The hidden faces of homelessness

By Kathryn Chung

The hidden faces of homelessness
The image of homelessness often focuses on men sleeping rough, but new research has revealed it's an increasingly worrying issue for single women aged 45 and over. 

A recent study out of Australia has brought to light a startling statistic about the hidden faces of homelessness. Women aged 45 and over are now considered the fastest-growing cohort at risk of becoming homeless.

The report, released in August 2020 by the Housing for the Aged Action Group (HAAG), found that 405,000 women in the 45+ age group are at risk of homelessness.

It’s a problem that up until this point has largely remained hidden, says Dr Kay Patterson, age discrimination commissioner at HAAG’s national forum. “The image of homelessness in Australia often focuses on men who are rough sleepers. However, there is a hidden cohort of women who have led what we would call conventional lives, yet find themselves at risk of homelessness.”

These women often do not identify as being homeless, or know where to turn to for help. Because of this, they fall through the gaps and remain ‘invisible’.

Homelessness is a growing problem around the world, but remains an incredibly difficult issue to track. In its Homelessness Action Plan (HAP), the New Zealand government acknowledges that there is “an absence of research on women’s experience of homelessness…particularly on Māori and Pacific women.” Like Australia, single older women renting in the private market in New Zealand are considered at risk of experiencing homelessness, but with a lack of adequate data, the extent of the problem remains largely hidden. 

Angela Wallace, General Manager of Awhina House, a transitional home for homeless women in Tauranga, says that homelessness among older women is a “very real” and “growing” issue in New Zealand.

“We have seen a growing number of older women seeking support because they have been made homeless. This is truly a hidden demographic as women often don’t like to ask for help and many feel shame about their circumstances,” she says.

“As women we have often raised families, put the needs of our children first and been the solid rock that others depend on for help. It’s sometimes easier for women to ‘cope’ by living in their cars or substandard accommodation than to step forward to receive support for themselves.”

While we may automatically picture people sleeping on the streets when we think of homelessness, the definition is much broader. According to the HAP, homelessness is “more than rough sleeping” and includes people who are without shelter, in emergency and temporary accommodation, and living temporarily in overcrowded accommodation. 

Wallace says there are many commonalities among the women who come through Awhina House. She often hears stories of family breakups, domestic violence and loss of income. Some women turn to alcohol or drug addiction as a result of the stress and trauma in the events leading to homelessness.

“This would not be a reason for homelessness but a coping mechanism to deal with circumstances. It then becomes a barrier to getting into a new home,” says Wallace. The growing problem is also spurred on by unaffordable housing and an overall lack of housing supply. “The high demand for rentals means it’s hard to get back into the rental market, once homeless.”

Researcher Dr Emma Power, who worked on the HAAG report, says they were able to pinpoint several gendered risks attributed to the Australian statistics, which could offer insight into the issue in New Zealand. Many women report having taken time out of the workforce to care for children or taken on lower-paying professions throughout their careers.

“They retire having limited assets, including superannuation,” says Dr Power. These risks are then compounded by unaffordable housing and an insecure private rental system – many women report fearing eviction, poor-quality housing and rent increases. 

Wallace says increased housing supply, funding for support services and services for mental health are key to fixing the issue. More data and research on the true extent of homelessness is also vital in shining a light on what’s hidden. “The stories of these older women in the rental sector must be a warning to us all,” says Dr Power. “They are the canary in the coal mine for our housing system and it’s urgent we hear them and address these inequities.”

Ways you can support those in need

If you can, donate money to shelters like Awhina House, food banks and community services. Donations of non-perishable foods, toiletries and sanitary products, school supplies and household furniture are also helpful, but be sure to check with your local service before donating to find out what items they need most.

If you don’t have money or items to spare, think about donating with your skills. During winter, knitting jerseys, beanies and scarves is especially valuable for people experiencing homelessness.

Sometimes, it’s as simple as donating your time, like reading books to kids or helping with childcare. 


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