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Morris, Alan; Judd, Bruce; Kavanagh, Kay; Naidoo, Yuvisthi --- "Older Marginalised People: Pathways Into and Out of A Marginal Housing Situation" [2005] AUJlHRights 4; (2005) 11(1) Australian Journal of Human Rights 4

Older marginalised people: pathways into and out of a marginal housing situation

Alan Morris, Bruce Judd, Kay Kavanagh and Yuvisthi Naidoo*

This study1 explores the situation of marginally housed older people in NSW, Victoria and SA. It investigates pathways into homelessness and the importance of interventions and support to ensure that older, vulnerable people retain their accommodation. The research is based on 59 in-depth interviews with older people who were all clients of the Assistance with Care and Housing for the Aged (ACHA) program; a national survey of 46 ACHA agencies; and interviews with 15 ACHA managers.2 A key finding is that those older people in private rented accommodation who are dependent on income support are particularly prone to finding themselves battling to avoid homelessness. The death of a spouse, rent increases and eviction are common precipitators of an accommodation crisis. A lack of social and family networks and the breakdown of the extended family are also important. The virtual freeze on the building of social housing and the resultant scarcity of affordable and adequate accommodation and support services are another key factor. Intervention by outside agencies was found to alter dramatically the lives of vulnerable older people. The key intervention was helping to find adequate, affordable and secure accommodation. However, ongoing support usually is also critical to ensure successful and sustainable housing outcomes for older people.


In the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is stated that ‘freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people’. Article 25 of the Declaration states that:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

What this paper illustrates is that for a large number of older Australians (loosely 65 and older), everyday life is not characterised by ‘freedom from fear and want’ and many are not able to ensure that they have an adequate standard of living, housing and security. Our research suggests that marginality in the area of housing and the possibility of slipping into homelessness are a persistent anxiety for thousands of older Australians.

In June 2002, just over 2.5 million people or 12.7 per cent of Australia’s population was 65 or over, up from 10 per cent in 1982 (Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2003). By 2051, it is estimated that 24 to 26 per cent of the population will be 65 or older, equivalent to at least six million people (ABS 1998). A large part of this grouping is dependent on income support from the government for everyday survival. In 1998 only about 6 per cent of all Australians who were 65 and over were in the labour force, and for 74 per cent of this grouping ‘government pensions and allowances were the principal source of income’ (ABS 1999: 4). The government pension ($470.70 a fortnight if you are single and $393 a fortnight if you have a partner — November 2004 figures) gives most older Australians the means to sustain themselves, but it allows little room for protection if unfortunate events befall the person or couple concerned. This is especially so in the case of those approximately one in 13 pensioners who are private renters. Our research indicated that for many of the estimated 175,000 old-age pensioners who are private renters, everyday life is characterised by great anxiety as they try to maintain or acquire access to adequate accommodation and their independence.3 A large proportion are what Chamberlain and Mackenzie (1992) have termed ‘marginally housed’, in that their hold on accommodation is tenuous and they often live in inadequate conditions. From a human rights perspective, the human rights of these individuals are transgressed on a daily basis as they struggle to maintain access to decent and secure accommodation and find the means to feed and clothe themselves adequately.

Our study has two main aims. First, it explores the world of vulnerable older Australians who are marginally housed and briefly examines what propelled them into a situation where they are in real danger of being in a state of secondary, tertiary or even primary homelessness.4 In the process of examining the dynamics involved in a housing crisis developing for an older person, the paper focuses on the structural dimensions rather than on personal issues such as alcoholism, dementia or mental illness.5 Second, the study briefly examines the impact that intervention from outside agencies has had on the housing fortunes of vulnerable older Australians. This latter focus illustrates the importance of support to sustain independent living for older people and implicitly illustrates the importance of the welfare state, showing how by cutting services the human rights of vulnerable individuals are further violated.

Pathways into a marginal housing situation among older Australians

All of the 59 older people interviewed for this study had been marginally housed. Many could have ended up in a situation of primary homelessness if a service provider had not intervened on their behalf. In almost all cases, there was no single reason for the informants finding themselves in an accommodation crisis; rather, it was a combination of life events, government policies and structural conditions that precipitated the crisis. For heuristic purposes, the circumstances that precipitated a housing crisis for many of our informants are discussed in turn.

