Opinion: Sadly, many seniors are sleeping rough

Nieves Murray: "Last year, we helped 50 people over the age of 50 find new homes through the Assistance with Care and Housing program. Their stories are harrowing."
Nieves Murray: "Last year, we helped 50 people over the age of 50 find new homes through the Assistance with Care and Housing program. Their stories are harrowing."

Last night, more than 2000 elderly Australians over the age of 75 slept rough. Curled up in cars, cramped in overcrowded shelters, or cold on the streets. Shocking, isn’t it? 

In fact, on any given night in Australia, 15,000 people over the age of 55 are homeless. That’s about 300 busloads of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents with nowhere to call home.

You may be asking yourself “how does this happen?”. I know I have. It happens for a number of reasons. Lifelong poverty is one. Australians born into unfortunate circumstances who are now ageing. Mental illness is another. Genetics or life experience robs many of their ability to function. Chronic health conditions prevent paid work, the age pension is inadequate, and disturbingly, domestic violence forces older women to flee their homes with nothing.

The reasons that older Australians become homeless aren’t unique. Young people experience these challenges too. The difference is, it’s harder for older people to get back on their feet. Employment opportunities for people over the age of 55 are hard to come by. On average, older Australians who receive the Newstart allowance take two to four years to find a job.

Young people move off the allowance and into employment more quickly. Without a job, older Australians can’t find private rental accommodation. There are also fewer options for government assistance as you age. I recently heard of a disabled woman who will be ineligible for the National Disability Insurance Scheme because of her age. She will be forced onto the age pension, which is woefully inadequate. Could you live off less than $65 a day? Yet that’s what our pensioners are expected to do.

Public housing and rental assistance schemes are a safety net for Australians who can’t find or afford private rental accommodation. Unfortunately, places are in short supply. Last year, we helped 50 people over the age of 50 find new homes through the Assistance with Care and Housing program. Their stories are harrowing. Meeting elderly people who are being abused is deeply upsetting. I’m proud we could help them find safe homes, but I worry about the thousands of grandparents still living in unstable, unsafe accommodation.

I’d like to tell you there’s a rainbow on the horizon. The sad truth is that storm clouds are brewing. The proportion of Australians over the age of 55 is increasing and housing affordability is a national crisis. This means that more older Australians will become homeless, unless we change our fate.

What community solutions can we create? What can you do? Are you an employer who has over-looked older job applicants in the past? Give them a chance! Their life experience and emotional maturity will impress you. Do you live alone with rooms to spare? Consider an older roommate. Websites like Stitch can help you safely connect. Can you make time to volunteer? My work with the Vinnies van is so enriching. Homeless services are always in need of new recruits. Donate goods or cash.

I was so inspired by two people who helped fund Orange Sky Laundry in Wollongong. New ideas like this are springing to life all over Australia. The latest buzz is small DIY housing like Big World Homes.

If you have a great idea, back yourself and give it a go. Together, let’s put an end to elderly people sleeping rough in Australia.

Nieves Murray is the chief executive of IRT Group, one of Australia's largest community-owned seniors lifestyle and care providers.