How I realised nobody is immune to homelessness, not even me

Jacinta Tynan

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She’s not the traditional face of homelessness: an educated woman, a mother (typically), who’s had a career, even owned her own home.

But women (over 55) are the fastest growing sector in our homeless community, and with an estimated half a million women predicted to fall into “housing stress” in the next 20 years, the situation has become dire enough that the government is stepping in.

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Last week, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced the government will tender for the building of 1200 new social and affordable houses, in the second phase of an affordable housing fund announced last election, with women specifically in mind. It’s hoped the model will be emulated by other state governments to redress what is fast becoming an epidemic.

“We are even seeing professional women [who] get to an age of 55 or 60, look at their superannuation and say, ‘I have no savings, I have no future [in the job market] and I don’t have a home’,” says Tracy Howe, CEO of the NSW Council of Social Service, which has helped to design an affordable housing fund prioritising older women.

“You’ve had caring responsibilities and interrupted life events and no superannuation. This all compounds and compounds, even for women who see themselves as middle-income earners.”

I’ve seen myself how easily this could happen.

When I ended my relationship two years ago and moved out of the family home with my two children, I realised that a steady income – a deceivingly flimsy premise – was the only thing standing between myself and a similar fate.

And even with that income, there were obstacles.

Despite having a good job and solid references, I was rejected for countless apartments, one agent admitting it was because I was a single mother with young children. I ended up changing my rental application to say I had a partner and, after months of looking, was eventually accepted by a real estate agent I knew personally.

I was lucky. But for for the first time in my life I was given a glimpse into how fine the line is between security and destitution.

This so called “transition” time can be the most crucial for women who are separated or divorced (which is the case for the majority of homeless women). They often have no access to their ex-partner’s earnings, there may be no or limited child support (which can also take months to kick in, and is rarely enough to cover rent), and financial settlements are often delayed for years in the Family Court backlog.

In the meantime, they’re in limbo.

I was lucky. But for for the first time in my life I was given a glimpse into how fine the line is between security and destitution.

Many of these women don’t consider themselves “homeless”, but rather in a temporary bind due to unforeseen circumstances. What Di Hill, one of the women on the recent SBS Insight special on homeless women, calls “a curve ball”.

It comforts us to assume that there’s a giant chasm between being securely (and sometimes happily) ensconced in domesticity, and having nothing. But, as these women show – all educated, professional, intelligent, once “comfortable”, but with nowhere permanent to sleep at night – no one is immune.

Mayor of Sydney’s Hills Shire, Yvonne Keane, believes good quality transitional housing should be the highest priority for the “tidal wave of women” who find themselves homeless later in life.

She is championing a transitional housing model where developers are encouraged to provide a small portion of transitional homes for women and their children while they recover and rebuild their lives, in return for additional yield.

“It keeps families in the community, the kids can stay at the same school and the mother has her support network,” says Keane. “It’s an essential step towards empowerment and independence.”

As a childhood survivor of domestic violence, Keane is especially passionate about protecting women who flee a relationship under such circumstances by providing them with safe and desirable alternatives. She’s the chairwoman of women’s shelter The Sanctuary, which opened 18 months ago. Of the 117 women and children who sought refuge there in that time, she says 100 per cent are now living lives “away from violence and haven’t returned”.

Normally, five out of 10 women will return to a violent partner. Tragically, for many, it’s a more appealing option than homelessness.

Keane recalls being “on the run and couch surfing for years” after her mother left her abusive partner when she was 4, tiny suitcase in hand. “Those early memories are etched in my DNA.” Even now, with a well-paid job and supportive partner, she’s aware of how nebulous that security can be.

“I am only one pay cheque away, one man away from being homeless myself,” she says.

As are we all.

Jacinta Tynan is a Sky News presenter and author of Mother Zen. @jacintatynan

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