Middle-class and homeless

Women often find themselves in a precarious economic situation, particularly those who leave work to care for children ...
Women often find themselves in a precarious economic situation, particularly those who leave work to care for children and then suddenly find themselves widowed or divorced. Photo: Getty Images. Posed by models

Of the estimated 105,000 homeless in Australia, 44 per cent of them are female. We look at the current crises facing women who live on the street and why, if nothing is done, they’re set to worsen in the future.

“I stayed on the streets for four years" says Claire* 43. “Through a refuge I eventually got a community house. But for four years I did it pretty hard – very hard. There was no way I could go anywhere. I slept in the parks, up in front of the post office in [King’s] Cross. It was very cold, very horrible, you can’t live on the streets.”

Claire* is one of the 46,000 homeless women who were counted on census night in 2011. Women tend to be the invisible homeless – missing from the public imagination of what homelessness looks like.

“I had some bad experiences” she says. “Like men trying to touch me up while I was sleeping. You’re asleep, you wake up and a man’s trying to touch you up, it’s horrible. It’s very scary because if you don’t get raped, they either bash you or take your money – what money you have. Some people can be so cruel. I can’t believe this world, especially Australia; I thought we’d have a little bit more help.”

Homelessness often looks different for men and for women. While men tend to rough sleep – sleeping on a street, in a park, under a bridge etc – this is often a last resort for women for fear of assault. Instead, homeless women often try to get a bed in a crisis accommodation facility such as a boarding house or refuge. 

But according to Helen Williams from the Women’s and Girls’ Emergency Centre (WAGEC) in Sydney’s Surry Hills, there simply isn’t enough crisis accommodation available for women: “We struggle to find beds for people, so we’re faced with women and children who actually have nowhere to go.” Most homeless women end up sleeping on the couch of an acquaintance thinking this will be safer than the streets.

Helen says many assaults occur when women are couch-surfing: “They come in to the centre and say, ‘My friend said it’d be safe for me to stay the night,’ but then they’ve been abused either physically or sexually, because they’re already so vulnerable and so desperate.”

Claire couch-surfed for some months before she moved onto the streets. Having run out of options, she moved in with a male friend. She said, “It was scary, at first, I didn’t know if he was going to touch me, but he was really good to me.” Such a lifestyle is uncertain though, and leaves the homeless person without any security. “One day he brought a girl home and he kicked me out on the street. I had no choice, I had no money, and so I just took all my clothes and lived on the street. I didn’t know what to do.”

For women, like men, key factors leading to homelessness include mental health issues, drug and alcohol addiction, financial trouble and lack of support. However, for women there are also crucial gendered factors. High on the list is domestic violence – 50 per cent of women with children staying in homeless assistance accommodation are escaping domestic violence.

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Female homelessness is also influenced by the fact that women experience higher levels of poverty than men. On average, women are paid $82 for every $100 paid to men, a difference of $240 per week on a standard weekly wage and the gap in pay between the sexes is steadily widening. This means that women often find themselves in a precarious economic situation, particularly those who leave work to care for children and then suddenly find themselves widowed or divorced.

One such woman is Lucy* – a middle-class, mid-thirties woman who used to live in Sydney’s inner-west. She left work to look after her three children, all under five, and lived with them and her husband in a rented family home in Marrickville. After her husband left, Lucy could no longer afford the rent and has been unable to find rental accommodation she can afford in Sydney. She has applied for subsidised social housing, but has been told she is not poor enough to be eligible. The social worker looking after Lucy believes that she and her children will be forced into temporary homelessness – probably living in a refuge – before she is eventually deemed able to qualify for a social housing spot.

So serious is the poverty among women that a report by the Sydney Women’s Fund earlier this year predicted that within a generation the majority of Sydney’s homeless will be single women over the age of fifty. The report “It could be you: female, single, older and homeless”, found that these women were unlikely to have any of the issues that often precipitate homelessness, instead they would be women who due to “deep and systemic gender inequality” would become homeless simply because they were poor.

Claire offers the same dire warning to women that the report does, “Don’t say that homelessness can never happen to you. I said that years ago, and look what happened. I ended up on the street. You cannot say that, because you just don’t know.”

Claire is now living in a community housing apartment where she is trying to forget about her difficult years living homeless. “I think about it probably too much. I’m having counselling sessions at Wayside Chapel, because I’m still not over it yet – not for a long way.”

Not only will unprecedented numbers of Australian women find themselves homeless in the next few decades, but the dangers faced by homeless women highlight the social and systemic vulnerabilities faced by women more broadly.

Let us hope that as well as discussing funding and homelessness policy, there is also discussion about policies and attitudes surrounding women’s work, equal pay and violence against women. Because whatever you think about homelessness being a justice issue, or a compassion issue, homelessness is also a women’s issue.

*Names have been changed.

For more information go to homelessnessaustralia.org.au

Domestic Violence Helpline: 1800 656 463

Community Services Child Protection Helpline: 132 111

From Daily Life