'I feel very unsafe.' The alarming rise of women over 45 experiencing homelessness.

Content warning: This post touches on the topic of suicidal ideation, and may be distressing for some readers.

The spotlight rarely shines on homelessness.

It's an issue our politicians push aside and it's an experience that is seldom given the attention it deserves. 

On any given night in Australia, more than 122,000 people experience homelessness. Women make up part of this demographic, with middle-aged and older women particularly at risk. 

Oftentimes the women who don't have a safe space or home of their own are forced into extremely difficult situations. 67-year-old Betty can attest to this. 

"I was never comfortable in my car. I didn't feel secure, like you do when you have a home. It's not a good thing to do, I wouldn't wish it on anyone. But when you have no other option, you've just got to do it," she tells Mamamia.

Watch: Jai talks about his experience of being homeless on and off for twenty years on the streets of Sydney. Post continues below.

Video via ABC.

From the moment Betty first moved to Australia, she fell on tough times. Originally from Papua New Guinea, all of her family remain overseas. It left Betty with very few loved ones to turn to for support. 

"It became bad when the rental market changed in recent years, they were charging too much so I had to move. I couldn't find a place, lots of people were applying, and the deadline came and I had nowhere to go. I couldn't afford anything."

For 14 years Betty has worked full-time as a cleaner, and she continues to do this. Over a span of six weeks, Betty had submitted 36 rental applications. She was unsuccessful in all of them. 

It left Betty with no other option but to live in her car.

"When I was living in my car, I felt very unsafe. I could never sleep properly, I was always alert. It's not a great way to live," says Betty.

"Everybody's got their own thing going on, so I just had to do what I had to do. I still do. It's hard to save money in this society, in this country. This [homelessness] could happen to them, to anyone. Hard times fall on many."

Betty. Image: Supplied.


Betty spent nine months living in the confines of her car, before securing housing. In recent weeks though, the cost of her emergency accommodation has increased, and she believes it's likely she will be calling her car her home again soon.

The mental, financial and emotional burden is palpable.

Dr Daniel Nour is the Founder of Street Side Medics - a not-for-profit, GP-led mobile medical service for people experiencing homelessness. 

Speaking with Mamamia, Dr Nour says he has personally noticed a "significant rise" in women over 50 experiencing homelessness and presenting to the clinics. 

"It's concerning. It's an issue that deserves attention; and it's an incredibly complex matter with many factors including employment opportunity, relationship breakdown, domestic violence, and mental health all clearly in play," he notes.


"We have also observed many women over 50 who do have employment but are unable to bear the cost of rent and living and so, find themselves couch surfing, sleeping in cars or in shelters. We're seeing this more and more in our service on the streets."

It's for reasons like these why Street Side Medics continues to collaborate and partner with services providing care to these women, like shelters, says Dr Nour. And when it comes to health concerns for this demographic, there's certainly a pattern. 

"Women within this demographic generally present with what appear to be trivial complaints but on further consultation, we usually find that these women have very complex histories and health conditions," he notes.

This can range from longstanding mental health issues, drug use and/or drug abuse and chronic and poorly controlled effects of diseases such as diabetes. Many are also contending with health issues that are consequences of a history of or current threats of domestic violence, past incarceration, family separation, conflict and significant grief and losses in their lives.

Betty with her vehicle. Image: Supplied.


Dr Nour recounts two examples.

One patient is a woman in her early 50s who was sacked from her job after speaking out about being sexually assaulted by a superior at her place of employment. As a result of the sexual assault, she suffers PTSD and sleeps in her car.

Another was a woman in her 60s. She had experienced homelessness for a long time, and suffered from severe trauma from abuse inflicted on her by her mother. 

"These women scarcely seek medical support for matters such as menopause or perimenopause, which are seemingly low on their list of health worries. Sadly, for most of these women, their physical and/or mental health just isn't afforded adequate priority in their daily lives."


48-year-old Cass is someone who knows this experience all too well. 

She has been experiencing homelessness for over two years. She tells Mamamia that her tonsil cancer diagnosis was the catalyst.