Personal problems

A large proportion of older people who become homeless have serious personal problems: mental illness, dementia, poor physical health and alcoholism are the key personal aspects that propel older people into homelessness. All of the ACHA managers interviewed felt that mental illness and substance abuse were important and common factors precipitating accommodation crises. Older people with a mental illness usually find it difficult to cope with many of the basic components of everyday life and often require significant support.

Although some of our informants had mental health problems, what our interviews showed is that for many older people who find themselves in marginal accommodation, the situation is due not to their mental health, but to broader social factors and policy decisions. These are discussed below.

The inability to access social housing

Most of the older people we interviewed had found themselves in a crisis situation because of an inability to access public or community sector housing. The virtual freeze on the building of public housing and the small size of the community housing sector have meant that an ever-increasing proportion of older people who are not homeowners are dependent on the relatively expensive private rental sector. The dire shortage of affordable housing is mainly due to cuts in Commonwealth funding for public housing and the shift towards the rent assistance model. Hall and Berry estimate that between 1990/91 and 2000/01, ‘the total real capital funding for public housing fell by 25 per cent’ and between 1996/97 and 2000/01, the number of public housing and community-sector dwellings declined from 380,000 to 375,000 (Hall and Berry 2004: iii).

In mid-2003, about 92,000 people in NSW were on the waiting list for public housing (Masters 2003). There are varying estimates as to the average waiting period. In 2003 Gary Moore, the director of the NSW Council of Social Services, estimated that the waiting period is between three and 10 years (Masters 2003). The waiting period is dependent on location and priority. A manager of an ACHA agency in the eastern suburbs of Sydney commented that in her area:

... there’s a 12 year waiting list for Department of Housing [housing,] ... a huge lack of public housing, and ... to get onto the priority waiting list one needs to be aged over 80 and have medical support and evidence.

The notion of having to be 80 to move onto the priority housing list is obviously problematic.

The freeze on public housing expenditure means that if you are a pensioner renting privately but can no longer afford to do so, the possibility of accessing public housing is minimal. Many of our informants had felt totally trapped in the private rental sector, even though they had little left after paying the landlord.

Inability of people dependent on the old-age pension to afford private rentals

None of the older people we interviewed owned their own home. Many had approached the ACHA program when it was clear that they could no longer pay the rent and were in danger of eviction and homelessness. The inability to afford private rentals was especially acute in the metropolitan areas. Often the only way informants could sustain their tenancy was to dip constantly into their savings and, if this was not possible, to reduce their nutritional intake. Both were necessarily temporary solutions. A 75-year-old man, dependent on a government pension and resident in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, described his spiral of decline and his anguish in the following way:

Yeah, $170 a week [rent]. I have some money before [savings] and was not hurt but when the money’s finished the trouble started. What can you do on $200 a week? You pay rent and you don’t eat.

The service provider he approached managed to find a public housing dwelling for him, thereby transforming his life: ‘Yeah, I have enough [now] to survive ... before I didn’t have enough to eat.’

In Sydney, the possibility of an older person dependent on a government pension being able to rent adequate accommodation and have an adequate nutritional intake is becoming more and more remote. A 66-year-old female informant resident in Sydney observed:

You just can’t live on a pension and rent. That’s the whole thing. I only live on the pension. I don’t have any other income, and it’s totally impossible to rent when you’re on a pension. You just cannot live on the pension and rent.

The death of a spouse often resulted in the rent burden becoming unbearable. An informant described his dilemma after his wife died: ‘Oh well, I was on $480 a fortnight and $520 was the rent. How could I, how could you live on one (pension)?’ When his wife was alive they had managed. An ACHA manager noted that the death of a partner is a common reason why older people on income support who are tenants often find themselves in a very vulnerable situation:

We’ve had many instances where there have been couples and they’ve managed in private rental accommodation. When one partner dies the income is split in half but the overheads of living are essentially the same, so these people who were not the most vulnerable in society all of a sudden become vulnerable.

