Hidden homelessness: The older Aussies sleeping in cars

May 13, 2021
More older Aussies are being forced to sleep rough. Source: Getty

A woman crashes on her friend’s couch; a man sleeps under his work desk; a couple live in their caravan with no bathroom and no heating.

It sounds like something out of a movie, but this is the reality for many over-60s forced out of their homes and left with nowhere to go.

For 73-year-old Boris*, who suffers early-onset dementia, an unexpected eviction notice left him sleeping in his car unable to find a home. For 62-year-old Richard, it was an unexpected redundancy that left him with crippling anxiety unable to find employment and sleeping in a laundry.

While they may not be sleeping on the street, these occurrences of “hidden homelessness” are all-too-common and with Australia’s ageing population expected to double by 2050 and over 200,000 people on social housing waiting lists – the problem is only predicted to get worse.

The most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data from 2016, reports there are 116,000 people experiencing homelessness across the nation, and one in six of them are aged over 55. Between 2011 and 2016 there was a 21 per cent increase of people aged over 55 experiencing homelessness, which is only expected to increase again with the 2021 Census results.

James Toomey, Mission Australia’s chief executive officer says for many, it’s the first time in their lives they’ve been without a safe place to call home with many finding themselves sleeping in cars, couch surfing or sleeping in “unsafe” conditions. 

“Australia’s ageing population is expected to double between 2010 and 2050,” Toomey said.

“There is a severe shortage of social and affordable housing, growing levels of housing stress and of course ongoing pandemic challenges. This has created a perfect storm which is causing more people over the age of 55 to be forced into homelessness. 

“These older people who are homeless are mostly unseen. The majority aren’t sleeping rough in plain sight on the footpath. They’re more likely to be facing hidden homelessness. They’re living in unsafe or insecure living conditions like a car, temporary accommodation, a garage or they could be couch surfing.”

One woman who knows this all too well is Carol, whose life was turned upside down when her husband died and her financial situation became unmanageable. Unable to pay off her mortgage on her own, she was forced her to take up temporary shelter in a spare room at the local pub.

“I’m scared, I need a safe home,” she said.

“I thought this would be temporary but it’s starting to feel like forever.”

According to Toomey, a “dreadful combination” of factors are contributing to the homelessness crisis, including a severe shortage of social housing and affordable rentals, the “abysmally low rate” of JobSeeker and other income support payments and a lack of secure, ongoing employment options. 

The solution

This week’s budget release was an opportunity for the government to address the severe shortage of housing, however, Toomey said there was a disappointing lack of leadership on measures that are needed to address the grim shortage of low-cost, affordable housing and rising homelessness. 

“The essential social infrastructure of social housing has been ignored yet again while the federal government continues to heavily invest in other infrastructure. Where is the leadership and innovation which this issue desperately requires?” Toomey said. “The grim shortage of social housing and affordable rentals, high levels of housing stress, punitive rate of JobSeeker and other income support payments and a job market topped up with insecure, short term jobs is triggering a spike in financial distress, housing insecurity and homelessness.

“There are 200,000 people on social housing waiting lists in Australia, yet no leadership or innovation from this budget to address this growing number. There is still no national plan to end homelessness in Australia. We call on the government to show the necessary leadership to end homelessness by 2030, including a specific target for youth homelessness and homelessness among older people”.

Toomey said Mission Australia was calling on the government to invest in affordable housing schemes, as well as increase government support payments. Toomey said the current rates were “profoundly inadequate” and are forcing people to live in “enormous anguish and uncertainty”.

“People need the certainty they’ll have enough money to regain control of their lives, wellbeing and finances, put food on the table and remain safely housed while accessing essential resources they need to seek and be ready for work”.

Mission Australia is calling on the government to back schemes like those proposed by The Constellation Project, which works to inject private investment into the affordable housing market to prop up government shortfalls.

*Names have been changed to protect their identity.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your financial or legal situation, objectives or needs. That means it’s not financial product or legal advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a financial or legal decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get independent, licensed financial services or legal advice.

Have you ever been concerned you could end up in a situation like this?

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