Today we were extremely happy to be part of a presentation to local ACT Minister for Housing Shane Rattenbury MLA by the National Council of Women ACT, of a report on NCWA Older Women and Homelessness Seminar held on 31 October 2014.

The Council approached us in October last year to ask us to help support a seminar they were running on the topic.

The seminar drew on the leading experts from both the research and practitioner fields, as well as community advocates and service providers, to discuss this often hidden and misunderstood issue.

The goal of the Council was to bring to the fore the causes, the present provision of services and solutions for the future for older women in the ACT. The information presented, which ranged from personal accounts of women becoming at risk of homelessness as they aged to more general reflections on homelessness as an issue, highlighted some key themes for policy makers and practitioners in the field as well.


The common situations which escalate to homelessness for older women include:

  • Relationship breakdown – domestic abuse, a women’s lack of knowledge and understanding of the family financial situation, often compounded by belittling and/or controlling partners.
  • Unsuitable housing situation – Partners refusing to move out. having nowhere to go, or lack of knowing of where to go, the challenge of proving that a women is separated but living under one roof with their ex, couch surfing – where the women has temporary accommodation, but can, in some cases lead to survival sex where the women may exchange sex for a (insecure) roof over her head, stuck in a waiting list, or in a refuge (if one can get in).
  • Health Situation – often escalated by the insecure housing situation, particularly impacting existing mental health issues.
  • Employment Situation – loss of employment, low income or part-time work.
  • Poverty – lacking the resources to own your own home or afford rental accommodation.
  • Women new to the country with little support, or English as a second language.

Present service provision

The services currently available to older women (both homeless and at risk) sit within an overall homelessness service network:

  • The values that underpin service delivery for the homeless and those at risk of being homeless are based on safety, social justice and the right to have somewhere safe to live.
  • Though there is a range of services available from a range of providers, the sector is good at working in a coordinated way.
  • The waiting list for public housing continues to grow.
  • There is still no overall view of the true cost of homelessness to our society.
  • Older women should have a right to feel safe in their movements and housing, and we need to bring up our young people to feel that too.
  • The definition of assets and income (including superannuation) can make access to services difficult for some older women. Even before emergency services are required, CALD women are subjected to discrimination in the private rental market.
  • The question of culturally appropriate housing must be taken into account when planning solutions.
  • Domestic violence was our lens into homelessness, but this preconception needs to broaden to issues such as housing affordability, changing housing requirements and a lack of women-focused service models reflecting inequities in employment and earning capacity.

Possible Solutions

The solutions put forward can be as simple as “building more houses” or as complicated as restructuring the investment portfolios of major industry superannuation funds, but all presenters were unanimous in the view that the response to the emerging potential “tsunami of older women and homelessness” must be addressed now:

  • Community housing is being pursued as a critical model in the Canberra market – the ACT is relatively poor in terms of availability of this solution.
  • The move into housing provider for traditional community organisations can be difficult as the range of factors involved in determining what “affordable housing” is are complex.
  • Accessing the private rental market is difficult in Canberra not only because of cost, but transport, home modifications and the willingness to see elderly women as legitimate tenants.
  • Co-gender accommodation can work well as a solution for elderly women, solutions do not need to be exclusively female.
  • “Marketing” elderly single people as tenants of choice is working with some real estate agents.
  • That the simple solution of building more houses, though complicated, would help.
  • That systemic inequity (lack of assets, financial insecurity, inequitable pay and super) will be the emerging triggers for homelessness in the future and must be addressed.
  • That there are new and evolving solutions and models appearing all of the time and though many of these take time to launch, they should be explored.
  • The phases of potentially homeless older women (emergency homeless, at risk due to being aged now, and the young with low financial literacy or independence) must be acknowledged in order to understand the sheer size of the potential problem.
  • That there are models that should be explored outside of the focus on emergency care – such as utilising superannuation savings to invest in affordable housing.

As service designers we recognise that the kind of situation emerging with older women is complex. Social, cultural and economic tradition and pressures mean accessing and delivering services for this group requires significant re-thinking of the homelessness model.

From our perspective (and the Council)  it was clear that further work must be undertaken in at least three areas:

  • Understanding the older women and homelessness user groups as they stand now.
  • Exploring more agile traditional housing solutions in innovative ways.
  • Addressing systemic people capability issues.

Those are the themes we presented to the Minister today and we are excited about the response and recognition that the profile of this important issue has been raised.

Working with the Council was a great experience, as was hearing from the experts in the field. We’ll be keeping our eye on the issue into the future.

The report (a record of proceedings on the day) will also be available in electronic form from the National Council of Women ACT.


The day itself was a success due to the organisations represented and we thank the following groups and people for giving up their time and providing such excellent information on the issue:

  • Shane Rattenbury MLA, Minister for Housing
  • Helen Dalley-Fisher, Equality Rights Alliance
  • Marcia Williams, Women’s Centre for Health Matters
  • Carol Benda, Women’s Legal Centre
  • Sue Sheridan, First Point
  • Chris Redmond, Woden Community Service
  • Chin Wong, Canberra Multicultural Community Forum
  • Alice Tibbits, ACT Housing
  • Susan Helyar, ACTCOSS
  • Terri Stiller, Argyle Community Housing
  • Heather Douglas, Abbeyfield
  • Leigh Watson, Shelter ACT
  • Frances Crimmins, YWCA Canberra

And of course, thanks  the organising committee of the National Council of Women ACT.