Report shines light on rising homelessness among older Australians

Australia's booming property market is taking its toll on society's most vulnerable.

Australia's booming property market is taking its toll on society's most vulnerable. Photo: Getty

Soaring rents are forcing thousands of older Australians out of their homes and on to the street, amid signs of another housing boom.

Older women are the fastest-growing group of people experiencing homelessness, and older men are finding it plenty tough, too.

So much so that even people who have worked their whole lives and always lived comfortably are now battling to keep a roof over their heads, according to a new report by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI).

The proportion of homeless people aged 65 to 74 increased 37.9 per cent in the five years to 2016 – and researchers say that’s largely because rents have increased much faster than incomes.

The research found that those who are most likely to end up sleeping on the street fall into three different groups.

The first has experienced some sort of shock in life. That could mean being evicted from rental housing, a relationship breakdown, the death of a spouse, or a decline in their health.

The second has experienced long-term social exclusion and had previously experienced homelessness;

The third type of person most at risk has transient work and housing histories.

“Too many Australians are just one or two pay cheques away from being made homeless,” report co-author Professor Andrew Beer said.

“There’s one particular chap we interviewed … who worked through his life. Then in his 50s his wife left him. He lost the house through the divorce, and then he lost his job.

“And before he knew it, even though he continued in part-time employment, he was living in a boarding house that was a pretty scary space.”

Raymond Everon has a similar story.

The 71-year-old lost his job last year after 50 years of employment.

A gambling addiction meant he lost his Melbourne home soon afterwards.

“You have the urge to win, but it never happens. You just keep going, keep going, keep going, until everything’s gone,” he told The New Daily.

“Then you’re in trouble and don’t know what to do.”

Mr Everon has been sleeping rough ever since.

He said it took him months to find out where he could eat and have a shower, and that sleeping on concrete is wrecking his back.

“But I’ve got a bed tonight,” he said.

“I’m going to see Centrelink tomorrow. And I’ve got a Coles voucher for $50, so I can buy some breakfast.”

More support needed

Such help is crucial, but it doesn’t get people off the street.

For that to happen, people need services that “meet all their needs so they can rebuild their lives”, Professor Beer said.

That means setting people up with government IDs, connecting them to relevant health services, and helping them navigate online welfare systems – as well as setting up more services aimed specifically at older Australians. (AHURI says only three such services currently exist.)

“We need to meet their needs now,” Professor Beer said.

“Otherwise we’re going to pay an enormous cost in terms of their wellbeing, in seeing our mothers and grandmothers sleeping on the streets, and in paying an enormous price in terms of public health.”

At the time of the last census, 18,615 people aged 55 years or over were experiencing homelessness in Australia, which is equal to one in every seven people counted as homeless.

Everybody’s Home says that’s because “Australia’s housing system is broken”.

Kate Colvin, the campaign’s spokesperson, said the No.1 priority is to build more social and affordability housing, to ensure everyone has a roof over their heads.

She told The New Daily Australia needed to build 500,000 social and affordable homes over the next 20 years.

“And people who have been homeless multiple times through their lives, or who, for other reasons, have additional needs – they might need support in addition to housing, and that’s not often available,” she said.

Finland could show us the way.

It adopted a “housing-first” approach to its homelessness problem – providing plenty of social and affordable housing, consulting homeless people while building services, and offering direct assistance to older citizens with little chance of re-entering the labour market.

“It basically wiped out homelessness,” Professor Beer said, adding that Australia’s government should take note.

“We should meet people’s fundamental need [for shelter]. Because we’re all people and we’re all Australians. And the community as whole expects that we look after our most vulnerable.”

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