Women’s Electoral Lobby, established in 1972, is an independent, non-party political feminist organisation dedicated to creating a society where women’s participation and their ability to fulfil their potential are unrestricted, acknowledged and respected and where women and men share equally in society’s responsibilities and rewards. WEL is inclusive of and works with women who identify as First Nations, with disabilities, LGBQTI, culturally and linguistically diverse, and who are a range of ages and from a range of geographical locations and socioeconomic backgrounds. We lobby and work with government, individuals and organisations to raise awareness and promote equality. We engage with women in face-to-face activities, on and off-line campaigning, through mentoring, sharing expertise, and championing research informed policy formation. We also engage with the general public about gender equality. WEL NSW is based in Sydney and has strong links with organisations and individuals in Sydney who are also working to improve the position of women in society and who are in contact with women experiencing poverty, housing disadvantage and homelessness in the city. WEL relies on the generosity of members, donors and community grants to fund our work.
In just a short time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, women have been impacted in multiple ways, and their short and long-term financial and housing risks have surged. The pandemic’s effects have increased women’s unemployment and underemployment; reduced their superannuation; increased the rate of domestic violence; negatively affected women’s mental health and wellbeing; and increased the burden at home and at work due to extra caring responsibilities and the increased workload of essential services workers, most of whom are women.
The COVID-19 pandemic has starkly revealed new risks of increased homelessness among women, with adult women in diverse situations more at risk of homelessness over the coming months, due to the pandemic’s social and economic impact. These effects threaten to turn back women’s progress towards gender equality, propelling more women into destitution, homelessness and a lifetime of poverty. Before COVID-19, women’s economic and other inequality already created poverty, housing insecurity and homelessness among women. This situation results from multiple lifetime factors, including gaps in pay, wealth and superannuation and women’s greater responsibility for caring for children and other family members, as well as the impact of domestic and other gendered violence including trauma, injury, dislocation, financial abuse and disproportionate loss of wealth upon separation.
According to the 2016 census, older women are the fastest growing cohort among the homeless, with a national rise of 31 per cent in five years among women aged 55 and over. In NSW homelessness among women 55 and over increased by 48%, and for women aged between 65 and 74 by 78%. These older women join others who have lost secure housing due to domestic violence, poverty and other disadvantage. Forty percent of all people requesting assistance from specialist homelessness agencies in 2018-19 had experienced domestic violence, the overwhelming majority of these being women and children. Housing crisis, financial difficulties, housing affordability stress and inadequate dwelling conditions are also significant reasons why women approach services. These reasons are interlinked: lack of access to affordable housing is a reason why women remain in violent and dangerous situations.
While many women who experience homelessness do approach homelessness services, many others do not, actively avoiding services, in some cases for many years. Instead, they stay in a series of temporary, insecure or severely overcrowded arrangements, or sleep rough in concealed places. These women delay approaching services until all informal options are exhausted and their crisis has become even more serious. Women’s homelessness in our community is hidden because of fear of stigmatisation and further disadvantage, and this invisibility obscures the real extent and severity of homelessness among women. Unless the community is afforded the opportunity to understand the scale of women’s homelessness, we will continue to underestimate it.
UNSEEN will provide a platform for women who have or are experiencing homelessness to share their stories in order to generate much needed public awareness on this critical issue. By participating, their unquestionable voice of personal experience becomes the impetus for social and political change.