ST Vincent de Paul Society frontline homeless support worker Melissa Hankin has seen more elderly Australians turning to Vinnies in housing crisis in recent months on the Gold Coast.
Ms Hankin said it was saddening to see more elderly Australians coming for help, but particularly an increase in older women seeking their services.
“Most of the women tend not to be sleeping rough but sleeping in crisis or couch-surfing, staying with a friend, but there is an increase in older women,” she said.
Older women not prepared for crisis
Vinnies’ Cornerstone Homelessness Prevention Service reported 27 per cent of referrals in June were people over 55.
Ms Hankin said the reality was many were women over 60 who came from a time when they were more inclined to be homemakers than breadwinners.
This meant, as a group, they had less superannuation to cushion crises and more financial dependence on the pension.
Ms Hankin said these women, who often worked their whole lives as mothers and homemakers, expected to have a bit of choice in retirement.
“And then not to have that choice is really disheartening,” she said.
Crisis came in many forms.
“We’re working with a lady now, she and her ex-husband separated and he’s taken all the money and basically left her with nothing,” Ms Hankin said.
“So she’s on an aged pension, struggling week to week with no savings because he’s basically taken it all.”
There was also a lot of resistance to seek help among the elderly.
‘Embarrassed’ to seek help
“A lot of it’s just even getting them to come in because it’s quite embarrassing as you get older to think you need help, because there’s this expectation that you should be fine,” Ms Hankin said.
High levels of anxiety, depression and hopelessness contributed too, she said.
The single greatest factor was a lack of affordable housing.
“The Gold Coast is really not affordable for a single person on the aged pension,” Ms Hankin said.
“When you look at real estate agents, they look at 40 per cent (maximum) of your income to go towards rent.
“So for someone on the aged pension, that means you’re looking at $200 and $250 a week.
“Well, there’s very little available on the Gold Coast in that price range.”
Ms Hankin said this led to a lot of tough conversations about moving into social housing, community housing or moving away from the Gold Coast.
Vinnies Gold Coast executive officer Kris Martin said the issue around elderly homelessness was getting worse.
“We’re also seeing increasing numbers of referrals for people between the ages of 46 and 55, with 15 in the quarter to June 30,” Mr Martin said.
A 2017 report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows a 52 per cent rise in older women contacting homelessness agencies since 2011.
‘Haves’ and ‘have-nots’
Vinnies believe those figures are similar to what they are seeing on the Glitter Strip.
Ms Hankin said there was a big difference between the haves and the have-nots on the Gold Coast.
“You can see it even evident driving around,” she said.
“It’s terrible, you have this opulence, these really, really expensive vehicles and others you think shouldn’t be on the road – there’s a huge gap.”
Ms Hankin said there were many things people could start doing to mitigate crises.
“I’d say start saving, make sure you’ve got good superannuation in place, particularly if you’re on your own,” she said.
“Plan for the stuff you don’t want to think about – plan for illness, plan for your partner passing away, have those insurances in place if you can afford it.”
Despite the tough conversations and the hard work, Ms Hankin said her job was rewarding and she liked engaging with all sorts of different people.
Mr Martin said the Cornerstone service helped 384 people avoid life on the street in the past year and could support more with greater help from the corporate sector and the public.
“We are in the process of finalising plans for six units of accommodation in Arundel which will be specifically for the group and we are committed to establishing more housing going forward,” he said.