Two years ago, I found myself — an educated, employed mother-of-two — without a home.
At the time I didn’t think of myself as homeless. Not even when I covered my eldest daughter’s mouth and begged her to stop shrieking for fear that she’d wake up my best friend, a shift-working nurse and single mother, who had turned her home into a pop-up gymnasium of blow-up mattresses to house us.
I didn’t want the high-pitched protests of my confused 8-year-old to again mean we’d have to find another place.
Because there were no other places.
In Sydney and Melbourne, where a generation has been locked out of the housing market, rental vacancy rates at July 2017 were 2 per cent and 1.7 per cent respectively. Where I live in Lismore, Northern NSW, vacancy hovers at 1 percent. The Northern Rivers, despite only having 4 per cent of the NSW population, is home to 20 per cent of the state’s rough sleepers.
But there was nothing rough-looking about me and my two well-nourished neurotypical children as we surfed the forgiving air-mattress ride of middle class connections for two months.
Unlike the 60 homeless people of Sydney’s tent city at Martin Place who were last week evicted by police, I did not have to endure the public’s ire. I did not provoke unsolicited opinions from strangers who believed my living arrangements were ‘a lifestyle choice’. The state government didn’t see fit to pass a special law which increased police power so that they could remove me from my community and destroy my belongings on the grounds of ‘public safety’. And unlike the tent occupants, I wasn’t the conspicuous human face of this country’s embarrassing housing crisis which needed to be hidden from view at all costs. On the contrary, I was what the social services sector calls ‘the hidden homeless’.
According to Lance Schema, Program Manager at Northern Rivers homelessness intervention program Connecting Home, it’s single mums and older women who make up the majority of the program’s new clients.
The description of his typical client described perfectly my situation.
“I would say 60 to 70 per cent of our clients have school-aged children. Generally, they are single women who find themselves without a home after a relationship breakdown,” he said.
“They are often staying with friends or family and you have serious overcrowding issues. After a week or so the welcome mat gets taken away real quick. It’s hard when you have eight kids in a house. Then there is a bit of bouncing around to friends’ places, before they approach us. They might stay for a few nights in Family and Community Services Housing and then bounce round again.
“This is a huge issue to address. We know it is so imperative to get in quick and break the homelessness cycle because we know that today’s young homeless person becomes tomorrow’s adult homeless person,” he said.
Mr Schema said the program is also assisting older women in increasing numbers.
Of the 280,000 homeless people in Australia, older women have emerged as the largest growing cohort.
According to a report from Homelessness Australia, couch surfing among older women has almost doubled over the past four years and there has been a similar rise in the number of older women sleeping in cars.
Mr Schema said, “There are a lot of older women who are coming through now who perhaps were staying with family or friends, and you’d be surprised at how many who were actually sleeping rough — sleeping in their cars. You don’t think of your grandmother as the typical homeless person but it’s on the increase.
“To some extent it can be easier for older women. Because every person who has that granny flat to rent asks us for a quiet older woman. But the challenge in coastal areas then is talking landlords out of Airbnb-ing that place instead of leasing it out for less to someone who really needs it.”
A mother’s lot
If it wasn’t for the fact that my mother worked until she was 72 to recently pay off her modest Sydney house, I’d be a textbook prospect for old age homelessness myself.
In the Game of Life I was fast out of the blocks. By the age of 30 I had a degree, a hard-won career as a journalist, and two children. Yet all it took was a couple of wildcards to send me back to start – the digital media revolution which evaporated my job prospects, and then a relationship breakdown, which in its death throes turned abusive. And ever since, no matter how hard I work I feel like I’m snaking further back.
Like so many mothers of my generation, a patchy casual work history while raising babies has resulted in diminished earning capacity and left me with half the superannuation of my ex-partner. Mine is a typical story.
The most recent Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia (ASFA) numbers show men retire on an average of $292,500 super, compared to $138,150 for women.
A lack of job security throws another curveball. The Committee of Economic Development of Australia predict 40 per cent of current jobs in Australia won’t exist in 10 to 15 years due to automation — that’s five million jobs gone.
Rural and regional Australia will be worst hit with six out of 10 jobs set to vanish over the same period.
The Smashed Avo generation of renters are also lumped with rising childcare costs which de-incentivises women’s return to the workforce after childbirth. Lawyer Kate Ashmor, who recently called for a Productivity Commission inquiry into women in the workforce, calls these modest middle-income earners ‘The Forgotten Women of Australia’.
She writes: The greatest underutilised resource in our economy is mothers in their childbearing years. Many choose not to return to work after having children – a perfectly legitimate choice. But many, many more do not have a choice: they can’t return to work, or not full-time, because they can’t afford to. And those that do return to work exist in a torturous state of stress and sleep deprivation, and where all but $50 of their weekly income goes towards childcare fees.
Of course, it’s not just middle class professional women who are feeling it.
