Pip Rose could not face a day without her little dog and companion Harvey, but accommodating him in affordable rental accommodation in Canberra has proved far from easy.
Earlier this year she became unemployed and fell behind on rent and debt repayments. But her story is not unusual.
At a solutions-based workshop in Canberra, expert Andrea Sharam said Ms Rose was part of the “tsunami” of middle-aged women facing housing stress and homelessness, that Australia’s governments “should have seen coming”.
Dr Sharam said real solutions, like assigning housing for older women – in a scheme similar to Defence Housing – or converting old office blocks into temporary accommodation were some of the immediate measures governments could take.
“It was my lowest point because I knew I just did not have the money,” Ms Rose said. “I have got to admit it was a scary place to be.”
“Seriously, where can I rent in the private market? Because nobody’s going to give me a place without a job, that’s the reality.”
The 53-year-old came close to sleeping in her car on numerous occasions, because the majority of private rentals are not pet friendly — something recently changed in Victoria’s rental laws.
“[Harvey] is the one that got me out of the house when I was at my really low point,” she said.
“So it was going to be putting my stuff into storage and sleeping in the car with the dog and cat.”
Ms Rose’s church and her brother ended up coming to her rescue by covering her debt and finding her a place to live.
“I never expected it … it just blew me away,” she said.
“You just don’t ask for help, that’s how I grew up. That’s us women in my generation anyway – you just take a deep breath and deal with it.”
She has since found a job, but her current tenancy on her small unit expires in February. And finding another place to live is proving challenging.
“That’s our biggest problem, finding affordable housing,” she said.
“We need a place that we can be safe and be part of the community.”
‘It’s rough-sleeping, it’s couch surfing’
Penny Leemhuis battled insecure accommodation in Victoria, the ACT and New South Wales before finding an affordable rental in Queanbeyan.
The 12-year housing struggle prompted her to become an advocate for single women aged 45 and above who are relying on private rental accommodation into retirement.
“If we don’t address this situation now, not only will the numbers of women escalate, this will affect every generation that is coming up in the decades to follow and it needs to stop now,” Ms Leemhuis said.
She recently shared her experiences as part of a new documentary, OWL: The Face of Homelessness, by Melbourne student Tashi Choden.
“There is a great misconception amongst the general public about homelessness and what that actually entails,” Ms Leemhuis said.
“It is rough-sleeping, it is couch surfing and it is insecure, untenable arrangements for accommodation.”
Ms Leemhuis said there were solutions to issues surrounding homelessness that were not being implemented.
“My experience has taught me that life, in some ways, is a battle and that is very sad because it doesn’t have to be that way,” she said.
‘Outcome of social change we should have seen coming’
Ms Leemhuis and Ms Rose were among the women who met with support services, academics and politicians at a solutions-based workshop in Canberra last week.
At the end of the meeting a handful of solutions were put forward, including creating a national social head-leasing scheme — similar to Defence Housing, converting vacant office blocks into social housing, placing transportable units on vacant land and reforming tenancy law to allow companion animals.
“We have a manmade problem and we could undo that problem if we chose,” Dr Sharam said.
She said older women are requiring social housing assistance into retirement and she said governments needed to reallocate existing affordable housing.
“We do have a tsunami of older women,” she said.
“It is an outcome of social change which we should have been able to see coming.
“Our governments in Australia have been very slow to react to the decline in housing affordability, the decline in home ownership and the need for housing assistance.”
Federal Assistant Minister for Social Services Zed Seselja said there was money available – $375 million over a four-year period – and that states and territories should negotiate with governments for a share in the funding.