One of Australia 's largest providers of homeless services says more needs to be done to help the hidden ranks of older people who are "slipping under the radar" of a homelessness support system not geared to their needs.
Mission Australia 's NSW/ACT State Director, Leonie Green, said many older homeless people didn't approach mainstream services for help and were therefore under-represented in official homeless statistics.
She said she was hopeful the Federal Government's White Paper strategy on homelessness would address the issue when released in September.
"Older homeless Australians don't make the same demands on our mainstream services compared with young people so their numbers and the scale of the problem is going undetected," said Leonie.
"If older homeless people are slipping under the radar of traditional homeless services then it's fair to say their presence is registering as zero with the wider community."
People are considered to be part of the mainstream aged population if they are 65 or over. However, due to the health consequences and premature aging associated with homelessness, homeless people aged 50+ (45+ for Indigenous people) are considered elderly.
"Statistics tell us that 9.4 per cent of people – or 11,300 individuals – who used the nation's system of homeless services in 2006-07 were aged 50 or over," said Leonie.
"However, that's likely to be a significant underestimation because we know that older homeless people aren't accessing mainstream services in their true numbers. That's because they believe – mostly correctly – that existing homeless services don't address their complex needs. Another common reason is because they feel too proud or independent to use them.
"The end result is that older homeless Australians struggle on in isolation and extreme hardship and don't get the help they need.
"And the problem of elderly homelessness is likely to get worse. Recent research states that over 112,000 older Australians are in housing stress – a number that has grown 100% over the past four years. The number of renters aged 65 or over living in low-income rental households is also expected to increase 115% - from 195,000 in 2001 to 419,000 in 2026.
"Older Australians become homeless for a number of reasons. While for some it's because they've been entrenched in homelessness for years as a result of substance abuse or mental health issues, many others become homeless for the first time in their mature age because their housing falls through, a relationship breaks down or because they get into financial trouble.
"There is a higher rate of premature death among older homeless people – with a reported average age of death of between 42 and 52 years in Western nations. In addition they experience higher levels of illness because of a lack of adequate shelter, unsanitary living conditions, malnutrition and poor personal hygiene and dental health; more frequent chronic physical and mental health problems; and are at a greater risk of trauma from assault than other homeless groups.
"They have a range of specialised needs which agencies struggle to meet. For example, they find it extremely difficult to acquire new job skills and are more concerned about safety and security issues (eg: avoiding general homeless services because they fear violence from younger clients).
"Unfortunately, support for the elderly homeless in Australia is ad hoc and spread across multiple levels of government, non-government organisations and service providers. There are few organisations that specifically cater for the needs of the ageing homeless.
"Mission Australia 's Charles Chambers Court in Sydney 's Surry Hills is one of the few services in this city that caters exclusively to the needs of elderly homeless people – particularly those who have been homeless for many years.
"If we're going to get on top of this problem we need to start by providing older homeless people with a variety of housing and support options that address their individual needs.
"We need more policy initiatives along the lines of the Federal Government's Assistance with Care and Housing for the Aged program which specifically addresses the needs of the elderly homeless population.
"Early intervention and prevention options are also required so older people in danger of becoming homeless are offered support before their situation becomes a crisis. The Government's National Rental Affordability Scheme should help in this regard.
"Better coordination of services and communication between health and welfare agencies would also help to identify older people at risk of homelessness.
"Mission Australia's submission to the Federal Government's homelessness Green Paper has called for a minimum 15% reduction in the unmet level of demand for aged care beds by the elderly homeless each year.
"We need to set targets that are both ambitious and achievable in order to track our success in addressing this issue. We're hopeful that the Government's White Paper in September will put in place the resources to help meet this hidden challenge," said Leonie.
Mission Australia 's Charles Chambers Court – a 60 bed service in Sydney 's Surry Hills exclusively for older homeless people – celebrates its 10th anniversary in August.
Charles Chambers Court was recently recognised with a 'Positive Living in Aged Care' award for the service's approach to helping residents with mental health issues. It was a 2007 finalist in the Federal Minister for Ageing's Award for Excellence in Aged Care.
Homelessness Among the Elderly – The Hidden Face of Homelessness in Australia
National Homeless Persons' Week – 4-10 August
Published 04 August 2008 | Paul Andrews