"I had been receiving chemotherapy, I was too sick to work as a result of that and times were tough. I'm also a single mum to my two amazing children, and with rental increases, I knew it was going to be impossible to afford anything, I was already relying completely on Centrelink. My health complications just kept piling up. It destroyed my mental health," she explains.

"The thought of my kids going homeless was absolutely heartbreaking. So I contacted their father and organised for them to be with him, as I sorted out my life. I never thought I would be in this position. Living out of my car. I've worked hard all my life. I paid my taxes."

Moving into her hatchback full-time, Cass has made the best of a tough situation. But that's not to say it's easy.

"There's a difference between camping and living in your own mess. To live in your own filth for a couple of weeks, I'm a country girl, but not having the ability to wash your clothes or shower, it does have an effect on your morale," says Cass.


"You've got to weigh up your priorities. What's your priority? Food? Petrol? Clean clothes? Clean body? Medication? All it takes is one moment in time and everything can drastically change. I don't know what my future looks like at this stage."

Her "one little luxury" that brings her joy is her YouTube account where she can listen to hours and hours of her favourite music. It's not just a source of entertainment, but a source of comfort.

Cass with her van. Image: Supplied.


Cass hopes she will one day be in a position to take care of her kids again. Until then, she clings to the positive memories she has with them. 

"Reflecting on how far I've come, I am sort of back on track. Things have been really hopeless, like there were days I considered driving off a cliff. But focusing on the achievements, and getting to have a little bit of contact with my kids, that's my goal."

Women over 50 are undoubtedly the fastest-growing demographic experiencing homelessness. 

Research shows that often it's a major life disruption that leads older women to no longer have a roof over their heads. This can include the breakdown of a marriage, the loss of a job, the death of a partner, or also the development of an illness - coupled with a lack of savings, given the gender gap in superannuation. 

The stats don't stop there.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that of those experiencing homelessness in 2021, 44.1 per cent were female, which is an increase of 10.1 per cent from 2016.  

Mamamia previously spoke with Erin Longbottom, the Nursing Unit Manager for St Vincent's Hospital's Homeless Health Service.

She noted that it's important to look at the reasoning behind why more and more middle-aged women are experiencing homelessness. 


"A lot of that comes down to domestic and family violence, a lack of financial literacy and/or security, and other factors. But accessing adequate healthcare remains a challenge for many of them too," she said.

"Because they're more vulnerable statistically speaking, women tend to find crisis accommodation like hostels, couch surfing or cars. You don't usually see many end up sleeping on the streets."

For Orange Sky Co-Founder and CEO Lucas Patchett, he wishes more was being done from a macro level to address this issue. Orange Sky is a homelessness support charity available across Australia and also remote communities, offering a free mobile laundry and shower service for those doing it tough.

"We know the Australian community are really doing it tough at the moment. Not only did the latest Census reveal that more people across the country are experiencing homelessness, we know from what we are seeing out on shift that more people than ever before are reaching out to services," he notes.

"We have started some specific services for women and families to respond to the growth in demand and the changing face of people doing it tough."

Orange Sky is where Cass goes to wash and dry her clothes, as does Betty.

"For the six months where I was homeless for the second time, I was using public toilets and showers. It was hard. That's how I came across Orange Sky," Betty tells Mamamia. "Now even though I'm housed I still use their services to save money. It's nice to have services like these available - it really helps."


Cass agrees, saying it's simple services like these that not only give her autonomy, and also help her to feel human.

"There's some good services out there, one's that will help you have a shower, wash your clothes, stock you up with pantry items, and even fuel vouchers every so often. But it's the support the volunteers give that matters most, just having a conversation and the no-judgement look on their faces. Sometimes they'll give me a tin of milo, and that just always makes my day," she notes.

"There's so many women like me. We don't feel worthy anymore. We just feel like we've been thrown in the trash. It's our reality. The looks you get from people, strangers, it's the worst," says Cass.

If there's anything Cass wants people to know it's this - a smile can go a long way.

"We're your neighbours, your sisters. Women from all walks of life can end up in this situation, for whatever reason. And we still have a lot to give. I just wish people were kinder."

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature Image: Supplied/Orange Sky.