Third year UTS journalism student with an interest in culture, education and social justice. Tweet me @TallulahMT.
Ruth* has always lived a life of uncertainty.
The 64-year-old Sydney woman has worked part-time and lived in rental accommodation all her life. She has also single-handedly raised her two, now adult, children. One has paranoid schizophrenia.
Two years ago, Ruth, who works as a hotel housekeeper, found herself priced out of the rental market and living with a friend in Ultimo.
“She took pity on me and took me in, she’s in a very similar situation," she said. "I don’t pay rent to her, but I clean and help her."
But this isn’t a permanent solution.
While it’s unclear where she will go next, Ruth knows she can’t live off the Age Pension, which she will be eligible for in just over a year.
“While I can, I’ll keep working,” she said.
“Why would I want to go lock myself up somewhere and think, sh*t, I can’t afford the electricity bill, I can’t afford this, I can’t afford that?”
Ruth’s situation is not uncommon in Sydney, where less than one per cent of rentals on the private market are affordable for single people on the Age Pension.
Anglicare’s Rental Affordability Snapshot 2018 found just four of 17,395 advertised properties were affordable and appropriate for single pensioners in Sydney - fractionally less than last year’s result.
While the data does not distinguish between genders, Anglicare Sydney’s Advocacy and Research Manager Susan King, said older women are increasingly vulnerable.
“Our own services, which provide emergency relief, have indicated there has been an increasing problem over the last three or four years, [with] single women over the age of 50,” she said.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of older homeless females increased by 31 per cent between 2011 and 2016.
Dr Emma Power, from the University of Western Sydney, has been researching older, asset-poor women in the private rental market since 2016. She said they are at particular risk of housing insecurity and homelessness because of a number of factors.
“Women have longer life expectancies, but the big one is that they tend to have lower incomes across their lifespan, less access to benefits like superannuation, because they are quite likely to have taken time out of the workforce to care for children,” she said.
“It’s a way of saying, ‘I don’t want my landlord to think about me, so I try and live with the property in the condition that it’s in’, because they’re worried... they might face a rent increase or eviction,” she said.
Data from the Tenants’ Union of NSW, shows only a quarter of older females in the private rental market call for advice about repairs, compared to a third of women in social housing.
The private renters are also more concerned about evictions, with 43 per cent calling about rental termination, compared to 14 per cent of women in social housing.
Tenants' Union Senior Policy Director Leo Patterson Ross, says this shows how unsuitable private renting is for older women in its current, unstable form.
Dr Power say that while “hugely important”, social and affordable housing is not viable for many women, as waiting lists can be up to a decade long.
“I’ve spoken to women who breathe a sigh of relief when they were offered a social housing unit," she said. "They said, ‘this is home, I will never have to move again’.”
Anne Hanley, 81, is one of the lucky ones. Three years ago she secured a ten-year lease on an affordable unit in Lane Cove West.
“I feel very privileged," she said. "I am concerned about women who are on their own and paying private rent, I don’t know how they manage."
Ms Hanley worked in the care sector most of her life, taking some time off to study while her children were young. She accrued just $10,000 in superannuation.
Her only savings were spent on a failed business venture she undertook with her late husband - leaving her with nothing.
“For us it was a risk and it didn’t work out, but for that reason, I am especially grateful to have secure housing.
“I know what my [rent] commitment is, and that is taken out of the pension before I get it. And [with] what I have left I can manage.
Susan King said one key recommendation presented in the Rental Affordability Snapshot, is the need to "prioritise" single older women and men into public housing.
“People who are on their own and ageing, who don’t own their own property - by the time they get to the age pension [they] are in big trouble unless they’re in public housing,” she said.
But Lanz Priestley, an advocate for homeless people, is critical of major non-government organisations (NGOs)... including Anglicare.
“The underlying reason for the [2018 rental affordability snapshot] is that it is trying to create a funding stream," he said.
"They publicise a snapshot of part of the problem, but I don’t see them providing a solution."
Mr Priestley said he tried to raise the issue of older women increasingly facing homelessness, 25 years ago - without any luck.
“A lot of these women come from professional backgrounds. They have worked their whole lives, done everything they were supposed to do, some have multiple degrees.
“This means we need to look at the overall superannuation and aged care structure."
In September, Labor promised $400 million in funding to close the superannuation gap if they win the next election.
The Opposition Minister for Women Tanya Plibersek, told Central News: “Poverty in old age is completely unacceptable and we need to make sure that we reduce this gap in superannuation as one of the steps towards making sure that men and women retire with dignity.”
Dr Power said she hopes her research will help the ‘invisible homeless’, who sleep on people’s couches or in spare bedrooms.
“One of the aims of this research is to talk to women, find out about their experiences of insecure housing, find out what their needs are and to try and do some writing and some advocacy to try and get some change around these issues.”
In the meantime, Ruth, is remaining positive.
“I don’t even think about being homeless, because if I did I wouldn’t be able to function and I’m sure if push comes to shove I could go bush,” she said.
Her 27-year-old daughter laughs from across the table: “You complain about getting on a train to Dubbo, Mum!”
“If push comes to shove, I wouldn’t have a choice,” Ruth replied.