White collar women: the invisible homeless

Most homeless women are not fleeing family violence or related trauma, we are not substance abusers, we do not lack skills or education, we are fantastic at budgeting our money, we keep clean houses, we solve problems, we cook Sunday roasts, we may even polish our shoes, …and we hide. No-one knows we exist.

We are single white collar women who are homeless for one reason and one reason only. We do not earn enough money to pay rent. We have committed no crime. We just don’t get paid enough in this lucky country of ours.

Some of us are too old or too sick or too disabled to work, and so in need of social welfare payments that we can sustain life on. Yes, sustain life on. Joke, isn’t it!

Or we look too old for anyone to want to employ us. We remain chronically unemployed or under employed from 40, till we escape the Newstart abuser at 65. Twenty five years of debasement and torture. For the last few years of that time, no-one will even talk to us about work, but we still have to jump through the hoops inflicted on us by our abuser – Centrelink – “jump through this meaningless hoop you disgusting freeloader” – us – “how high sir”? “How many times, maam?” “Please don’t hurt me!” “Please don’t stop my benefits!”

The lucky ones who can get work are employed as casuals in the lowest paid “women’s work” with unstable hours and uncertain and inadequate incomes. And guess what? If we want to retrain so that we can earn a decent wage, we find that the only training the government will subsidise is for those very industries where our labor is casualised and chronically underpaid. Retraining will solve nothing.

When homelessness crept up on us, we had no idea what was happening. We are proud women, proud of our ability to deal with anything, to cope with everything. When we find ourselves sidelined from this society, ejected, thrown out, for committing the crime of being underpaid, we don’t understand. “What have I done wrong?” “There must be something I can do right to fix this.” “This is one of the richest countries in the world isn’t it?” “The economy is booming isn’t it?” We just don’t understand what WE are doing wrong.

So for a few years we find resourceful ways to keep a lock between us and the outside world. For myself I tumbled from renting dumpy old houses, to renting granny flats, to converted garages, to sheds, to couch surfing, to a room in a boarding house – all the time imagining there was something I could do to fix this. Others wake up earlier than I did and use their last remaining dollars to buy a vehicle they can sleep in. They hit the road, and that vehicle becomes home. It protects from the rain and has a door they can lock.

During the years – and it is years, where we struggle to keep a roof over our heads and a door that will lock, we do not call ourselves homeless. We do not put ourselves on the public housing waiting lists, because women like us can always manage, can’t we?

No we can’t, so eventually over this time, we do start to break down. Our bodies start to fall apart, and the years of intolerable stress and fear take their toll both physically and emotionally. But you know what? You would still not identify us as homeless if you saw us in the supermarket. We still look after our clothes, our hair, we still look “cared for”. We still talk nicely. We still smile a lot. We are not rough sleepers, we are strong and resourceful Australian women who will always cope – until we stop coping altogether.

So eventually we admit defeat and try to put our names on the housing waiting lists, only to find that the housing workers do everything they can to discourage us. Sometimes they succeed, because women like us don’t put our names on public housing waiting lists, so we walk away again. But eventually, as our health continues to deteriorate, we force them to assess us for eligibility for public housing, at which time our need is so dire that we normally go straight onto the priority list – but even then they tell us we have a 5-10 year wait. What? Years still, to keep subsisting this way?

And then what? To be dumped in unsuitable accommodation we would never choose, on main roads, in dangerous areas, surrounded by substance abusing and unpleasant men? What a future to look forward to.

We are already no longer able to cope. We are already in too much pain. We have already been living for too many years without medical or dental care, without social support and by this stage, without friendships; and in a state of perpetual fear, shock and shame. We must stop! We must stay in one place for more than a few days or weeks.

Our very survival, in this state, for so long, attests to how remarkable we are.

Now, and only now, we start to identify as “homeless” and now you may look at us and maybe see a homeless woman with tatty clothes and unwashed hair. Too fat or too skinny. Once the pain gets too great, drugs. Once the depression gets too great, drugs. Once the only future is continued and sustained abuse, drugs. And because we are “nice” women, these will be legal pharmaceuticals or alcohol, but they are drugs nonetheless. And we all know where this story ends.

A tiny minority do get public housing, and then the next life drama starts. Public housing, as it currently stands, is no bed of roses, and still we are left reeling in shock as to what our future holds – if it holds anything at all. But that’s another story. We are the lucky ones, aren’t we? The ones who got a roof over our heads. So be grateful!

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