Putting the spotlight on homeless seniors

Experts are hopeful the plight of older people experiencing homelessness or living in unsecured accommodation will gain public attention as a Senate committee investigates the issue of affordable housing.

Experts are hopeful the plight of older people experiencing homelessness or living in temporary accommodation will gain public attention as a Senate committee investigates the issue of affordable housing.

Just days after the Senate established the inquiry into affordable housing on 12 December, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) released a report showing an increase in the number of older people receiving assistance from specialist homelessness agencies.

As Australian Ageing Agenda reported earlier this week, the AIHW’s Specialist homelessness services: 2012–13 report showed that about 244,000 Australians accessed specialist homelessness services in 2012–13, a rise of 3 per cent from 2011–12. However, the proportion of clients 55 years and over who sought support had risen by 14 per cent.

The highest number of older clients was seen in Victoria (8,531 clients), followed by NSW (3,175) and Queensland (2,106).

For older clients, the most common reasons for seeking assistance were financial difficulty, domestic and family violence, and housing crisis, however the report noted that there were different reasons underlying homelessness or risk among older men and women.

Opportunity to highlight issue

With the Senate inquiry now underway, advocates for older people will have to make their voices heard by preparing submissions and raising the profile of the issue, according to Eileen Webb, a Professor of Law at the University of Western Australia.

Professor Webb said that policy makers must be mindful that affordable housing was also an issue for older people, particularly vulnerable older people.

“Often the views of older people are pushed to the side. In the discussion of affordable housing there is an emphasis on things like first home buyers and the cost of rental in the inner cities. There seems to be an attitude that if an older person doesn’t have their act together by now, then that’s their problem,” she said.

Senator Jan McLucas
Senator Jan McLucas

Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness, Senator Jan McLucas, who instigated the inquiry, said that based on the interest expressed so far, she was confident the inquiry would be presented with “strong submissions and representations from older Australians, their representative bodies and the research sector.”

“We know that the impact the housing affordability challenge has on older Australians is an increasing one. Data and reporting in recent years is showing that more older people are accessing homelessness services,” Senator McLucas told Australian Ageing Agenda. 

“Older Australians, particularly older women, in the private rental market is a cohort who are experiencing increasing difficulty in finding affordable and secure housing.

“I expect the inquiry will explore both the reasons for this and potential policy solutions,” she said.

Older women at greatest risk

Echoing the Senator, Professor Webb said the issue of homeless older women was particularly concerning.

“We’re seeing a lot of women nearing retirement age and many have insufficient superannuation, because that generation often wasn’t in the full-time workforce. If a partner dies or a marriage breaks up or something goes wrong financially, women are finding themselves in very dire circumstances,” said Professor Webb, who is currently preparing a report on security of tenure and older people in conjunction with Council on the Ageing WA.

The issue was compounded by the lack of appropriate emergency accommodation, with most boarding and lodging accommodation geared towards older men, she said.

“It is often difficult for older women to go into that environment. So there is a lot of couch surfing, or examples of older women living in their cars.”

As a result, researchers and policy makers struggled to quantify the extent of the issue; Professor Webb described it as “an underbelly” that was not sufficiently looked at because of the difficulty measuring the size of the problem. It had become one of the “really big sleeper issues” that the Senate inquiry must look at, she said.

Family breakdowns

Professor Eileen Webb.
Professor Eileen Webb.

Another area requiring attention was family accommodation arrangements. These often involved an older person selling their home and moving in with younger family members, providing the family with a financial benefit in exchange for accommodation.

Professor Webb said that in cases where these informal arrangements broke down, older people were often left without alternative accommodation or financial means, and with little legal recourse.

“It’s a nightmare,” she said. “The bottom line is the law is a bit reluctant to intervene in what they see as a private matter.”

She said the law was difficult to understand and, from a practical perspective, “largely ineffectual”.

These matters had to be heard in a higher court, which made them “very expensive and very stressful,” she added.

Professor Webb had encountered other cases of older people who had been exploited by family members, where transfer of property documents had been forged, and where enduring power of attorney had been misused. “The law really needs to have a look at some of the loopholes,” she said.

Greater support, advice

Asked what recommendations she would like to see arise from the Senate inquiry, Professor Webb pointed to the need for greater education for older people in relation to accommodation and financial issues, as well as the different accommodation options and costs associated with each.

She also called for mediation, particularly in the cases of informal family accommodation.

“I’d like to see families encouraged to speak about [the arrangement] with an independent person who is versed in financial, legal and elder abuse issues – before they enter into it.”

Compulsory mediation for arrangements that break down could help resolve cases without the need for court, Professor Webb added.

Submissions to the Senate inquiry can be made until 25 March. The committee is due to report by 26 June. To make a submission, visit the inquiry website

Tags: accommodation, aihw, eileen webb, homelessness, housing, uwa,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *