Pandemic exposes women’s vulnerability to homelessness

28 June 2021

Written by: Savannah Pocock

Not only do women experience homelessness differently, some factors leading to homelessness can more frequently affect women.

Three weeks ago, Lucinda, one of many women who have been made homeless during the pandemic, received a call back from Juno, an organisation working with women experiencing homelessness or family violence, informing her that they could assist her to access accommodation.

In March 2021, the 50-year-old had found herself in her car filled with her belongings and her two cats after being evicted.

“I had no idea what I was going to do or where I was going to go,” she says. “I just walked around in a shock for days. I was scared and I felt helpless.”

Lucinda says she didn’t have a strong support system to assist her during this difficult chapter of her life.

“I don’t have family in Melbourne … and I couldn’t go and live with them. I don’t have a big circle of friends in Melbourne at all,” she says.

People’s experiences with homelessness can differ, but they are all connected to the absence of critical housing elements. These can include the absence of stability, safety, security, privacy and connection with the community or significant others.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, between 2019 and 2020 sixty percent of clients at Specialist Homeless Service agencies were female. Women experiencing homelessness struggle with the little things that we take for granted, like personal hygiene.  Lucinda says one of the most challenging things as a woman was finding open toilet facilities during the pandemic. She recalled wondering, “what am I going to do for my periods?”

“Some service stations were not giving out keys for bathrooms. And if you would get one it was filthy … so, I spent a lot of my toilet time out in the bush,” she says.

Data tells us that homelessness was already a challenge for women in Australia, and the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated these hardships. A Brotherhood of St. Laurence and Nous Group report says women were disproportionally impacted by the pandemic compared to men. According to UNSEEN, women experiencing homelessness are less visible. This may be because they tend to stay with friends or family or at overcrowded dwellings due to the perceived stigmatisation of sleeping rough.

Not only do women experience homelessness differently, some factors leading to homelessness can more frequently affect women, including structural societal disadvantages such as income, workforce patterns and financial security.

Dr Kate Fitz-Gibbon, from the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre, said another major factor women face with insecure housing is the increase of domestic violence. During the pandemic, domestic violence has put women at an increased risk of becoming homeless. Dr Fitz-Gibbon told the legal and Social Issues Committee that this factor has been particularly difficult for women in this period.

“While the current pandemic is not the cause of family, domestic and sexual violence, emerging evidence … is documenting that the violence against women and children is increasing in prevalence, severity and complexity during this period,” she said.

An Australian Institute of Criminology report found that for many women, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the onset of physical or sexual violence or coercive control. For others, it caused an increase in the frequency or severity of ongoing violence or abuse.

Lucinda says she has previously experienced homelessness because of domestic violence three times prior, where she was physically and mentally abused by her ex-partner.

“In the last eight years, I got evicted because of domestic violence and I’d find myself back in my car trying to get back on my feet again,” she says.

Donna Stolzenberg, Founder of the National Homeless Collective and Victorian 2021 Australian of the year for her work in designing programs to alleviate homelessness, says that people are underestimating the number of women who are forced into homelessness because of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“There have been women who might have been living in vulnerable and abusive relationships who perhaps would not have ended up in crisis accommodation and now are.”

Stolzenberg says the closure of support services for women experiencing homelessness during the pandemic has limited their ability to seek help, exercise safety planning options and secure safe housing.

“We’re finding that with a lot of the like the crisis accommodation services, there’s a gridlock and they are not moving people through, they are not able to. The whole system is ground to a halt,” she says.

When Lucinda received the news from Juno, she was surprised.

“I thought, my lucky stars have come all at once. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never had an organisation remember me to ring me back. It was just good to be true,” she says.

So, what’s the government doing to help women with these issues? This year, the Federal Budget included a $1.1 billion package that will go towards supporting female victims of violence which includes financial support for women and children who leave a violent relationship.

What about the issues of women and homelessness more generally? A report in 2020 by Housing for the Aged Action Group, The National Ageing Research Institute and Deakin University found that older women are the fastest-growing cohort of people seeking support from Specialist Homelessness Services in Australia. To help older Australians seek faster home care, The Aged Care 2020-2021 Budget will provide $1.6 billion for additional home care packages.

While this is a start, many believe more government resources are needed.

Stolzenberg experienced homelessness herself 30 years ago and she says that to not be able to offer hope to other women is a “very, very hard thing to do”.

“Some people do get out of that and become housed and go on to live wonderful lives, but for the majority, it doesn’t work like that. And it’s an extraordinarily difficult situation.”

Lucinda says she found it extremely difficult to receive any help while experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.

“I thought what bad timing for this to happen. I couldn’t believe it. Not being able to have face-to-face contact with a social worker or just someone that could help me,” she says. “I felt so frustratingly disabled … I felt like it was just hopeless. It was just a ridiculous wait list to even talk to someone.”

Now, things are finally looking up. Lucinda says Juno put her into accommodation a week ago in a motel. She says they have since been working on a plan to get some permanent housing as Lucinda is hoping to get back to work.

“To just be out of the cold and have a shower and a roof over my head and a TV. It’s luxurious,” she says.


If you or anyone you know needs help, please contact the following services:

1800 RESPECT: 1800 737 732

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 46 36

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Headspace: 1800 650 890

Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800

Article: Savannah Pocock is a second-year Bachelor of Media and Communications Journalism student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @Savannah_Pocock

Photo: Woman leaning against a wall in dim hallway available HERE and used under a Creative Commons Attribution. The image has not been modified.