Older Women and Homelessness

PUBLISHED ARTICLES:

Parity Vol25-01 (April)  READ Pages 22- 24

OLDER, WISER AND FLAT BROKE

The return of Bob Carr to the political sphere has been much heralded, as he will reportedly bring ‘wisdom’ and ‘gravitas’ due to his age and experience.

Despite our woman Prime Minister and Governor General, unfortunately the same qualities are not recognised in most older women.

Instead, women over 55 are at increasing risk of finding themselves homeless.

Indeed, women over the age of 45 are now outnumbering older men at government-funded homeless shelters according to official data, even though there are more recorded homeless older men than women.

A report released recently by the Sydney Women’s Fund paints a very bleak picture, one which the majority of women over the age of 55 in this country would attest to with no reservation. Although this report documents the issues and challenges facing more than two million women and girls in greater Sydney, and has found that in Australia’s biggest city, the gap between rich and poor is widening, the findings are relevant across the country.

 According to UN Women Australia 27% of women in Australia have zero superannuation.

They also experience extremely limited professional opportunities and are twice as likely to be poor in pre-retirement, putting them at greater risk of homelessness.

Older women are silently falling victim to age discrimination in such a way that they feel, and are, increasingly devalued and deskilled. The only jobs available to them are as checkout chicks and shelf stackers. Any previous professional experience and qualifications render them either under-experienced (?) or over-qualified! Either way they are constantly told they are ‘not a good fit’ in interviews once their age becomes apparent.

 

 Women, who have previously found themselves perfectly capable of standing on their own two feet financially, emotionally and in every other way, some even previously owning their own homes, are now finding themselves one step away from homelessness, for a variety of reasons.

  •  ‘Mary’ has a PhD in medical research, but became unemployable at 53 when she wanted to go part-time to care for her son who has schizophrenia. Fay’s (teacher of the deaf with no superannuation) husband, a respected vet, committed suicide when she was 57 and he was 60. He had gambled all their family assets away, unbeknown to her.
  • Joan married an American and lived there for thirty years. She was 56 when he died, bankrupt, and she moved back to Australia. She was a ‘corporate wife’ for many years and was put on a Newstart pittance allowance which required her to apply for a certain number of jobs each week- no matter how menial they are or whether she is physically up to them.
  • Then there is Jenny. She also has a PhD and a broad range of qualifications and experience. She has applied for dozens of jobs ranging from Head of a Government Department in one state (for which she was interviewed as one of the final two, but clearly considered too old at 55), to a census collector (overqualified). Thirty years ago she loaned money to a family company which was allocated to investments that went bad, and cannot be repaid. As a result, Jenny is ‘deemed’ to be receiving an income on money which does not exist, but which limits her ‘benefit’ to $125 per week, including a ‘rent allowance’. She never has, and will never receive the actual income. A year ago Jenny sent a carefully considered email to the direct attention of the Federal Treasurer outlining her circumstances and why $125 a week was impossible to live on. It was not that she didn’t want to work, she just couldn’t find anyone to employ her. The response, in direct contrast to the sympathetic hearing she expected, was to have police brandishing handguns, then people from mental health services, arrive on her doorstep, ten days later, and threaten incarceration, in front of her bemused family and neighbours, for her ‘suicide note’.

Each of these women is addressing their own circumstances as creatively as they can, and these issues can all be addressed with more flexibility on the part of government, but it is the women themselves who need to be consulted in how to achieve this.

They are intelligent enough to know, they make massive contributions to their communities, and they have advised their daughters accordingly.

So next time you see a group of well-groomed 50 something women enjoying a coffee, they may not be ‘ladies who lunch’ but rather out of work ‘wise women with gravitas’ discussing quantum physics and sharing the one treat of the month they can afford.

A HOME OF HER OWN

At The Hoopla we recently ran a story on the record numbers of older, homeless women in Australia.

The response was tremendous and heartfelt. You asked for more on this vital topic of women and poverty. We hear you.

No more mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters or daughters living on the streets, anywhere, in our prosperous nation.

We want every Australian woman to be financially secure… for the rest of her days.

Former single mum, advisor, mentor, psychologist and former Telstra Businesswoman of the Year Julie Boyd shares her valuable insights and real life stories…

 

At 68, Margaret found herself homeless after being widowed. A proud great-grandmother, she helped raise her grandson, shown at right of the family photo. Margaret dreams of finding a two-bedroom house so she can have her grandchildren for sleep-overs. Photograph by Ella Rubeli. Courtesy of The Global Mail.

 Romantics and psychologists tell us that we never forget our first love.

True, he was gorgeous… but I’ve also never forgotten my first bank manager.

He was an anachronism – completely at odds with the misogynist culture that existed in banks at the time.

“Hi. I’m William,” accompanied by a smiling face and outstretched hand, to shake both mine and my tiny son’s, as I walked into his office.

Newly divorced, with a toddler and baby to raise, I had plans to go back to work as a teacher in the near future and had $400 that had been squirelled away from food shopping money over 18 months as the ‘escape fund’.

Divvying up marital property in those days (early 1980s) meant selling the family home to pay off the mortgage with miniscule leftovers, and going through the shared record collection.

