Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Women and Homelessness: Grim Stats for the Fairer Sex

(An abridged version of this post was published in New Matilda

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has reported that almost a quarter of a million people sought assistance for homelessness during the 2012 financial year. That's 1 in every 98 Australians, enough to fill the ANZ stadium three times.

More than half of these people were women. 

"Women quite often find themselves in the the popular perception of what homelessness looks like, but they're every bit as represented in the statistics" said Chris Povey, principle lawyer and manager of the Homeless Persons Legal Clinic.

Miscountings and estimations: Falling through the cracks

Getting exact statistics is difficult--those sleeping rough go uncounted and the ABS admits that women’s refuges are often misclassified as private dwellings during the census. 

The AIHW has found a better way of estimating--by asking service providers to submit counts of their clients. Using this method, AIHW found about 19,000 people slept in a government-supported accommodation each night during the 2011-12 financial year.

Mi Fon Lew, from the Women's Information and Referral Exchange (WIRE) told New Matilda that last year, 84,000 women were counted in the AIHW survey. "And that's the women receiving support. You're not including the other women who are couch surfing, living with friends, sleeping in cars and not accessing these services."

Homeless people, and particularly women, can easily fall though the cracks:

"Women are more likely to 'shack up' (end up in unsuitable housing situations). They're more likely to sleep in their car," explained Mr. Povey. "The fact that it's harder to identify the women that are experiencing homeless means that it's harder to get services to assist them."

Women, Homelessness and Domestic Violence

Mr Povey doesn't mince words: "The main cause of homelessness is domestic violence."

Neither does Ms Lew: "The leading cause of women's homelessness is domestic violence." As the pie charts below show, sadly, they are both correct. 

Just over half of women with children entering emergency housing cite 'domestic violence' as their main reason for becoming homeless. So do more than a third of young women with no children.

The AIWH 2012 report states that women and children become temporarily homeless for domestic violence reasons, but wonders if the decline in the housing market explains the increase in long-term homelessness. That's the AIWH theory on why homelessness increased on census night. 

Interestingly, the Government's background paper to "Time for Action" states that reports of sexual assault have increased by an average of four per cent each year since 1995. Although there is no proof of correlation, that is strikingly close to the five-per-cent-per-annum increase in homelessness between 2006 and 2011. Regardless of the increase, as the following chart shows, with the exception of very young children, homeless females are the ones bearing the brunt of domestic violence.

Not only are more homeless women victims of violence, but more victims of violence are homeless. According to the Women's Property Initiative, more than one out of every five incidence of domestic violence leads to homelessness. 

Mr Povey believes that improving women's security and having a rigourous approach to following up violence orders will help. "If there's been an alleged breeach, that needs to be prosecuted very vigorously."

"At-Risk" homeless are disproportionately female

Aside from domestic violence, there is another issue surrounding women and homelessness. Namely, that a wide variety of marginalised groups are disproportionately women. For example:

  • The Government white paper on homelessness, The Road Home, explains that young people aged 12 to 18 are the largest group of people experiencing homelessness. Of young people who turn up alone at services, 63% are female.
  • Females are a greater proportion of rural clients. While females represent 57% of clients in cities, they represent 81% of clients in very remote areas.
  • Three out of five indigenous homeless clients are female.
  • Ms Lew stated that WIRE is seeing a growing number of older women who find themselves homeless. These women have brought up families, taken a break in their careers, and then suddenly find themselves, for whatever reason, alone, without a home and unable to support themselves. "We're finding that all the other structural inequalities that affect women on a day to day basis that contribute to housing crises that women face when they grow older," said Ms Lew.

Want to play more with these numbers (from summer 2012)? Feel free to access the dataset that I created based on the AIWH data. If you find anything interesting, please add your comments below.

Victoria: Women 'On the Move'

By this time last year, the AIHW figures were showing a disturbing trend for Victoria. When describing the situation in Victoria, Ms Lew remarked, "Even if the woman fulfills all the criteria that makes her eligible for crises or emergency housing, one in two are turned away because there just aren't enough beds."

"Housing crises and homelessness is a growing issue with the women who contact us," said Ms Lew "We even get calls from housing workers who are at a loss as to where to direct clients." In response to this demand WIRE has recently produced a comprehensive information booklet to provide support for women facing housing crises in Victoria. But the booklet's popularity brings little joy to the staff.

Spending resources to put out fires

"The reality is there's just not very much housing out there." said Ms Lew. Nationwide, nearly one-fifth of clients (19%) had a need for emergency accommodation that was unmet. In Victoria, where the situation is particularly bad, there are over 37,000 people on the waiting list for public housing. 

Ms Lew explains that women seeking a small amount of support may be on the brink of a housing crisis. "For example, a single parent who just needs help because she's been sick and cannot pay the rent...she can become a 'crisis person'." 

"The priority is given to the people who have immediate need. There is not enough leftover to help people avoid becoming one of those priority people," said Ms Lew. She believes that with better policy and more resources, these situations could be avoided. 

Mr Povey and the Homeless Persons Legal Clinic are focusing on eviction prevention. "It's about supporting women to stay in don't want women being evicted because a lot of their community and social connections will be undermined."

Looking forward

Internationally, there are examples of successful programs. Mr. Povey, who received Churchill Trust support to study homeless interventions abroad, found programs like the U.K.'s Family Intervention Projects to be highly successful. These programs emphasise low case numbers, comprehensive support, strong relationships, and they do not have an 'expiry date.' They target longer-lasting, preventative interventions.

Back in Australia, there is momentum for improving this situation. The Australian Government has released an exposure draft of a Bill aimed at increasing recognition and awareness of people who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
In addition to increasing awareness of the problem, the draft Bill will set out a range of Commonwealth service delivery principles and strategies the Commonwealth regards as necessary to reduce homelessness. Submissions can be emailed to
Perhaps by the next International Women's Day, the statistics will be less grim.

Squirrel Main loves numbers, and is glad you do, too. Her PhD was in Education Reform and she is currently re-training as a data journalist the University of Melbourne. On a slightly forward note, she is always looking for freelance gigs. Check out her blog at

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