COVID-19 directly impacts women's housing

- Dr Jane Bullen – WEL Exec NSW

As a result of the coronavirus emergency, we are all being asked to stay home where possible, and some people are required to isolate completely. But not everyone has access to a home where they can stay safe. Women are particularly vulnerable for several reasons.

Physical distancing and increasing requirements for people to stay at home will increase the risk for women and children experiencing domestic violence. Crisis, uncertainty, financial problems, unemployment and housing insecurity combined with confined living put women and children at risk of increased violence. The lack of privacy in these situations and the requirement to stay at home will make it harder for women to seek help or escape.

In addition, sudden job losses will catapult more people into homelessness in addition to those already experiencing this, and women are among those most likely to lose work, because of our comparatively high levels of casual employment.

Before Coronavirus, older women were already the fastest growing cohort of people who become homeless in NSW, and as older people they are at highest risk of serious illness and death from Coronavirus.

Women who have fled from domestic violence or are homeless may be staying in overcrowded or informal accommodation, in domestic violence refuges, homelessness shelters or without shelter. Many women who flee domestic violence or become homeless stay with a friend or family member but the coronavirus makes this difficult or impossible. Whatever the reason, having insecure housing often involves a changing population of people living in close quarters. People without a safe permanent place to isolate themselves will be at higher risk from coronavirus.

WEL welcomes the stimulus payments and increase in payments to income support recipients announced by the Commonwealth government through the Coronavirus Supplement. WEL also welcome changes made by the NSW state government to increase the availability of temporary accommodation, accelerate access to housing, increase proactive policing and change arrangements regarding ADVOs to support women and children experiencing domestic violence. In addition, we welcome the NSW government’s allocation of additional funds to prevent homelessness and support charities.

However, WEL also calls upon Commonwealth and state governments to take additional measures.

In particular, for women and children experiencing domestic violence, we ask the NSW government to provide additional support to frontline domestic violence services, services that help women remain safely at home and police domestic violence teams so that women and children can be safe from both Coronavirus and violence. As of 2 April, Women’s Safety NSW report an increase in client numbers in more locations, instances where the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to more extreme violence and abuse, as well as cases where violence is erupting in relationships for the first time.

For women and children who are experiencing housing instability and homelessness for a range of other reasons, we call on the NSW government to protect people who can no longer pay the rent because of the virus and its economic impact from eviction; ensure people who are homeless or in overcrowded housing are able to move to safe accommodation; provide extra funding to homelessness services to support people to keep safe, including self-isolating, and protect and replace staff if they are sick or at high risk (eg older, immune compromised. 

WEL is particularly concerned about the welfare of older women experiencing homelessness, especially in the context of the Prime Minister’s strong advice for all Australians over 70, all Indigenous Australians over 50 and any Australians over 60 with a chronic illness, to stay in their home as much as practicable, due to their greater risk of serious illness and possible death from the virus. WEL calls on the NSW government to:

  • Lower the qualifying age for priority social housing from the current age of 80 years to 55 years for all social housing applicants and accelerate pathways for this group to secure stable housing, consistent with measures announced on 31 March by Ministers Mark Speakman and David Elliot for those experiencing domestic violence;
  • Ensure that older people who lack appropriate housing can access immediate temporary accommodation that enables them to shelter safely from Coronavirus, pending securing stable housing;
  • Provide resources to establish a state-wide older people’s housing information and support service that can help seniors navigate the housing and aged care systems.

Women Ageing Well is the Women’s Electoral Lobby’s 2020-2021 campaign for women’s equality and social justice. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the need for women’s homelessness and access to social housing to be prioritised in NSW to avoid catastrophic outcomes for women.