The most recent Report on Government Services (ROGS) data on homelessness unveiled some alarming trends with regards to housing and homelessness in Canberra.
These include persistent rates of overcrowding in public housing dwellings, a 22 per cent increase in unmet need for housing support, and an average 81-day wait to move into a vacant property - even as 200 more people assessed at the highest need for housing were added to the wait list.
It would be easy to raise these issues as the beginning of an argument on the need for governments to lift public housing stock and invest in social housing, and we wouldn't be alone in doing so. A recent survey of Australia's leading economists, conducted by UNSW, found that an overwhelming majority considered the absence of social housing investment in the COVID-19 stimulus measures to be a poorly judged omission.
The same survey also found broad support for the role of the not-for-profit community housing providers in channelling social housing investment now and into the future. Clearly, the community housing and not-for-profit housing sector have a valuable and legitimate role to play in responding to the housing crisis that shows no sign of abating.
At YWCA Canberra, we have been providing supportive housing to women and families in the community for nearly 80 years. We are well placed to understand the dynamics and demographic trends of homelessness among women, and to provide a gender- and trauma-informed response that recognises the agency of our clients. That's why we have been working to respond to the increased levels of homelessness among women, particularly older women.
Our Y-Homes project pledges our own funds and secured Commonwealth funding to build 10 units on land we own in Ainslie. These stable homes would provide affordable housing for older women on modest incomes and go some way, however small, to responding to the chronic undersupply of social and affordable housing in a city known for its comfortable and progressive status.
While the solution to homelessness is an increase in housing supply, which will create positive social and economic outputs, the greatest barrier can often be community antipathy.
Despite the overwhelming evidence supporting the need for this build and the pride we hold in Canberra for being progressive, educated and inclusive, it turns out that when presented with an opportunity to put these principles into action and support inclusivity within our own suburbs, some people are unwilling to welcome newcomers to their neighbourhoods.
We all have preferences about how and where we want to live - preferences which correlate directly to our privilege. The older women we support have had their choices narrowed due to the impact of a lifetime of low wages on their retirement savings, often compounded by time spent out of work caring for children. Their already dire financial circumstances can be exacerbated by relationship breakdowns, the death of a spouse, domestic violence, declining health and acute social isolation.
These are the women our Ainslie build will support. The exclusionary attitude shown towards these women who did everything society asked of them, however, is disheartening; they worked until their pregnancy or the marriage bar excluded them from the workforce, they raised children, they cared for parents and spouses and, in some cases, are still caring for grandchildren.
Can we really claim to represent that core Canberra identity of progressivism if we seek to ensure these women never call our neighbourhoods home?
Data simply does not lie - there is a growing and increasingly tangible level of homelessness among older women in Canberra. You are unlikely to see these women on the street, however, because they are sleeping in their cars or trying to not to be a burden as they sleep on the couch or floor of a friend or adult child, all while they desperately search for another rental in a competitive and unaffordable market.
Our sector has the potential to change lives for the better by bringing safety and stability to women as they enter into or live out their retirement - things that so many of us take for granted. Modest builds such as ours are a critical part of the co-ordinated response to an urgent economic and social need, and our place in that response has been recognised by economic policy experts, government and the broader community.
If it takes a village to raise a child, then it can simply take a welcoming neighbourhood to give peace of mind and a sense of security to women living out their retirement in modest comfort.
- Frances Crimmins is chief executive officer of YWCA Canberra.