The reality and fear of further rent increases creates enormous anxiety. A 65-year-old male resident in Melbourne who was paying $570 a month in rent describes his situation:

When you rent, and [an] agent and landlord is involved, you can never be sure what’s going to happen. The rent goes up ... So if you complain and you don’t pay, they kick you out.

Many informants had similar stories of being stretched to breaking point as their rent was steadily increased.

The vulnerability of older people in rented accommodation in urban locations is not surprising. In Sydney during the 1990s, the number of households categorised as living in a housing stress situation doubled and one in four low income Sydney households had difficulty meeting mortgage or rent payments (Holliday 1999).6 In the ACT, the Minister for Urban Services noted that private rents had increased by 30 per cent between January 1999 and May 2002 and that people in the lowest income bracket in private rented accommodation were paying 59 per cent of their income in rent. He concluded that ‘thousands of families and individuals in our community face serious financial hardship just to keep a roof over their heads’ (Wood 2002). A key part of the problem is that rental assistance is the same nationwide and does not take regional differences in rents into account.

In the metropolitan areas, the contraction in the quantity of affordable accommodation available has considerably narrowed the options for older people on income support. Thus, in 2002 a survey by the South Sydney Council found that of the 640 properties in the locality listed as boarding houses, half no longer existed (South Sydney Council 2002). They had been knocked down to make way for upmarket apartments or converted into backpacker hostels. This is significant, as boarding houses — despite a tendency to be unsuitable — have historically been a refuge for older people on low incomes. It is not only boarding houses that are being converted, but also older apartment blocks, especially those located in neighbourhoods that over time have become sought-after localities. The informant just quoted observed:

And then there’s occasions where the place has been sold you know and the people don’t want anyone there. The place before ... they gave me four months. The place I think got pulled down and new luxury flats went up. So when you rent private you can never be sure what’s going to happen next day, where the rent goes up, or where the boss comes down and the agent say, ‘look you’ve got three months to get out because this is no longer available’.

An 83-year-old Sydney woman described how she was forced to move from the unit she had been renting for 22 years: ‘I was only paying rent and they sold the flat and I just had to go.’

Limited finances meant that many of our informants were living in totally unsuitable accommodation prior to intervention by a service provider. An informant in SA, who was paying $150 a week for a run-down apartment, described how his block of units was constantly visited by people looking to purchase drugs. In addition, he was constantly harassed by the landlord, who would just ‘barge’ into his unit at any time. The informant alleged that the landlord would charge $25 to change a light bulb. Several informants complained of being harassed by their landlord and said that they felt very insecure. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence’. Several of our informants were in situations in which this human right was fundamentally violated by intrusive and bullying landlords.

Physical and social conditions in boarding houses appeared to be particularly bad. A male informant who had been living in a boarding house in Sydney’s inner west described it in the following way:

The kitchen was filthy, and the toilets were awful, the bathrooms were terrible ... and you know there was drunk residents and the police were there all the time ... and there were these tiny little rooms ...

A female informant commented:

I just wanted to move out of the ... area because it’s very ah, you couldn’t go out after dark. There were a lot of people in the street. You know it was just a bad, unsafe environment.

Fear of their fellow tenants and/or the neighbourhood meant that some of our informants rarely ventured out of their units.

A lack of social and family networks and the breakdown of the extended family

Research has found that older people who are isolated from family and community are more likely to find themselves in a marginal housing situation (Cass 1994; Mingione 1996). Our research certainly substantiated this. Many of our informants had minimal or no family contact. Several were your proverbial loners, having never married or had children. Others had married, divorced and then lost contact with their children and other family members. This was more likely in the case of the men interviewed. After years of solitary living, their social skills and contacts were often negligible. A 67-year-old man, who had lived in a Sydney boarding house for 19 years before being re-housed, had the following perception of himself:

Ah, I just stick to meself. I‘m alright ... I couldn’t live with anyone, like ah, I’m strictly retreating. I, I like, I just like to be by meself. That’s it.