This month the Melbourne Institute’s HILDA report showed child poverty in single parent families (85% of which are single mother families) has reached a crisis level, rising from 18% to 23% in the two years since social security for sole parents was cut in 2013.
Now here’s the real blow
Given the current dire housing crisis and increased levels of single parent poverty, you’d assume the biggest driver for homelessness was housing shortages and poverty, right? Heartbreakingly, no. Domestic and family violence is the number one reason why people present to specialist homeless services, with 55% of women citing this reason – 25% of total of people seeking help.
According to the AIHW figures, over the three years to 2013–14, of those who sought specialist homelessness services, 150,000 female clients and just over 40,000 male clients indicated experiencing domestic and family violence.
The rising homelessness rates among women is a problem that requires action on many fronts — housing affordability, childcare costs, job security and innovation, superannuation equity, and the gender pay gap.
The point at which this complexity intersects with domestic violence is surely the most challenging feminist frontier for this country.
Self-interest pushes shit downhill
Eventually, my children and I got off the blow-up mattresses on my best friend’s floor.
Given the competition, I knew the odds of finding an adequate low-cost rental quickly through traditional means was almost impossible. In Lismore, a flood-prone town of high-set homes, my best bet was to find a refurbished basement though a private owner.
We were invited to live under a friend’s house for $300 a week, but after a few months were told the clang of the gate closing, and the noise of the children, was just too high risk. My landlord didn’t want to bring attention to the fact her secondary dwelling was illegal. She wasn’t keen on paying the ‘ridiculous’ council fees to make it legit. If her accommodation was illegal, we were illegal aliens. I was unable to claim Centrelink rent assistance, the kids unable to play their crappy little keyboard.
At one stage we found a cheap one-bedroom renovated basement owned by a lovely hard-working family who had borrowed money to make downstairs habitable. But declaring their meagre rental income to Centrelink would have pushed them into severe mortgage stress and all seven of us would be air mattress surfing.
Thanks to my impeccable employment and rental history, the colour of my skin, and professional references, I eventually managed to get to the top of a towering rental application stack and now lease a lovely little standalone house, albeit in a flood zone.
In getting to the top of the stack I wonder how many women underneath were in danger of life-threatening domestic violence, how many were living with a mental illness, and how many had been racially-profiled out of the running.
At the time, I didn’t care. I was desperate and would do anything.
In this climate of housing desperation, shit rolls downhill.
Negative gearing and capital gains tax incentives make it easier for the top 20 per cent to buy their third investment property and harder for the bottom 20 per cent to buy their first home.
In the nearby coastal towns of Byron Bay and Ballina, investors are profiting from the Airbnb economy, which in theory is supposed to help mortgage-stressed homeowners pay the bills.
However, according to a submission from former North Coast Greens MP Jan Barham, “the small number of genuine Byron Bay residents looking to ease mortgage stress by leasing rooms and granny flats were outnumbered by out-of-town black-market investors who contributed no development contributions or rates”.
Airbnb granny flats are being lucratively leased to short-term holiday makers instead of real-life grannies on long-term leases – adding to the town’s already dire affordable housing shortage and to the older woman homelessness problem.
Towards a Golden Girls Solution
I asked Mr Schema what the solution was to this increasingly complex problem.
“Sometimes I think we say, ‘We need to build more houses’ but that’s a bit of a ‘Gee whiz!’. We know we do. But what do we do without that? Caravans, demountables, tiny houses – there’s a lot of innovative stuff happening around smaller living where you can build a whole lot of things on a smaller plot of land,” he said.
“With ageing populations, we try to work with organisation that already exist. A lot of them are faith-based — Baptist Care and Uniting Care come to mind. They run a lot of traditional older person’s homes but they are also doing some tiny house projects for the 55-plus group, with a priority housing system,” he said.
Mr Schema said changing mindsets around sharehousing among older people was an important part of the solution.
“In our culture, it’s hard to talk people in their older years into sharing, but when we do we find it works really well — male or female,” he said.
“What’s beautiful about it is that if you get two people together who are friendly, there’s companionship, there’s safety. If you have services coming in for one person and there is something going on with the other person, someone is going to notice. There are some good wins there,” he said
Punch up, reach down
We can no longer afford to think of the homeless in outdated stereotypes – we don’t all carry brown-paper-bagged port and whisper conspiracy theories to pigeons.
We are your mothers, your co-workers, and potentially your daughters.
As a country, we need to stop blaming the conspicuous homeless citizens in Martin Place for their lot. The only people who really have a choice about the housing crisis are those with the power to increase social housing stock and remove negative gearing and capital gains tax breaks for investors.
It’s time to reach down a rung or two on the housing ladder and help those who have it tougher than us. Take a big breath, and blow up your air mattresses, but save some oxygen to lobby those* who really do have a choice in the matter.
*Hint: they quite probably own a number of investment properties.