We need to know more – homeless women are invisible

Women have different needs to men

Women come to homelessness via different pathways to men, deal with homelessness differently, and respond differently to housing interventions compared to men.  How do I know this?  Well there is no research and no housing pathways for women, from which we can collect the evidence. The only evidence we can collect is anecdotal – and there is an awful lot of anecdotal evidence that women experience homelessness differently to men and need different solutions from men.  If we are right, those gender specific needs are not being met in Australia.

I get a lot of personal criticism for the work I do advocating for homeless women, most particularly about the somewhat less than rigorous statistics that I use to make a case for prioritising help for women. The simple fact is, that no-one seems to be doing the rigorous gender based research we need, both to identify gender specific needs and to determine how well they are being met.

I can only quote secondary sources – and how accurate those are is anyone’s guess. The rest is perceptions and guesswork. But we must know what these figures are, or women will continue to blame themselves for what our culture is doing to them, and continue to minimise their needs.

We have no idea what is happening to women in general because women do not feature in academic research.

Women in the workforce

There is significant and systemic discrimination against women in the workplace

We do know a fair amount about gender based workplace and pay discrimination, but this has not led any significant reduction to the discrimination against women in employment and income potential.

Women still earn significantly less than men

At this stage, despite many years of legislation making workplace discrimination against women illegal, women are still earning significantly less than men, both within comparable jobs with men, and because they take the care-giving roles that are significantly underpaid compared to the comparable male roles.

We need more research on just how disadvantaged women are in their earning capacity over a lifetime

We have some level of data that shows that we are disadvantaged, but it does not show how disadvantaged we really are. We need accurate and cumulative figures for:

  • the degree to which women earn less than men when performing the same roles,
  • the disparate rates of pay and promotion within the same career path, resulting in increased disparity between males and females within that career path,
  • the lower pay for traditional women’s roles, compared to the comparable male roles, (comparability being established according to the level of training required for the role),
  • the increased levels of part-time work amongst women,
  • the degree of casualisation of the roles and the impact casualisation has on total earnings for women compared to men over time.

Women and superannuation

Our superannuation system was never going to fund most women in retirement

Women accumulate less wealth than men, particularly superannuation.

We need to know how this systemic gender-based discrimination impacts on every aspect of a woman’s life, but particularly on her financial independence.  If she is paid less, and if she works less hours, she has less chance to accumulate  superannuation and she has less chance to invest in property and pay off a mortgage.

It is important to understand that superannuation was not mandatory until 1992, and employers could choose not to organise superannuation on behalf of their staff. Up until 1992, superannuation coverage was patchy at best.  Which means many men and women will retire on entirely inadequate superannuation up to at least 2042. However, women will be impacted more than men by this, given they earn less.

It was, and still is, socially normal and acceptable for a woman within a relationship to earn a lower income than her partner, take time off for care-giving duties, and work part-time rather than full-time once she resumes work.

Current female retirees are particularly disadvantaged

There is a ludicrously false assumption that women retiring now, should be able to fund their retirement, and it is their own fiscal irresponsibility if they cannot. However, the simple fact is that the women currently retiring were not even legally able to obtain superannuation when they first started work, and many did not start accumulating superannuation until it became mandatory in 1992. Even women who commenced working after superannuation became mandatory in 1992,  are still significantly financially disadvantaged compared to men.  The under-capitalisation of women to fund their retirement will continue into the future, until the inequalities in employment and income are addressed.

The retirement system and cultural beliefs surrounding retirement have been a moving target, with rules changing just ahead of those first impacted.  Baby-boomer women had no early warning of how the financial and cultural system was going to change and so could never have predicted their current situation.

Even with younger women, who have some notice of the changes, there is little evidence of the underpayment and reduced work hours of women being addressed now or into the future. Women cannot be made responsible for funding their own retirement for many years to come – at least until all their systemic disadvantages have been overcome.

We need more research on just how disadvantaged women are in their ability to accumulate wealth and fund their retirements

We need accurate figures that show exactly how severe the impact of underpayment is on women, of each age group, and well into the future. With these figures, a clear argument can be made for a living pension, rather than the current pension payment, which is so far below subsistence level that it barely sustains a life of abject poverty.  Do we really want to torture our elders to death?

The impact of violence against women

Violence against women amplifies other disadvantages

Working women are disadvantaged compared to men, but that disadvantage can be significantly amplified by  violence against women and the resulting trauma incurred by women.

We know rape and other forms of violence against women is chronically under reported, so we have no idea how big the problem is. We just know it is big.

The impact of domestic violence on women

On the domestic violence front alone, we must stop minimising the serious level of domestic violence in this country and make sure that victims of domestic violence (mostly women and their children) get all the protection they need, which includes guaranteed suitable housing.    A victim of domestic violence should be supported from the time she flees her existing life, to the time she has been able to rehabilitate into a new life.  No DV victim should be turned away from a refuge to find herself homeless and sleeping in her car, with her children. No DV victim should be asked to leave a refuge before she can move straight into suitable and affordable housing. What culture endorses such neglect?

