The New Face of Homelessness

Here is my latest article for The Adelaide Review that appeared in their October edition. You can read it on their website here.

Vivienne had been with her ex-partner for six years when they decided to live together. Moving in to his house it was just six months in to this new living arrangement when the abuse started yet it was another nine years before she could finally leave.

“There comes that turning point where you realise that you can’t stay any longer or you might die,” she recalls.“Something overrides you and you have to go.”

Vivienne was told about Catherine House by a friend and for two years she tried to get in.

“In these situations often your finances have been diminished, your self-esteem. You might have stopped work, study so you haven’t got much to go with and that’s why I stayed,” she recalls. “So you just stay until something else happens and you ring (Catherine House) and there is nothing and then you stay and you get worse and worse, because the longer you stay, the more everything declines your mental health, physical, financial everything.”

When she finally arrived at Catherine House’s emergency accomodation she felt an immediate sense of relief.

“I remember that feeling of being able to breathe,” she says. “It was like this ‘aaah I’m here, I’ve gone’.” 

In the 2016 ABS census the number of homeless women had increased by almost a third in a decade to 61 per cent. Each day around 155 women across Australia are being turned away from specialist homeless services because of a lack of resources and affordable housing. While the largest group of homeless women are aged between 25 and 34, women over the age of 55 are the fastest growing number experiencing homelessness in Australia.

Louise Miller-Frost is the Chief Executive Officer of Catherine House which began 31 years ago by the Sisters of Mercy as emergency accomodation for single women. Right now they have anywhere from 25 to 30 women on their waiting list and just one caseworker whose job it is to monitor their safety while trying to find alternative accommodation.

“I think there is a misunderstanding that women’s homelessness and domestic violence are the same thing and they’re not,” says Miller-Frost. “There is often a trauma background of some sort, but that might be death of a partner, a stillborn, a workplace injury. There’s a whole range of things, a whole range of traumas that are often associated with homelessness. But there’s also basic things like poverty. You know, if you don’t have superannuation and you don’t have savings and you’ve just lost your job, then chances are you’re going to become homeless unless you have a really great network.”

Single women over the age of 55 often do not have savings, superannuation or assets to call on when experiencing financial hardship. They are part of a generation that worked part-time, casual or not at all while caring for children.

For Vivienne she was a Yoga instructor teaching at nights when she was married with children. She stayed at home while her husband worked. When she found herself having to get out of a dangerous relationship she did not have a career or superannuation, Catherine House was her only option.

She left their emergency accomodation after five months and moved in to one of their transitional cottages nearby. There she shared a two bedroom maisonette and was able to live independently while still accessing their services and caseworker. At 61 Vivienne decided to go back to study as a financial counsellor where she can use her life experience to support other women. 

The private rental market is still out of her means so she opted to move in to a public housing co-op. Unfortunately she experienced stigma and discrimination from having lived through domestic violence and homelessness and the only way she could fight that was to access legal aid. Yet those services were cut.

“It’s not good for my mental health to be with people who don’t want you,” she says. “Sometimes it’s really hard to be positive because you haven’t got a home yet.”

When asked about steps the State Liberal Government is taking to address homelessness in older women Minister for Human Services Michelle Lensink points to delivering 40 crisis accommodation beds for South Australians escaping domestic and family violence and opening nine regional safety hubs. 

In this year’s State Budget they also announced a $104.5 million housing stimulus package to build 90 new homes, with the majority being affordable housing. Nine of these affordable homes have already been released to single women over 50 earning under $85,000 but only if they are able to secure finance of around $215,000 which may see them working in to their 80s.

“The Liberal Government is developing a Women’s Employment and Leadership Strategy that aims to increase opportunities for women in positions of power and decision-making and increase women’s financial independence through assisting them in employment,” says Minister Lensink.

“Our focus is particularly on the economic empowerment of older women, working with employers and other organisations to promote the benefits of older women in the workplace and address discrimination. We are currently consulting on the new strategy and it’s expected to be delivered in the first half of 2020.” 

While housing and employment are integral for a woman rebuilding her life after homelessness and trauma, so is her mental health. The onsite  women’s centre at Catherine House is key to addressing women’s self-esteem and confidence. It runs daily activities that include art and crafts therapy, exercise classes, TAFE accredited self help courses and resources for Centrelink and job hunting. This centre is entirely funded by their fundraising activities while their more intensive psychosocial services are funded by both the State and Federal Government.

The recent 25 per cent cuts to mental health services to fund the NDIS will transition to some women at Catherine House however it does remove funding to address their unmet demand.

“We’re now taking resources away from (psychosocial support) that limits the amount of new people who can actually find services,” says Miller-Frost. “When women leave Catherine House and if they have a mental illness that they’re managing, one of the things that we say to them is if you start to feel your symptoms coming on, seek help early. Now, if we’re limiting the amount of help that they can get in the community, then they’re going to go to the emergency department because that’s the only option left.”

The State Government has extended contracts to cover the funding cut for three months, ending on 30th September. Yet at time of publication it was still unclear if that reprieve would be extended. 

“The government shouldn’t be making it more difficult for support services to support us,” argues Vivienne. “These organisations have to spend all their time fundraising. Now, they shouldn’t have to do that. They should spend their time trying to help us. 

“We read in the paper about paramedics, doctors saving lives but these women are saving lives, every day, every single day and they don’t get rewarded for that.”