A manager of a service provider working with older people in Sydney commented that many of their clients, especially the men, were terribly isolated:

Family is few and far between. In many instances family is just the odd person and ... to find services, many of our bachelor clients really have no one on this earth that can assist them.

Those older people interviewed who had solid social or family contact invariably appeared to have a better quality of life. A 66-year-old Vietnamese woman who came across in the interview as a positive and content individual had the following observation:

The whole family they are united together. And that, they are very happy for that thing ... I don’t go anywhere, and I think I have to live with my children until the rest of my life (laughs). Because in our country we have a way that when you’re young you lean on your parents, and when you’re old you lean on your children.

A strong group of friends can be as important as a supportive family. An 83-year-old woman who had never married but had a strong group of friends, mainly through her church activities, came across as a content, independent individual. Her church activities kept her busy and in constant touch with her contemporaries.

Social capital can also be very helpful when misfortune strikes. A number of our informants mentioned how they had been assisted by family and/or friends when they had been ill or faced eviction.

Deterioration or breakdown in family relations

Several informants spoke of a breakdown in their relationship with their children and subsequently finding themselves homeless. A 74-year-old woman, who had moved into her daughter’s home after her husband died, describes the course of events that led to her becoming homeless.

The sleepout at my daughter’s. Well I didn’t have the sleepout straight away. I went into one of the rooms, but she’s got two boys and the boys were grumbling because they didn’t have a room ... So I actually got their room, see ... And I felt I was on the outside looking in sort of feeling ... They’ve got their life there and I’m an intruder.

She moved into the ‘sleepout’ in the garden in a bid to resolve the tension. This did not have the desired effect and she was forced to move out, even though she had nowhere to go.

In the contemporary period, the idea of the parent living with his or her offspring in old age has become less and less common or desired. In 1996 only ‘4 per cent of the aged were living in a relative’s home’ (Rowland 2003: 262). Most of the older people interviewed who had children expressed little or no desire to live with them. A 69-year-old female informant had the following response to the question of staying with her children:

Ah well at my age, you’ve got to, you’ve got to learn to stand on your own two feet. Like my children — my older son says, ‘come mum and live with us’. No thank you! ... I like my freedom. I like my independence. And if I moved in with them, that would mean that I have to more or less live by their rules ... which — that wouldn’t, er, suit me because I might want to go out one day, and then oh, but no, you know. I don’t like to be restricted ... I want to do when I wanna do it. If I wanna go out, I’ll go out. If I don’t want to go out, I won’t go out.

What this quote powerfully illustrates is the deep desire by the informant to retain her independence. This was a common theme. The interviews indicated that older people want to live in their own space and, as far as possible, be in control of their lives. The fact that more and more older people no longer desire to live with their children or, alternatively, are not able to, means that ideally the state should play a greater role in providing the requisite housing for this grouping.

Avoiding homelessness by making contact with support services

What our research showed was that making contact with an appropriate agency often saved our informants from spiralling into homelessness; however, making contact was often a matter of chance. This means that there are probably thousands of older Australians who never make contact with a relevant agency and who, as a result, spend their last years in marginal, insecure accommodation or alternatively lapse into a situation of primary homelessness.

The interviews showed that family and/or social ties were an important factor in determining whether an older person initiated contact with an appropriate service provider. A 78-year-old male informant described how his next-door neighbour had helped him obtain public housing:

Yes, and I let some friend of mine [help]. He’s a neighbour next door. He was a solicitor and I said to him my situation’s like this ... the English I am not very strong ... and really he helped. He write a letter, a very good letter, and we put it [the informant’s situation] as a priority ... and they [the Department of Housing] said to me, ‘you have accommodation’ ...

This informant was fortunate that his neighbour had the generosity and the ‘cultural capital’ to assist him.

Ironically, another key route for individuals making contact with a support service was poor health. Informants’ marginal housing situation often only became known when they were hospitalised. An informant who had been living in boarding houses for most of his adult life, and who had no contact with his family and a minimal social circle, only came into contact with an appropriate service provider after he had a massive heart attack and a triple-bypass.

