78-year old Dee Why local Alexandra Samootin never thought she'd be homeless. But she's one of a growing number of older women across the country who've experienced homelessness.
In her younger years, Alexandra had a career in government in Canberra and Brisbane. She moved to Sydney's northern beaches when she got married and worked in the courts as a typist.
"I had my own home, I thought I'd be secure into my old age, and I wasn't," she said.
"It could happen to any woman."
It was a breakdown in marriage and a lengthy legal battle over property ownership that left Alexandra homeless at age 64.
She was told by the court she wasn't allowed to return to the northern beaches property she had helped pay the mortgage on. At that moment Alexandra became homeless.
"I left the courtroom crying and I went to the rental tribunal and told them what happened," Alexandra said.
They asked how much money I had in the bank, I said $15. 'What's in your handbag,' '$15,' and they said 'you're a homeless person.'- Alexandra Samootin
"They gave me a phone number and a chair to sit on. I phoned some social services and I told them what happened. They asked how much money I had in the bank, I said $15. 'What's in your handbag,' '$15,' and they said 'you're a homeless person."
Alexandra had nowhere to go because all her relatives were out of state so she was put up in a motel for two nights, then transferred to a womens' refuge in the CBD.
"When I was at the motel, I woke up in the night and I thought 'where the hell am I.' I got such a shock, I forgot what happened. And then my heart jolted and I remembered... that's what happened today," she said.
Alexandra isn't alone in her experience. There are more than 15,000 homeless women in NSW and in 2019, women over 55 were the fastest growing group of homeless people.
According to a recent report by Housing For the Aged Action Group (HAAG) and Social Ventures Australia, there are an estimated 405,000 women over the age of 45 who are at risk of severe housing stress and homelessness.
Dr Jane Bullen is a Sydney-based researcher specialising in housing, homelessness and domestic violence. She says homelessness in older women can have a number of causes including domestic violence and relationship breakdowns.
READ MORE: The hidden face of homelessness in NSW
But the key issue she highlights is the "skyrocketing" housing prices and rental costs across NSW.
"If you're a single older woman, if you stopped earning money, either because you retire or because you are made redundant, or if you separate or have separated, you're very, very vulnerable if you're not in social housing or already a homeowner."
"There are women who've never had a problem with homelessness in their whole lives who suddenly end up in this terrible position."
There are women who've never had a problem with homelessness in their whole lives who suddenly end up in this terrible position.- Dr Jane Bullen
Each year Anglicare conducts a rental affordability 'snapshot' where they tally up all the available rentals across Sydney on a given weekend. This year's snapshot was taken on the weekend of the 27th to 28th of March.
Of the 24,978 private rentals advertised for rent in the Greater Sydney area, only 26 were affordable for people on the aged pension. Not one of these was in the northern beaches.
Manly MP James Griffin acknowledges housing affordability in the northern beaches is an issue because of the geographical constraints and land value.
He said in Landcom's redevelopment of the former Queenscliff Community Health Centre, "a small number of apartments will be put aside for women over 55 who are in financial distress."
"What we're trying to do with that is demonstrate to private developers you can actually do a development, which will still make a profit, but within it includes affordable housing for a demographic in desperate need," he said.
In 2021, street counts identified 1,141 people sleeping rough across NSW. In the northern beaches, 57 rough sleepers were counted across ten locations, down from 71 last year.
READ MORE: Critics denounce NSW social housing spend
Griffin said the reduction in the number of rough sleepers was evidence some of the state government's programs were working. As of July, the state government's housing provider has placed 20 people in the northern beaches, including 4 women, into home care.
"The results this year were a mixture of a really strong response to homelessness through covid, there was a lot of funding put behind supporting those experiencing homelessness," he said.
"We're proud of the outcome of that but the key will be how that success is sustained into the future."
The way in which people, and women in particular, experience homelessness doesn't really discriminate based on the postcode you live in or where you come from.- James Griffin
Street counts don't capture the full scope of homelessness. Counts don't factor in the "invisible homeless" and Dr. Bullen says women are more likely to be in this category. Homeless women will often sleep in cars or vans, couch surf or full-time house sitting rather than sleep on the street.
"Most people's picture of a homeless person is a guy on the streets, and most of the people who are visibly sleeping on the streets are men," she said.
"Women will often do anything they can not to be visibly sleeping on the streets and if they don't have anywhere else, they'll sleep on the street in a hidden way."
James Griffin says the northern beaches community has a "proud history of being proactive to solve the issue" but "there's always more to be done." He says it's important people are aware of how homelessness impacts people in their own community.
"The way in which people, and women in particular, experience homelessness doesn't really discriminate based on the postcode you live in or where you come from."
For women like Alexandra, the importance of homelessness services and housing cannot be overstated. After 3 months in the womens' refuge Alexandra was lucky enough to secure a spot in a public housing unit in Dee Why.
"If it wasn't for those support services I would've been dead," she said.
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