What really causes homelessness for women and their children?

Woman on step
Woman on step

Homelessness doesn’t discriminate. And it can happen in an instant for anyone from any background. But when it comes to the reasons why people find themselves homeless the list is long and varied, touching on a range of social, economic and health-related factors.

It could be as seemingly simple as an unexpected car breakdown, losing a job or some other incident that sets the wheels in motion for a person to suddenly find themselves no longer able to afford their rent or accommodation costs.

Ongoing health issues, struggling to find affordable rental housing, economic and social exclusion, or not feeling safe at home are among the other reasons. But when you look at the research and the anecdotal evidence gathered by those in frontline services, there are four main causes that can single-handedly, or in combination, lead to homelessness.

Domestic violence

Family, sexual and domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness across Australia for women and children – and particularly so for those who are young, pregnant or have an Indigenous background. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that in 2016-17 about 72,000 women and 34,000 children found themselves homeless for this very reason. They also discovered the problem has only grown in the past five years.

The AIHW says in Australia one in four women have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner since the age of 15 and, alarmingly, on average one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.

Financial difficulties

In Queensland, 25 per cent of homelessness is attributed to experiencing financial difficulty and the inability to afford adequate housing. This can of course result from many different personal experiences, including short- or long-term unemployment or a sudden loss of employment, as well as debt, housing market pressures and rising rental and housing prices.

There are many other financial pressures too, from everyday living costs to unexpected costs that can tip a person’s budget over the edge and make them financially unstable. Often, financial difficulties will come in combination with the other key drivers for homelessness – such as family breakdown, health obstacles and domestic violence.

Some will experience intergenerational poverty and have never known any different, meaning they lack the connections and therefore possible support in periods of stress or financial hardship, which are difficult to face alone.

Mental health

The link between homelessness and mental health is well established. Just as mental health problems can be a key contributing factor in the lead-up to homelessness, the very experience of being homeless can leave a devastating impact on individuals at a mental and emotional level. These two issues are tightly interconnected and their impact on the other irrefutable.

While quantifying the prevalence of mental illness as a number of percentage in homeless populations is very difficult, and the estimates that do exist vary greatly, it is fair to say that mental health issues in homeless people are more common than in the average population.

Drug and alcohol issues

The research has found that drug and alcohol abuse and addiction is another factor that can play a role in causing homelessness, but it’s important to note that it’s not always a factor and that there are many stereotypes and stigmas around this very complex issue.

Researchers have consistently found that rates of alcohol and other drug use are higher in the homeless than for the general population – and that for women in particular, drugs can prove a bigger problem than alcohol. It is however very difficult to differentiate how much substance abuse leads to homelessness in comparison to how homelessness may lead to substance abuse, so they are are interconnected.

There are many varied factors that can influence a person’s life in the lead-up to and during homelessness that make this a very complex issue and one that we must continue to address.

The Lady Musgrave Trust is Queensland’s oldest charity, and is committed to making a difference in the lives of those who find themselves homeless and in need at difficult times in their life.

We focus specifically on women and children’s homelessness throughout Queensland and provide young women up to the age of 30 with low cost accommodation and support services in our portfolio in Brisbane and Ipswich. We also create and distribute The Handy Guide for Homeless Women and host a unique Annual Forum focused on women and homelessness.

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