And, er, so five days later I got kicked out of hospital and it was just good to get out of hospital but you can’t look after yourself ... I was staying on my own and everything so, er, I am not quite sure who organised it, but the charity there they were marvellous to me, you know, they yeah. I, I, think the hospital must have organised for somebody to look after me. When I got home ... they [the agency] turned up and said, ‘You know, we can look after you’. How they turned up? I’m still uncertain. [Laughs.] Angels from heaven, yes, absolutely. [Chuckles.]

The intervention by the service provider resulted in this informant being resettled in public housing. Having a home that he could call his own had fundamentally transformed his quality of life: ‘I love it [the house]. It’s, er, it’s the first house I’ve had. I’m used to boarding houses ... I just love it, I just, just ... yeah.’

The importance of intervention

What this part of the paper sets out to do is to illustrate the enormous difference that even minimal outside intervention by service providers can have on the lives of vulnerable older people. This intervention usually means that rather than spending their last years in a situation of housing marginality (or worse) and constant anxiety, they can relax knowing that their housing is secure, adequate and affordable. The interviews strongly suggested that intervention often empowered our informants. It helped them maintain their independence, gave them a sense of purpose and made them more resilient. The various outcomes of intervention are discussed below.

The provision of adequate accommodation and support

Prior to intervention by a service provider, many of our informants had been in desperate circumstances and in danger of slipping into secondary or even primary homelessness. Chamberlain and Johnson (2000a) argue that adult homelessness has three stages: ‘at risk’, ‘homelessness’ and ‘chronic homelessness’. Almost all of our informants were ‘at risk’ and some had had brief spells of homelessness. However, intervention usually meant that the period of homelessness was short and informants were rehoused in secure, affordable and adequate accommodation. A woman in her 50s who had had to stop working to look after her ill husband commented:

... when we were trying to find accommodation, we couldn’t get anywhere ... Put it this way, if it wasn’t for Pauline and Mary [the agency workers] we wouldn’t have had that place [public housing]. We would have been out in the street.7

A 66-year-old women who had been rehoused in public housing describes how intervention by a service provider saved her:

I ... just couldn’t afford to stay there ... Well I had to get out, and I just had nowhere to go, so I just stayed with a friend and then from there on I sort of went to my daughter’s for a little while and I went to Jane [the agency worker]. I’ll tell you what, Jane ... is my lifesaver. Because it was a really hard time I went through, and emotionally and physically, and she was such a source of strength to me at that time. You know without her I don’t think I would have made it. I really don’t. She was so, so good.

She was delighted with her new accommodation, a one-bedroom house in a housing commission setting: ‘It’s just lovely. I just love it here. And I’m so blessed. I really am. It’s just so wonderful.’ Another informant, who had been in her public housing for only a week, described how she felt about her new home: ‘beautiful, absolutely beautiful ... I love it. Absolutely love it.‘

An agency working with an older person who is at risk of homelessness will generally help the individual clear the bureaucratic hurdles, show the individual concerned some accommodation options and assist with the move. Thereafter, many clients will need to be supplied with the basic household necessities — furniture, linen, pots, pans, fridge and so on. The resolution of an individual’s housing crisis does not mean merely putting a roof over that person’s head, but rather finding secure accommodation. In their research in Minneapolis in the US, Sosin, Pilliavin and Westerfelt (1990) found that most people who became homeless managed to find accommodation fairly soon, but a common pattern was for a sizeable proportion to slip back into homelessness within a six-month period due to their accommodation not being secure. Our research supported this finding but went further. It found that for many older people at risk of homelessness, secure accommodation does not only mean affordable and adequate accommodation, but also accommodation that is accompanied by support so that they can live independently.8 Almost all of our informants had no desire to live in an aged-care or nursing home; rather, they wanted their own space and privacy. Many, however, found it difficult to look after themselves without some assistance. They needed help in varying degrees with one or more of the following: shopping, banking, accessing medical services, application forms, cleaning the unit, laundry, bathing/showering and meals. These interventions are potentially of enormous significance, as they allow older people — especially those who cannot rely on assistance from family or friends — to retain their independence. A 69-year-old woman living in a public unit in inner Sydney described the role of the agency worker in the following way:

I’ve got this angel out here, because she’s been an angel, I’ll tell you. This woman here ... I will ring her up straight away. You know, immediately. Well I know if I do need help and you know I ring her up, she will organise it. They’ve been really good these people. They’ve been very, very good.

