‘Woefully inadequate’: calls for NSW government to help growing number of homeless older women

·5 min read

More social housing and priority access needed for almost 5,000 women over 55 on the waiting list, Housing for the Aged says

Late last year, at the age of 68, Suzanah-Jo Day found herself in need of somewhere to live.

A series of abusive relationships had left her broke and without superannuation, and Sydney’s property market meant it was nearly impossible to find a private rental that she could afford on her age pension.

After a lifetime working in both the aged care and disability sectors, she was not used to navigating the state’s complex welfare system, but knew the notoriously long wait times for social housing meant she was unlikely to find somewhere to live.

In what she describes as “pure luck”, she stumbled across a northern beaches rental run by a local women’s shelter. Known as “transitional housing”, what was supposed to be a short stay has turned into 12 months.

“I didn’t know how long it would be, or if I’d ever be able to afford anything,” she said. “I’d still be in the same tangle if it wasn’t for the women’s shelter.”

Though she considers herself one of the “lucky ones”, Day’s experience is not unique.

On Friday the advocacy group Housing for the Aged released a new report looking at the state of homelessness for older women. It cites the New South Wales government’s own 2018 NSW Homelessness Strategy to show that the state saw an 88% growth in the number of women over the age of 55 accessing homelessness services between 2013 and 2017.

In 2021, there were still almost 5,000 women over the age of 55 on the waiting list for social housing in the state.

The Housing for the Aged report calls for changes to social housing policy to make it easier for women like Day to access social housing.

In NSW, access to the priority list for social housing on the basis of age is limited to people over the age of 80. With more than 50,000 people on the waiting list for social housing and delays of between five and 10 years in some parts of the state, it means accessing affordable housing through the public system is a pipe dream for many.

Coupled with the state’s housing affordability crisis, older women are increasingly left with few options.

“In many cases the reality is that it means sleeping in your car, hoping to house-sit or pet-sit, or hoping friends and family can put a roof over your head,” Fiona York, the chief executive of Housing for the Aged, said.

“It also means women end up in unsafe situations, either rooming or just in unsafe situations. You’re really stuck.”

Along with expanding the age for priority access, the report joins a growing chorus of advocacy groups in calling for the state government to massively increase the number of social houses built each year, including those specifically for older people.

In June Equity Economics released a report stating that NSW currently had a shortfall of 70,000 social housing units, and that it would need to build 5,000 each year for the next 30 years to meet the OECD average.

“What we don’t want to see is a battle between priority cohorts,” York said. “Everyone has the right to safe and affordable housing and what we have now is woefully inadequate. We can’t have the most vulnerable people fighting over scraps.”

The government says it has already significantly boosted housing supply in the state. In last year’s budget it committed $812m for new housing supply and maintenance, which it said would deliver more than 800 new social homes and upgrades to about 16,500 existing properties.

Related: NSW urged to build 5,000 new social housing units a year to boost industry and fight homelessness

More recently, it has committed $18m to create 78 new dwellings specifically for older women in south-west and southern Sydney to be delivered through community housing. On Saturday, the minister for families, communities and disability services, Alister Henskens, visited a new 220-unit development at Minto, in the city’s south-west, where half will be dedicated to older women.

Henskens said the government prioritised access to housing based on need, and pointed to other programs including a $484m investment to support women and children escaping domestic and family violence into housing and specialist services.

“The NSW government provides social housing to eligible applicants as quickly as possible, prioritising those most in need, including people who are homeless, escaping domestic violence or with severe and ongoing medical conditions,” he said.

“We also have a range of rent assistance programs, including Rent Choice Start Safely for women escaping domestic violence, to help people secure or maintain tenancies in the private rental market. Available support includes helping people pay rent, cover rental bonds and to sustain tenancies.”

NSW Labor’s shadow minister for housing, Rose Jackson, said it was “appalling” that so many older women in the state were at risk of homelessness. She said the government should invest in a specialist homelessness service for older people, and consider changes to the way access to priority housing was decided.

“It’s important any changes in priority access are accompanied by more actual social housing though because we don’t just want to change the waiting lists, we want to get people off them and into stable and secure housing.”

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