We need more research on the long-term financial impacts of DV on women and children

We need to know:

  • the number of women turned away from refuges,
  • the number of solo women and women with children who have spent time living in cars or other vehicles,
  • the number of solo women and women with children who are housed in suitable long-term and affordable housing when leaving refuges,
  • the number of abused women who return to their abuser because they have no other way of finding housing,
  • the long-term impacts on the children of abused women,
  • the long-term impacts on the future financial security of the abused women and their capacity to fund their retirements.

Homelessness – the destination after a lifetime of discrimination against women

We have no idea how many people are homeless

We know that the official total number of homeless people according to the census has almost doubled in the four years between the last two census’s. We know that the census is not worded correctly to collect accurate homeless figures, and the resulting figures are a serious underestimate. We know that the housing waiting lists only contain a subset of the homeless.  We know that requests for emergency help only come from a subset of the homeless.

The highly inaccurate census tells us we have at least 200,000 households in severe housing stress or already homeless but could the real number be 300,000, or 500,000?  Think of a number.  Your guess will be as good as anyone else’s.  No-one knows.

And how many of these are women?  Again, no-one knows.

Single women of all ages have been structured out of housing and the Australian economy generally

The end result of a lifetime of workplace and financial discrimination against women, compounded by violence against women, is significant homelessness amongst maturing single women.  Single female incomes over a lifetime of disadvantage were never going to be able to fund their retirements.

And once those women are dependent on pensions, the next state of being, in the current economy, is homelessness.  It wasn’t that way until very recently, but now that house prices have outstripped the minimum wage and below, to such an enormous degree, no minimum wage or pension can sustainably pay for housing.

We have 45% of women over 45 on the minimum wage or less.  ALL of these will become homeless over then next 20-30 years if we do not take measures to mitigate the structural disadvantage being experienced by women now.  This is not just a problem for those currently homeless.  There is a whole generation of younger women lined up to join the baby boomer women who are currently flooding into the homeless cohort.

But how many women?  And at what rate are they losing their homes? We do not know.

The housing providers do not give us the figures we need

When it comes to housing generally, the statistics provided by the housing providers and various other sources of homelessness statistics do not classify according to gender. They do not accept that homeless women are exposed to greater risk than men, and do not allocate housing based on that potential risk.  We have no accurate figures of how many at risk women there are compared to men – the housing providers do not tell us. Even when it comes to house allocation by the providers, we do not know how they are prioritising. We do not know what percentage of single men compared to single women gets housed, for example. There is some anecdotal evidence that men get preferential treatment over women. One housing worker told us that the men flirt their way into the housing ahead of women. This is because women are nothing like as good at flirting with the women housing workers, as men are.  Surely not!  That can’t be true, can it? Anecdotal evidence is perception only. We need the facts.

We need more data on women’s homelessness

We need to know:

  • How many single women are on the waiting lists?
  • How long do single women wait for suitable housing compared to single men, couples and families?
  • What percentage of single male applicants are housed compared to single female applicants?
  • How and in which ways does women’s physical and mental health decline during their homelessness?
  • How much is lost to the volunteer economy while women are unable to contribute as a result of their homeless status?
  • Once in public or community housing, how many women are forced to leave for safety reasons (being inappropriately housed with violent men and substance abusers)?
  • How many women from 45 upwards are one life event away from becoming homeless?
  • What is the current and projected rate of increase in homelessness amongst single women?

So what is being done to redress the growing rate of homelessness amongst women?

Nothing

Well, at least, nothing that we can find.  We would love to find out about the housing projects designed to house, nationwide, I would guess at around 100,000 homeless women. But maybe we can drop that number to 50,000 if you want to be mean about it.  That’s 50,000 homes, suitable for sustainable long term living, returned or added to the affordable housing market, just for single women.  Where are they?

We need more data on measures being taken to redress homelessness

We do not know what measures are actually being taken to redress this national emergency. We have heard the rhetoric, but do not know the numbers.

  • How much affordable housing (at 35% of income) is being added to the national estate over what period?
  • How much affordable housing (at 75% of market value) is being added to the national estate over what period?  (Only affordable for those in paid employment above the minimum wage.)
  • How much affordable housing  (at 35% of income) is planned for the future and over what period?
  • How much affordable housing (at 75% of market value) is planned for the future and over what period? (Only affordable for those in paid employment above the minimum wage.)
  • How much of the new affordable housing is being designed to provide a dignified and sustainable life for single women?
  • What measures are being taken to correct the disparity between house prices and incomes, and how long before these measures will take effect?
  • What are the future projections for how much more of the existing private affordable housing stock will be alienated to tourism?
  • What are the future projections for how much more of the national housing stock will be left untenanted, because the profits and perks are so good that investors do not need the income from tenanting them?
  • What measures are being taken to protect renters and secure long-term, safe housing for all rental tenants?

And most importantly, we have no idea how the women who are currently homeless – that’s us – and how the increasing numbers of women who will become homeless in the next 20 years, are going to be housed.

Perceptions are not good enough

If we cannot get facts on male/female imbalances, we cannot argue for funding for areas where women are at risk, and redress those imbalances. Without the statistics we cannot argue a good case for anything. It is all conjecture, surmise, and personal perceptions.

Feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the problem?  Imagine how we feel.  Will any of the currently homeless women get a safe, secure place to call home before we die?  Yes? How many?

We need genuine and rigorous gender specific research


 

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