Sandra, 63, lay shivering in the back seat of her car, her bed for the night. It was a chilly 6 degrees outside.
She was parked outside a random home in the ’burbs. A dog barked in the distance, a couple argued and doors slammed.
As she burrowed down under the covers, she wondered for the umpteenth time, how this had become her life.
Sandra might feel it, but she is not alone. Many women over 55, are finding themselves couch surfing with friends, pitching tents or sleeping in their cars.
According to 2021 ABS figures, older females had a homelessness rate of 19 people per 10,000 in 2021, but those who work in the sector would argue that the numbers are skewed, and the real figures are much higher as many women who are homeless, won’t acknowledge it for fear of shame or ridicule.
When you crunch the numbers, it’s little wonder older women are struggling to put a roof over their head.
Queensland has the highest proportion of its population who are over 55 and renting.
A report by the Queensland Government Statistician’s office shows the sunshine state’s inflation rate is higher than the national average.
With skyrocketing rents, the gender gap in superannuation, and reduced earning capacity, many older women are falling through the cracks in a system that is undeniably broken.
Without a nest egg, a partner, and a home they own, many women are finding themselves on the perilous slippery slope of housing distress or worse still, sleeping rough.
Ann, 62, has endured periods of living without a home. “All it can take is the deterioration of your physical and emotional health. When you’re less well, you’re less able to work – it’s a vicious cycle,” she says.
She trained as an environmental scientist, had to drop out of her PhD due to ill health, then became a single parent at 35 with a high-needs autistic child.
“When living without a home, I felt very vulnerable as a woman. I’d couch surf with friends, sometimes I’d sleep in a car or tent, and use public showers and toilets,” she says.
Ann met a partner and eventually they shared a home, then she caught him sexually abusing her son. Both Ann and her son fled. They suffered PTSD as a result of that trauma.
The times she lived in her car were often treacherous.
“I’ve had tricky situations with men. Often, I’ve had to quickly pack up a camp and drive, other times I’ve had to lock myself in my car.”
At 53, Ann finally found what she thought was a “rent for life” arrangement with her mum and partner. In return for affordable rent, she’d offer elder care.
While recovering from a horrific hit and run accident that put her flat on her back and enduring multiple surgeries for years, the house was sold and she was given her marching orders. Ann was desperate. She had nowhere to go.
For many older women it’s becoming an all too familiar scenario.
When illness forced her to stop work, Linda’s marriage didn’t survive the financial strain. As arguments ensued, Linda, 66, was pushed to breaking point. She crammed some possessions into her car and left.
“My ex-husband had been triggered by a number of things; I thought I just have to get away from him,” she says.
She moved house countless times, staying with friends, and then her son for a little while.
“I didn’t feel it was right or fair to stay with him as he was in a new relationship,” she says.
Linda didn’t have to sleep in her car, a fact that she puts down to “sheer luck”.
“There were a couple of places I had to leave at very short notice because I felt unsafe,” she says.
“My mental health suffered. I felt like humpy dumpty shattered into a million pieces. I felt broken and I didn’t know when or if I’d ever recover.”
Many women who are living without a home don’t consider themselves homeless. Linda says, it was a reality she didn’t want to own because of what it meant.
“I just thought this is the lowest point in my life ever,” she says. “An awful lot of women feel the same way, because there is so much prejudice and shame attached to that word.”
Linda knocked on doors looking for help, only to have them slammed in her face.
She was turned away from a housing service centre because her situation wasn’t deemed “dire enough”.
“I wasn’t escaping domestic violence and I didn’t have dependent children,” she says.
Things changed for Linda when she got secure tenancy through the National Rental Affordability Scheme.
“I remember thinking, oh my god, I have a home. There was the sense of letting go of the immense stress I’d been under,” she says.
But it’s likely to be a sense of relief that is short lived.
“The scheme is coming to an end and not being replaced,” she says.
It’s the dire feeling of hopelessness that leaves homeless women feeling frightened and alone.
Jane, 59, is currently in housing distress, living in a converted garage in a home that’s being sold.
“That’s been my journey for a few years. Every day, it’s the first think I think of and the last thing I think of,” she says.
She left an abusive relationship a decade ago, and found herself struggling financially and emotionally.
“My partner was a narcissist. I watched my bank balance disappear. I was also isolated from family and friends because of that abusive style of relationship,” she says.
Jane was in deep personal distress, having to ask friends and acquaintances for somewhere to sleep.
“At times it was so demoralising, and devastating emotionally,” she says.
“I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. I thought I was a good person. I thought I was doing all the right things.”
Jane also struggled with the social stigma and the judgement of housing distress.
“Within friendship groups, it’s almost as if you are a threat to the status quo of the group because you’re different,” she explains. “It’s like there’s a feeling that you might be a contagion – if it can happen to you, then it can happen to me.”
There are initiatives that are rolling out in an effort to halt what seems like an impending tsunami of homeless older women. But it hasn’t been an easy road, and is one often fraught with mountains of red tape.
One such initiative, for those with the financial means, is Sharing with Friends.
It’s a co-housing solution where women choose their own group of five, and buy into a home by paying $120,000 each. Jane will be one of the first five.
It looks like a regular house from the street. There are private spaces, their own kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room, as well as shared spaces.
Susan Davies, founding member of the management committee, describes it as a “disruptor” in terms of design, and shared equity arrangement.
“It allows women to live with dignity. We know as soon as the first one is delivered and the women are living happily, that it will be a game changer.”
Susan says their vision is for 100 to be rolled out around Queensland.
There are housing and support hubs, like Housing Older Women Support Services (HOWSS) funded by the Department of Housing that women can reach out to.
And the Housing Outcomes for Older Women Initiatives is in place, but there is still a long way to go.
Ann now works as an advocate helping other women who have endured homelessness or housing distress. She recounts a poignant conversation she shared recently with a young woman.
“It’s only going to take one slip and I’m in your place,” the young single mum told Ann.
It’s a message that Ann wants all Australians to hear.
“Yes, we are older women, but unless more is done, it’s the younger women coming up behind us, who will also be impacted by this,” she says.