NSW fails thousands of homeless women during pandemic

Social housing crisis accelerates; women aged 65-74 hit hardest

31 July 2021 – On the eve of Homelessness Week (1-7 August) in NSW, the Women's Electoral Lobby (NSW) says COVID is accelerating the state's social housing crisis and tens of thousands of unseen vulnerable homeless women are being acutely impacted by the government's failure to act.

As NSW contends with its 18th pandemic month, NSW WEL Executive Council member Dr Jane Bullen notes that older women are the fastest growing group of people experiencing homelessness in Australia, and the rate of increase is spiralling in NSW.

“NSW has the highest housing prices in Australia, the highest increases in homelessness and the unmet need," Dr Bullen said. “Homelessness services throughout NSW are struggling with increased demand due to rising rents for people on low incomes and low vacancy rates, and they are turning away more clients than they can support in crisis accommodation - 2 in 3 clients are unable to access long term housing even when supported by a homelessness service.”

“Housing costs are skyrocketing in cities and regions, and the NSW 2021-22 Budget ignored the significance of the problem for women struggling with homelessness related to domestic violence, poverty and insecure employment”.

NSW received an additional $1 billion in stamp duty from the housing market but has failed to use the unexpected windfall to invest in social housing for people who become homeless. Social housing availability in Australia has plummeted by over 50% over the last 30 years. 

Between 2013/14 and 2016/17, NSW saw an 88 per cent growth in the number of women over the age of 55 years accessing homelessness services.

In NSW the number of women aged 55 and over experiencing homelessness increased between 2011 and 2016 by 48% and the number between 65 and 74 increased by a staggering 78%. 

“While WEL supports the NSW government’s initiatives to house people identified as sleeping rough through the Premier’s Priority on Street Homelessness and, during the COVID lockdown, through the provision of emergency hotel accommodation – many vulnerable women will not be assisted by these initiatives and are unseen by homeless services.”

“COVID is exacerbating the crisis of women without housing. Unable to get early assistance to prevent housing insecurity, women rapidly spiral into homelessness and are forced to live in cars or sleep rough in concealed locations.” Said Dr Bullen.

There is a need for more help to resolve unsafe and insecure housing, increased emergency measures and a sustained programme of building social housing.

Blur Projects in partnerhsip with WEL is spotlighting the personal experiences of homelessness for women in NSW through the UNSEEN project.

Blur Projects Creative Director Belinda Mason has spent the past six months working closely with NSW women impacted by the crisis to create the multimedia arts project UNSEEN. This project puts faces and voices to the stories behind the awful statistics.

“The nature and scale of women’s experiences cannot be underestimated in NSW. Women from all backgrounds and life experiences are sharing their stories about homelessness and are unlikely to see their situation change. Some women experiencing homelessness sleep rough but remain unseen, hidden from view for fear of violence and stigmatisation.

“The lived experiences of women should inform an urgent response to the immediate need, as well as addressing the root causes of their vulnerability to homelessness," Ms Mason said.

Thirty-eight per cent of people requesting assistance from specialist homelessness agencies in 2019/20 have experienced domestic violence - these are overwhelmingly women and children.

“Domestic and family violence are a contributing factor to most women experiencing housing insecurity. In too many cases this began in childhood and has been compounded by systemic failure. Their housing insecurity is due to significant economic, employment and educational disadvantage which get progressively worse with age,” said Ms Mason.

Homelessness services and domestic violence refuges report their inability to meet crisis accommodation demand, with the waiting list for social housing in NSW approaching 60,000 people—many waiting for over 10 years. Women and children escaping domestic violence are forced to return to dangerous situations because they have nowhere to live.

WEL calls upon the NSW Government to immediately expand its priorities on homelessness and include vulnerable but less visible women in their COVID responses, and to commit to overhauling the NSW Homelessness Strategy 2018-2023 which is failing NSW women.  

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  • Jennifer Muir