older women at greater risk of homelessness

In 2011 Author catherine Debney joined the Women's Homelessness Sleepout. http://www.catherinedeveny.com/homeless-women/

In 2011 Author Catherine Deveny joined the Women’s Homelessness Sleepout. http://www.catherinedeveny.com/homeless-women/

In Australia it is estimated that thousands of people are sleeping rough, living in crisis accommodation, or have marginal housing, without a permanent home every night.  Without a safe, permanent place to sleep and carry out the tasks of work, family and education, a person is constrained in their ability to reach their potential, their mental resources consumed by the need for shelter.   In this research portfolio we will examine some of drivers of homelessness and look at the different ways women experience homelessness.  Women are more likely to be the victims of domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse, and these factors are strong predictors of homelessness.  If  men’s and women’s pathways to homelessness differ, does this mean a gendered approach to homelessness is needed?

Much research has been devoted to understanding the precursors to homelessness.  The Australian government’s 2008 White Paper The Road Home: a national approach to reducing homelessness gives an overview of key pathways to homeless.  They include:  housing stress as a result of poverty and debt; family breakdown and domestic violence; inadequate transitions from care or prison; and untreated mental health and substance use problems (p24).  These pathways to homelessness nest in wider societal structural inequality that includes a lack of affordable housing, unemployment, service system that is failing to protect the homeless and  public attitudes that locate blame in the personal pathology of the individual

The White Paper recognises that violence is more likely to be the cause of women’s homelessness.  Women comprised 44% of the homeless in 2008 and over half of them were homeless due to family violence (Australian Government 2008, p6).  This is reflected in research from around the globe.

Finfgeld-Connett (2010) undertook a meta-analysis of research in the area from 1184 case studies in 45 qualitative research studies.  This researcher found themes in the 45 studies that indicated a prevalence of childhood abuse (physical and sexual abuse, neglect, transience, abandonment and parental mental health and substance problems).  Because of their disadvantaged pasts, many of these homeless women did not learn effective coping strategies to life stressors, and often fell into abusive and controlling relationships similar to that they had experienced as children.  As a result many women were re-victimised throughout life, via partners who drove them to choose homelessness to escape violence, and then again during periods of homelessness.

Green et al (2012) surveyed 428 women in 57 US shelters to assess the statistical links between childhood abuse and homelessness.  They found long-term functional deficits in those who had experience childhood abuse, including mental health problems (dissociation, reactive attachment disorders).  As in the Finfgeld-Connett study, it was surmised that these cognitive deficits resulted in poor partnership choices, increasing the risk of further victimisation later in life, which ultimately resulted in homelessness.

Martjin and Sharpe (2006) examined pathways to youth homelessness amongst 14-25 year olds in Australia.  They found that rates of youth mental problems were greater in the newly homeless, compared to the rest of the population, and that rates increased over time.  Paths to homelessness for youth were consistent with those outlined in The Road Home, including:  substance use and trauma, trauma and psychological problems, substance and family problems, family problems (neglect, emotional abuse) and trauma through childhood sexual abuse.  Martjin and Sharpe found a high rate of mental health problems in young homeless women (60%). Psychological problems included Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and schizophrenia.  Bearsley-Smith et al (2008) also studied youth homelessness in Victoria (n=137) from a psychological standpoint and found that predictors for homelessness included family conflict, incidents of problem behaviour and low levels of family involvement or togetherness. They found that young women showed more of the risk factors they identified:  higher levels of depression, poor social skills and lack of assertiveness.

Many studies tended to focus on the strengths and capacity of women to overcome their homelessness with gender specific help.  Women who have suffered abuse as children and into adulthood may develop mental problems.  However, the incidence of mental problems in the homeless population may not be as high as might be thought.  Johnson and Chamberlain (2011) looked at the common assumption that homeless people are mentally ill.  They studied 4291 case files from two Melbourne homelessness services using case notes that has assessed from mental illness, and also undertook 65 in depth interviews with clients.  The lifetime incidence of mental illness in the sample was 31%, which was considered consistent with US research.  Five pathways to homelessness were identified including: family conflict (46%), housing crisis (19%), and substance abuse (17%).  Rather than the cause of homelessness, mental health problems were identified as subsequent to homelessness for 16% and prior in 15%, with 69% having no mental health problems.  Of those who had an existing mental health problem prior to homelessness, those under 25 had bad childhood experiences including neglect or abuse, parents with mental health issues or drug problems.  For the older cohort over 35 (60% of those with mental illness) the illness of long duration, beginning in youth, but had lost family support following death of a parent.  This study did not separate the genders.

