IN this week’s SPEAKER’S CORNER, St Bartholemew’s House chief executive JOHN BERGER talks about the alarming increase in the number of homeless older women, and how the WA government can do more to help them. The homeless support organisation is based in East Perth, and launched a dedicated older women’s service in 2014. 

HOMELESSNESS can and does happen to anyone, given the wrong set of circumstances.

It is disturbing to know that the incidence of older women’s homelessness is growing, with women aged over 55 being a growing cohort of those experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness in WA, and across the nation.

This is a result of the effects of domestic violence, family relationship breakdown, financial difficulties, lack of affordable housing, loss or lack of employment and cash in the bank, inadequate superannuation, poor mental health and little or no support during difficult times.

It is a deeply traumatic event, with long-term effects on the individual and their family — and the WA community.

We know too well that to do nothing about homelessness costs our society greatly, whereas housing and supporting people to rebuild their lives is simply a more cost-effective solution.

St Bart’s winter appeal is a great opportunity to not only raise financial support but awareness of this issue affecting all West Australians, and to raise the issue of older women’s homelessness.

• An older female client enjoys the facilities at St Bart’s. Photo supplied

Homelessness in women aged over 55 has risen by 31 per cent between 2011-2016, according to census data.

Yet there is no dedicated federal and state government funding allocated to respond to this disturbing trend.

While the government is yet to respond, St Bart’s has responded with the help of our major donors and corporate partners.

In late 2014 we opened a dedicated older women’s service that has assisted almost 100 women.

When surveyed, older women clients stated that before coming to St Bart’s they were ‘in crisis or barely surviving’ or ‘struggling to manage’ compared with their current circumstances of ‘managing OK’ and ‘doing quite well or making progress’.

We know with the right support, it is achievable to re-establish older women into safe and secure homes within six months.

Clients like Marie (name changed), who have lived a fortunate life – attended a private girls school and trained as a specialist music teacher – have been “incredibly shocked” to find themselves experiencing homelessness.

“Basically after 18 years of marriage, my former husband left me – but not before ripping me off. I couldn’t pay the mortgage, so it wasn’t long before I started sleeping in my car. Someone gave me the number of St Bart’s. It was great to move into accommodation at their older women’s service. It gave me breathing space, and with their help I moved into a rental,” she said.

St Bart’s would particularly like the WA government to recognise the specific needs of older women experiencing homelessness by allocating funds and resources accordingly in their upcoming state-wide homelessness strategy.

If our older women’s homelessness service received government funding, we could expand our operations and support more women – faster.

It would also provide stability in terms of ensuring there is an ongoing service response for older women.

Failure to respond to this need will result in an increase in demand for government services.

This means more pressure on our hospitals and health and mental health services, and ultimately it will cost our community financially and socially.

We encourage the community to use the just-finished Homelessness Week to talk about the issue and what you can do about it. Donate to our older women’s service or volunteer your time – there are many positive and engaging opportunities at St Bart’s.

Post your thoughts on social media to start the conversation or talk to your local MP about getting behind funding for homelessness and address the needs of older women, in their plans to eliminate homelessness throughout our great state.

To donate or volunteer go to stbarts.org.au/how-you-can-help

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