AIHW’s most recent research found that the percentage of Australians experiencing severe psychological distress has increased since the onset of the pandemic. Add to this, the stress of financial insecurity, relationship breakdown and the pressure of raising children will often exacerbate mental health issues and have flow-on effects that can lead to homelessness.

The cost of housing: Home and away

When looking at homelessness, it’s important to examine women’s lives, but also to zoom out and see the wider context of housing in Australia. Over the past year, despite Covid and lockdowns, property prices in Australia have continued to soar. The very high cost of real estate in Australia – to rent and buy – is a brutal reality for women, especially older women who find themselves homeless. There is a diminished pool of housing across Australia available for women, especially if their income is a government benefit or they are low-income.

The Federal Government has recently launched the Family Home Guarantee Scheme aimed at single parents, so they can access a mortgage with a 2 per cent deposit. The program provides a way for single parents to purchase property with reduced barriers to entry. Of course, there are eligibility requirements to participate in this program.

Financial difficulties: A lifetime of earning less

Women often spend their lives caring for others – children, and later their parents – which means they have depleted earnings and savings over a lifetime. Women are also more likely to be in part-time work and casual employment as they balance life, family and community responsibilities. (Tuck shop duty, anyone?)

Women make up 68 percent of all part time employees in Australia. When the insecure nature of women’s employment and decreased earnings over a lifetime is coupled with one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, the result is a tough reality for many women.

Older women are particularly vulnerable to housing insecurity. If a long-term relationship ends through separation, divorce or death of an income-earning partner, women’s vulnerability and potential to fall into homelessness increases.

As a consequence of women earning less over a lifetime, they are more likely to have a smaller savings nest egg. For many women, a job loss, an unexpected illness, or an unexpected bill can launch a financial unravelling that can result in homelessness. Hence, government policies and initiatives around superannuation, pay equity, home ownership and workforce participation that allow women to earn more and retire with greater security are extremely important.

Housing for all women

Homelessness for women is a complex issue that spans domestic violence, mental illness, micro-economic issues such as women’s lifetime earnings and the macro-economics of housing costs in Australia. Thankfully, there are vital resources, like The Handy Guide, which assists and connects women and families in Queensland – but of course, there is always more work to do.