The bad news? I slept in my car on Wednesday night. The good news is because I’d planned to, I’d had the car cleaned for the first time since 1996. When I picked the kids up from school they thought I’d bought a new car.
I slept in my car alongside dozens of others, by choice, in an event organised by WISHIN (Women’s Information, Support and Housing In The North) to raise awareness about the escalating rise in homeless women and the shameful lack of resources. Particularly for older single women with no history of mental illness or addiction. Women who have worked hard all their lives, often raised children and owned homes. Relationship breakdown plus shortage of affordable safe housing plus financial crisis and homelessness can be one rent payment away from sleeping rough. These women do not feel safe in much of the traditional emergency accommodation nor do they fit with the homeless due to mental illness or substance abuse. So many stay with friends or sleep in their car. Some with their children. In Australia. None of them ever expected to be homeless. These homeless women in the large part are invisible.
Homeless people are homeless for different reasons and have different needs and vulnerabilities. The current Government has put a huge injection of funds into homelessness. But it’s catch up money. And only a small portion of it. The Government needs to commit to ongoing funding so the people can do what they do and not have to spend all their time chasing money.
We gathered together people from welfare groups and compassionate others in the hall of an inner-city Melbourne church and spent the night eating pizza, drinking tea from paper cups and singing. We all wore hoodies that read EVERY WOMAN NEEDS A SAFE HOME EVERY NIGHT. The local MP Kelvin Thompson rocked up. He understood that? Homelessness arises from a cycle of disadvantage. There was a bit of a talkfest and eventually we all bedded down in our cars or the hall.
I tweeted the night. Call it micro-reporting. With the hashtag #wishinacar. Thousands of people on Twitter followed the night. Because if you don’t know what to do, do anything. And if you want to do something advocate, participate or donate.
It’s not rocket science. All it takes is homes to end homelessness. There’s a critical lack of services and awareness about women’s homelessness. These women are homeless through social and financial reasons. They are falling through the cracks. And there’s no welcome mat. No safe place for them. There is a new profile of homeless women who have different vulnerabilities and needs.
The report released on Tuesday about this issue “It Could Be You. Female, Single Older Homeless” found that women over 50 have 50 per cent less savings than men. Women get paid for half the working years of men. Women peak at half the income of men. Women age much poorer than men. There are no policies and no plans to meet the need of this rising wave of a different profile.
An interesting exchange between one of the professional women and one of the welfare workers that evening:
Welfare worker: “How much do you pay your cleaner?”
Professional: “$40 an hour.”
Welfare worker: “And you know what I make for putting people’s lives back together? $22 an hour.”
This welfare worker later shared with me that she knows she herself could be only a relationship breakdown and some bad luck away from being homeless. Discrimination against women and particularly single women had a lot to do with it.
When I was a little girl, our family lost our home. When I asked where would we live Mum said, “We may end up living in the car.” Then the car got repossessed. At the 11th hour we got allocated a commission house. Not whingeing. Just saying this is something that affects many people.
During the night I met Lisa, a woman who’s been homeless for the last few years sleeping and at times sleeping with her beautiful kids, who I also met in a car. A brave, articulate, more incredible woman as you’d ever meet. I couldn’t stop thinking, “Where’s her medal. Where are all their medals?”
When it was time to go to sleep, I hopped into the back seat of my little Toyota Corolla and for the first time wished I owned a four-wheel drive. It was cold and cramped and I thought, ‘This time last night I felt safe and loved and fell asleep by candlelight. Falling to sleep in my car on the side of the road I feel abandoned, discarded and exposed. Cold and alone.’ I couldn’t stop thinking about Lisa and her kids. And the other 105,000 people in Australia who sleep rough every night. Lisa never expected to be homeless??? No-one expects to be homeless. I was cold, miserable and uncomfortable all night. I woke feeling like rubbish. I slept like a question mark and as soon as I got up started googling numbers for a physio.
I was happy and grateful to be driving back to my place. I longed for my bed like a lover. I’m now laying my head down and pulling my blankets around me thinking ‘There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.’ My wish in a car is for this time next year for at least five more women who would have been sleeping rough to be able to put their head down on a warm bed, in a safe house that they can afford and have the same experience. Because there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.
Catherine Deveny is a Melbourne-based comedian, writer and mother of small boys. She no longer writes a column for The Age.