Kisor and Kendal-Wilson (2002) also tackled the assumption that the homeless are mentally ill with a women-specific study intended to dispel the ‘bag-lady’ myth.  They found that far from being “architects of their own destiny”, homeless women face structural impediments that marginalise them including poverty, age, marginal housing, family conflict, mental health problems, eviction and domestic abuse.  Despite these challenges, they found that women showed resilience.

Markos et al (2005) examined the literature contributing to knowledge on homeless women who have mental illness.  They found that the pool of mentally ill homeless in the US were between 22-50% of the total, and that structural and social upheaval including economic downturn and hurricane Katrina has contributed to people’s mental health problems.  Of the 30% of total homeless who were female, they found that risk for mental illness as a result of violence was much greater for women than men.  Homelessness was found to exacerbate women’s mental health problems, with re-victimisation through rape, violence and substance abuse.  The largest group was those women diagnosed with schizophrenia (59%) and bipolar (16%), although their research overview found discrepancies in the method of measuring mental illness as most studies used only men, or women without mental illnesses.

One significant cohort of homeless women is older (over 45).  McFerrin (2010) undertook research from a number of New South Wales homelessness services and women’s refuges to understand the drivers of older women’s homelessness.  Many had indeed experience domestic violence and family breakdown, poverty, physical and mental health challenges and lack of family to support them.  Risk factors for these women had included early school leaving and early motherhood, low employment incomes, living alone, living in rental accommodation and personal crises such as illness or job loss.  One third had owned their own homes prior to divorce, but many had given the proceeds to their older children.  These older women tended to live more marginally than the younger women:  couch surfing, in shared accommodation or sleeping during the day for safety reasons.

One of the White Papers guiding principles is increasing the safety of women and children experiencing abuse (p16) in coordination with the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and Children.  One of these is to keep women in their own homes by removing the perpetrator of violence, making their homes more secure and integrating actions with criminal justice, health and community services.

Early research by Johnson and Krueger (1989) sought to understand the line between the differential and gendered success and failure or homelessness service provision.  Using data on 240 homeless women in six US shelters, they found that women with children were at a disadvantage in shelters, which they perceived and experienced as risky for themselves and their children.  By contrast, the women without children had differing needs:  higher rates of alcohol and substance abuse, were older, and had much shorter periods of homelessness (3 months, compared to 14 months for women with children).

Murrays’ 2011 qualitative study of 29 homeless women in Victoria identified ways in which the social policy and service delivery were failing women. This cohort had similar backgrounds to other studies, however, in asking the participants what they want, Murray was able to identify some of the ways that the women had demonstrated resourcefulness and resilience including strategies to protect themselves from violence (guarding each other, locking themselves in rooms, leaving violent relationships, seeking police help and fighting back).  More than other studies, Murray identified early intervention to prevent homelessness as well as the usual recommendations for low cost housing and women’s crisis accommodation.  Women in Murray’s study identified crisis and public housing as unsafe for them, however these are two main strategies taken by government.

Much of the research in this area focuses on the need to simultaneously tackle the woman’s housing problems and their sense of powerlessness to achieve lasting outcomes.  Finfgeld-Connett (2010) talks about the need for a “cognitive shift” in the person’s view of themselves as a powerful actor who can change the circumstances of their lives.  She calls for a combination of intensive help:   counselling, income support, childcare and healthcare.  Similarly Green et al (2012) call for counselling, particularly in teaching women to protect themselves from risk taking behaviour and have healthy relationships.  Because of the differences Johnson and Krueger (1989) found in women with or without children, their recommendations included more emergency care shelters for women with children. McFerrin’s study of older homeless women made recommendations for service delivery and policy change on a broader scale than many, including a need for a gendered housing policy, more data collection, better tenant rights and consultation with women as priorities.

Women’s service needs vary depending on the aetiology of their homelessness, their mental health, age, safety needs and the presence of children.  The results of these studies indicate that a one size fits all solution to homelessness will not work and that lasting solutions need to tackle mental health and assertiveness of women as well as housing and safety to be effective.


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