Husband’s superannuation was considered sacrosant and was untouchable.

When I’d questioned the divorce lawyer, his answer was: “That’s to support him and his new family into old age.” Seriously!

He’s now left his wife and kids and is living with a man. No doubt their retirement is very comfortable.

Superannuation for women in those days was a relatively new after-thought, and if you stopped work to have kids, so did any contributions you were even allowed to make.

Some friends had a house to sell for $20,000 and I had no clue as to how I could buy it. Short of hitting up the parents for a loan, home ownership for women was pretty much out of the question.

To even be considered for a loan you had to have your Dad, husband or brother co-sign and guarantee.

Enter the shining knight.

After the initial handshakes, William talked to me as if I was an intelligent human being. He asked about my plans for the future, what I wanted to do professionally and what place this house I was looking at would play in all of this.

He then put us into his car (seatbelts for kids were not taken seriously then either), and we drove to the house so he could take a look around and speak to the current owners.

He’d let me call them first of course (no mobiles then), so Fiona had a batch of scones cooking in the wood stove and a cuppa waiting when we arrived.

To cut a long story short, William gave me a loan, under my own signature, with no other guarantor.

He knew what a risk he was taking, but he was convinced I’d pay it off, and that I’d follow through with my plans.

I didn’t let him down, and he didn’t let me down.

Every few months he’d drop by to check on renovations and he and his wife even helped clean a few second-hand bricks for my courtyard.

He was genuinely interested and he had faith in me and advised me to put any excess money, no matter how small, into the newly created ‘offset account’.

We lived in a country town and his mentorship was an amazing experience that I still treasure.

It’s a pity he was one of a kind and I’ve never met his like since!

Although his faith now shows in microfinance schemes that lend money to women in third world countries and report repayment rates of a mere fraction below 100%.

So what are the lessons from women of that era for youngsters today on how to poverty-proof yourself?

 

The camaraderie of the kitchen. These women, along with four others, live in Our Lady of the Way Community home in western Sydney, which provides three months’ crisis accommodation and welfare programs for victims of domestic violence. Service manager Karen Devins (second left) says, “They cry coming in because of what’s happened, and they cry going out because they don’t want to leave.” Photograph by Ella Rubeli. Courtesy of The Global Mail.

Buy a house if you can in personal name(s), either yourself or as a consortium (but make sure you have proper legal agreements), and live within your means.

Buy more if you can, but have one dwelling tucked away you can live in if you need to. Use offset accounts and, by whatever means you can, pay the mortgage off quickly.

Some cautionary tales:

Rosalie. She learned be careful whom you trust. She had a successful company, built a network of trusted advisors – accountants, lawyers, etc. – or so she thought.

What she didn’t realise was that the safety net they built for her would collapse because it was the same one they had created for a famous pop-star who died. Millions disappeared from his estate and her business partners had conspired with them to rip her off.

She reported them, but nothing was done. She ended up escaping with $60,000 which she has used to buy a house in a country town. The first home owner’s grant, for which she was eligible (at 60), is paying for repairs.

Joan. Her lesson was to be careful who you buy real estate from.

She got caught by a Queensland scammer who sold her property for much more than its value, thanks to a fraudulent valuing scheme she can do nothing about.

The scammer sucked her in as a good friend for two years and then arranged a loan through mutual acquaintances.

Joan lost her job and is now stuck with a 10.5% mortgage she cannot get out of and is about to be bankrupted.

She did however put $1000 into a trust account for her grand-daughter several years ago when the baby was born which is now looking quite healthy. She also taught her daughter the difference between good and bad debt.

Maree.  She always had ‘yours, mine and ours’ bank accounts with her past and current partners and a clear understanding of who owns what so she does not incur any STD (sexually transmitted debt). She lives well but understands how to make the most of her money, and has also trained her partners to be financially aware.

Jill. Clever girl. She learned as much about the stock market as she could. After disastrous losses on options (courtesy of a broker who failed to pick up a jumped stop-loss) she now stays with long-term stock buys, is a member of an investment discussion group online, and leaves options to the testosterone-fuelled boys who created the GFC.

Laurene. This woman gave up renting on her own and now shares a large house with two other friends so they can split the bills.

She also does a lot of housesitting, so it works well for them. She wished she’d gone straight to work instead of getting a university degree that gave her knowledge but not skills and sees not a little irony in the fact that one of her housemates now also shared a house with her at uni.

All of these women started off with the best of plans. They even understood the difference between:

1.       Financial COVER

2.       Financial SECURITY

3.       Financial STRENGTH

4.       Financial INDEPENDENCE

5.       Financial FREEDOM

6.       Financial PROSPERITY

7.       Financial LONGEVITY

Life has a way of both creating and destroying dreams.

What we need now is not simply ’leadership for women’ programs, or financial planning.

We need real financial literacy.

We need people to have faith in the wisdom and capability of women to help them escape these quick-sand traps.

We need bailout plans to help pre-retirement women who are in trouble, before they do become suicidal.

We also need a powerful lobby group that actually understands not just what the issues are for women, but how to fix them for both current and future generations.

Perhaps we could have a Women’s Bank.

Maybe my first love William could be found and asked to help.