At 72, Sarah faced one of the toughest challenges of her life.

Retiring after working years at a corporate job, and raising an adult son, Sarah thought her later years would be relaxing. She never imagined she would be one of the growing numbers of women over 55 who are homeless.

Her quick descent into homelessness started with the rising cost-of-living. Like many others, it started with increases in rent. Then, the landlords announced the apartment that Sarah had called home for over 10 years was going to be demolished to make way for luxury apartments.

Sarah began the frantic search for alternative options within her budget.

After multiple attempts, she settled on the only option available to her: shared accommodation.

"I didn't really want to, but I was desperate."

The co-living arrangement was a dangerous outcome for Sarah who shared the space with a violent older male. Everyday motions or noises like making a pot of tea, watching the TV or having a shower became unsafe for Sarah.

Did you know? 94% of homelessness in Australia is hidden.1 Homelessness can include living in an overcrowded space, relying on temporary accommodation or unsafe environments.

Sarah reported several incidents to the police and after the fourth violent altercation, she told herself she would never step foot in that house again.

The desperate search for a place to sleep

Desperate for a place to sleep, Sarah pulled into a church car park for the night. The following night, she would park in a residential street. Wherever she felt safe would be better than returning to shared accommodation with a dangerous man.

“I was desperate at the time, so I started phoning... some people did ring back offering me a bed or saying there was no bed... I simply wanted a place, a safe place,” remembers Sarah.

As the days went on, Sarah would sleep in her car and felt too ashamed to even let her friends know and did not want to burden her son with what was going on.

"It’s shame and pride. I was extremely embarrassed. I was shocked to think that I was in this state at age 72... I can see how quickly people go downhill,” says Sarah.

“Sleeping in my car was a terrible thing because you sort of think, well, I need to go to the toilet at night. I can't really lay down. I have to squeeze my body up."

“I have a very small car... little hatchback. It was terrible. So, I was actually homeless. There was no other word for it. It was a shameful, shocking state to be in. I'm still ashamed to say that I was homeless."

The 'shame' of hidden homelessness

With lots of factors affecting older women and their financial security, Sarah is not the only woman over 55 unable to find a safe place to call home. Sarah still felt deeply ashamed and alone in the struggle.

Over 6,800 women aged 55 and over were homeless in Australia but the number of homeless women aged 55 years and over is increasing rapidly, with a rise of over 30 per cent in five years.2

Living without a home means everyday things like keeping clean or going to the toilet become a challenge. Finding a power outlet to charge a mobile phone – a crucial lifeline and point of connection – was a daily challenge.

“Your body needs to be clean, you need to brush your teeth, you need to go to the toilet, you need to wash your body, you need to wash your hair. And suddenly there's no place. There's no place for that. You're going to a shopping mall to go to the toilet and brush your teeth and you think, I hope nobody sees me...”

Seeing the light at the end of a dark tunnel

With lots of factors affecting older women and their financial security, Sarah is not the only woman over 55 unable to find a safe place to call home. Sarah still felt deeply ashamed and alone in the struggle.

Sarah felt overwhelmed by her situation, but she is grateful for the police who connected her to Fiona, who has worked with Mission Australia’s Pathways Out of Homelessness program in Queensland for three years now.

Fiona requested they meet at the public library, a safe and neutral space where Sarah would feel comfortable opening up.

“I was at the library to charge my phone,” remembers Sarah. “Fiona was very persistent. She said she could see me straight away and could mind was really upside down and I wasn't sure what I should be doing.”

Fiona arrived at the library with forms for some safe and affordable homes ready to be filled out. But before any of that, Fiona’s first step was to reassure Sarah and listen to her story. It was the first time in a long while Sarah felt reassured and listened to without judgement

"I didn’t think I had everything, but Fiona looked through what I had and said, ‘we can do this’ and before I knew it, she was making plans."

Seeing Fiona, she started to feel a sense of hope arising.

Fiona’s persistence paid off and together, they secured an affordable unit for Sarah to call home. The contract was drawn up and Fiona offered to handle the moving logistics, supporting her through the emotional and physically taxing process of cleaning and relocating.

The pair packed up their things, and then by the end of the week, Sarah was on her way to a new home.

Moving into a safe place to call home

Sarah recently moved into her forever home - something she is extremely grateful for.

“I just love it. I love it. I've made a point of enjoying my environment. It is small, but I'm not complaining. It's big enough for me to keep clean and to just live. Just live. And that's the most important thing. I'm grateful.”

Sarah worries what would have happened if she hadn't been able to access this necessary support.

She also wonders about other women, families and people out there who are in need. She hates to think what her life would currently look like if she had stayed at that share house or stayed in her car.

"You need somebody to walk alongside you. And if you don’t you can just spiral totally out of control... I haven’t forgotten Fiona’s help."

Now, she's looking towards the next chapter - one where she feels safe and secure.

“I hit the jackpot...I still am so grateful.”

Mission Australia’s Women Over 55 years (WO55) program in Queensland helps support women who are experiencing or at risk of housing insecurity. Learn more about ending homelessness. 

Names and images have been changed to protect the identity of the people we help.
1ABS (2021) Census of Population and Housing: Estimating Homelessness
2ABS (2016) Census of Population and Housing: Estimating Homelessness

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