For Susan Mathewson, it was a confluence of events. First her mother got cancer and she visited her in hospital every day. Her successful freelance ad writing career stalled, then suffered. Soon after, her partner left, and she became estranged from other family members.
“I fell into a heap, and I couldn’t get back up again,” she now says. This was the turning point for the 64-year-old woman with bipolar disorder now in assisted housing, on Newstart and living below the poverty line. She had been a creative director in advertising once, earning “lots and lots of money”.
“Now I can’t get a job for love or money. I don’t fit into the normal departments or categories of things, I am unmarried, no family, no super, no existing career path now because where do you go?”
Until she qualified for assisted housing supplied by a private enterprise, Mathewson was “two seconds away” from joining the ranks of the fastest growing demographic of people experiencing homelessness in Australia today. Older single women.
These women don’t always fit the stereotype of the poor old woman at the bus stop and very often you can’t see them – they might be sleeping in their car or moving from couch to couch. Says Dr Susan Feldman, who has been working in the area of women and ageing for 30 years: “Older women hide very well.”
In Vital Conversations, a report for the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, Feldman found that “between 2012 and 2017 the number of older women couch surfing increased by 83% and there was a 75% increase in older women sleeping in their cars and presenting at homelessness services”. In 2017–18 more than 13,800 older women accessed specialist homeless services, a 63% increase in five years.
Feldman has found that “more than half a million older Australian women live in long-term income poverty. These women have given so much to the Australian economy during their younger lives as workers and carers.”
The Mercy Foundation’s 2018 Retiring into Poverty report, found that “homeless women generally move from place to place often in a downhill trajectory in terms of mental and physical health as their situation becomes untenable”.
While homeless men are more visible and make up 59% of those on the streets, older single women are more likely to be in insecure housing, says Emma Dawson, the executive director of progressive think tank Per Capita.
And while one in four older Australians live in poverty, according to the Australian human rights commission, Corinne Dobson of the St Vincent de Paul Society says a larger proportion of women live in poverty – because of the hidden nature of it women are more likely to be undercounted in the census.
Disabled and unable to work after an “horrific” accident, Marilyn J, 70, lived in her car with her dog and cat for about three months. Like many older women she was out “on the road”. To escape the summer heat she would park in the underground car park at Coles “until they told me I couldn’t stay. Every evening I would drive to the park over the road. Everywhere I went, there was nowhere to live,” she told Guardian Australia.
The pathways to poverty have been linked to a number of compounding and systemic factors as well as gender and economic inequalities that have built up over the years; a lifetime of discrimination that will make its full affects known later in life. “Ageism, sexism and poverty collide,” says Feldman, “and it is not pretty.”
Ageism in the workforce, Dawson says, means that “once you are over 55 it is virtually impossible to get a job at a similar level of income” if you have been out of the workforce for any reason.
Women’s work lives are far more likely to have been interrupted by caring for children or family members; to be the primary carers they have often worked casual or part time. “It not only affects their earning capacity, it affects their capacity to build up superannuation,” says Dobson. “Our research last year showed that for the average women it was about 47% less super than for men over their lifetime.” For some women it has been a lifetime of unpaid caring for others, for others there was no compulsory super when they joined the workforce. Almost 35% of women approaching retirement (aged 60 to 64) have no superannuation at all.
In a high rental market, a Newstart allowance of $489.70 a fortnight for a single adult puts most rental accommodation out of reach. With the rising costs of utilities, paying for your phone and running a car it is impossible. Keeping a car on the road is a priority – you might need to live in it. And food is almost an afterthought.
The tipping point into homelessness can be swift and brutal. “The moment they are unable to work and pay their rent, they are likely to be homeless,” says the age discrimination commissioner, Dr Kay Patterson.
Suzanne Hopman of the homeless charity Dignity says “probably the biggest challenge we see at the moment is when the male partner dies and the wife, who has been a traditional homemaker, goes from two pensions to one. Then you will find women homeless for the first time.”
By the age of retirement, says Patterson in a just released human rights report, “a third of women are not in a relationship”.
The Retiring into Poverty report found housing “must be at the centre of aging, and health policy”. It recommended a comprehensive federal government strategy to address the current financial insecurity of older women, and inequities in superannuation policy and legislation, and said that “special measures are required to assist women who have not had the opportunity to acquire superannuation”.
Says Dawson: “We need to massively increase commonwealth rent assistance, now. We need to recognise that there are older people who are living in poverty and who need to be better supported by our government. We need to make a significant society shift to address the fact that we still live as if it was 100 years ago and men were the breadwinners. All our employment and social structures are completely out of date.”
As the baby boomer generation heads into old age, charities like St Vincent de Paul see the plight of older women every day, desperate women who have come for help as an absolute last resort. Says Dobson: “A recurrent phrase I hear is ‘I never thought I would be in this situation. I never thought I would be coming to Vinnies to get food.’ We can see where the demographics are headed, it is not going to go away, there needs to be action now to address it and prevent it getting worse.”
Reporting in this series is supported by VivCourt through the Guardian Civic Journalism Trust