By Mark McDonnell
Why do older women (55yrs +) become homeless?
If you read the literature on older women and homelessness, you will find a range of reasons offered to explain this situation. These reasons include:
- Women’s quest independence (personal and financial)
- The decline of the nuclear family
- Increase in the number of single person households
- Our increasing longevity
- Structural disadvantage entrenched within our political and social system
- Mental illness
- Substance abuse
- Intellectual disadvantage
- Reduced public housing
- The high cost of rental accommodation
- Reduced service options available to homeless and disadvantaged women
- Multiple disadvantages within someone’s life
- Death of a spouse
- Family Crisis etc.
And these reasons are all valid. In an ideal world it would be useful to be able to prioritise these issues, so we know where it would be most productive to direct our resources.
A recent report by the University of Queensland uncovered the top 10 reasons cited by women seeking help for homelessness. These reasons came from unpublished data from the Aust. Institute of Health and Welfare 2012.
These self-reported reasons are:
- Domestic Violence (26%)
- Financial Difficulties (17%)
- Not Stated (12%)
- Inadequate Dwelling Conditions (9%)
- Housing Crisis (8%)
- Other (6%)
- Housing Affordability Stress (5%)
- Previous Accommodation Ended (3%)
- Relationship Breakdown (3%)
- Mental Health Issues (2%)
This list is helpful but it has some limitations. Self reporting is not always a reliable way to identify core issues.
I am aware that people seeking help often tell the organisation what they think the organisation wants to hear. For these people, this is the way they “play the game”. It is a matter of survival. I have been told by numerous homeless and disadvantaged people in West End that if you want help from a particular organisation, you have to tell them that you are sleeping rough. They contend that if you don’t, they probably won’t help you. In the limited number of times I have referred people to this organisation, this advice is sound.
In the previous self-reported reasons for women seeking homelessness, clearly Domestic Violence is an issue. However the self-reported 2% mental health issues seems low. I wonder how much of the financial difficulties were caused by mental health issues. How much of the Housing Affordability Stress was related to financial difficulties or mental health issues?
On top of this, these reported personal reasons may not take into consideration the larger issues of reduced public housing, low level of financial social support (eg. Newstart Allowance), reduced service options for homeless people and the impact of multiple disadvantages within someone’s life.
Older homeless women identified that their greatest need was for “General Assistance and Support”. This need was listed more than 3 times the amount of the next identified need of “Special Services”. “Long Term Housing Needs” and “Sustained Tenancy and Eviction Prevention” came in as the 3rd and 4th greatest identified need. This is consistent with what I have observed. Homeless people frequently need long term general support. Yes, they have periods of identified crisis within their life, but they nearly always need ongoing general assistance and support. If they can receive this ongoing general assistance and support, many crisis can be avoided or minimised. Frequently, homelessness is a chronic condition. You can’t give a magic pill and expect it to go away. Like diabetes, epilepsy and high blood pressure, homelessness needs ongoing support and maintenance. There maybe periods of acute episodes, but if you keep conditions supported and under control, they are less like re-occur as frequently or as intensively.
Given the wide variety of possible causes and influences on homeless and disadvantaged women, what is the best way to help them?
In a perfect world, the answer is – Permanent Supported Housing. There is much literature and personal experience to support this. If this is not possible, then we still need to do the same things that occur within that supported environment.
· That is: Develop rapport with the client.
· Work with them on a one on one basis to address their issues.
· Develop a good understanding of all their issues (assessment), so appropriate referrals can be made.
· It must be understood though that these people often are not mentally strong. So to tell them to seek advice from XYZ organisation may not be helpful. They may need to be supported and taken to the place that provides the assistance.
· It is important to realise also that there are frequently no quick fixes. The bureaucracies can work very slowly. People in need of help can be confused and reluctant to take good advice.
· Be patient and understanding. Take your time. Don’t expect miracles to happen over night.
Remember “the journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step” (Lao-tzu 650 BC).