The need for support is often acute, as many clients lack many of the basic life skills. An ACHA manager had the following analysis:

If magically housing appeared for every homeless person in Sydney, and blankets and food and the medication were all put in the housing, and you went back in three months’ time, I think you’d find the majority of the people would be back on the street. Because they may not have the skills to, depending again on their circumstances and on how long they were homeless ... to live. How do they cash the pension cheque; how do they spend it; how do they know what to spend it on? ... How to ensure, and often ... you can’t ensure, that they’re not going to take it ... and either drink the whole thing [their pension] in the first week or gamble it or buy ridiculous things with it. I mean ridiculous in the sense of things that aren’t going to support them and help them live. So, that’s [intervention]. It’s not just bricks and mortar.

Provision of company and support

For many of the informants, a primary feature of their lives was their relationship with the agency worker or workers. For some, this was their main source of human contact. The connection with an agency and the linked services meant that they now had somebody they could rely on and this was exceptionally comforting. A 67-year-old man living in a bed-sitter in a retirement village in Sydney commented: ‘Ah yeah, if I got problems, all I got to do is get on the phone and ring Rebecca’ [the outreach worker]. An 88-year-old informant, when asked what he thought of the Community Care Package, responded in the following way:

Absolutely wonderful. My whole life would be totally different ... It’s the fact of security, the tenure, the security that I know that unless something extraordinary happens, I just won’t have to go to a home. I don’t even like going into a hospital any more (laughs). So that if I do get ill, it’s generally that they look after me. When I need care it’s done with a nursing assistant at home.

An 89-year-old respondent, who had found his unit with the help of an ACHA worker and used the service provider for various activities, commented:

Look, let me tell you, I never struck so many nice people in all my life. When I could ... I use my own ability to do what I wanted. But now I can’t and I’ve got to ask for help when I want help, and I’ve struck the loveliest people in the world ... I’ve never had anybody in my life like everyone to do anything for me like these people. But they’re not looking. Everyone that wanted anything off me were always looking for something, for something in return ... All they [the service provider personnel] want to do is give. Do this for you. Do that for you ... I’ll tell you what, I’m as lucky as anything.

The man, who had been resettled in public housing after a triple-bypass, spoke emotionally about his relationship with his service provider. During his convalescence, the agency had spent a great deal of time helping him. Twelve months later, although not working, he could now look after himself:

If I get to the stage where I really need help, well, I’ll just ring up ... ‘cause I got their phone number and um, they’re lovely people. And it’s the first time I’ve had that [people whom he could call on for help]. Because, um, you think about it, before, if anything happened to me, well, I’m just on me own. Got no backup and I wouldn’t have known where to go, who to ring, what to do. And knowing me, as I said, I wouldn’t ask for help. Too self-assured ... I never ask for anything ... Certainly wouldn’t hesitate to ask them. I think they are wonderful people and, er, I owe them a lot and, er, and I keep saying, you know, if I can do anything, just ask. I’ll do it. I’ll assist.

This man is now helping two intellectually disabled people who live a few houses away from him. He checks up on them and does their shopping every week.

An ACHA agency manager in Sydney had the following perception of the agency’s impact on the lives of their older clients:

We’re going into the lives of very vulnerable people. We’re assisting them with very personal matters. We’re talking about their finances. We’re talking about their housing ... The ACHA coordinator needs to develop a relationship ... even friendship ... with that person to be able to ... be welcomed into their personal life which is very tragic ... you need to, to be in there to be able to assist.

Contact with an agency gives older people renewed hope and trust — fundamental components of psychological wellbeing.


Intervention by an outside agency had certainly increased the life span of many of our informants. The two extended excerpts from interviews with agency managers are moving portrayals of the enormous impact that competent and caring intervention can make. An ACHA manager tells the story of an 87-year-old man, a recovering alcoholic, living in Sydney. The agency had made contact with him about five years previously:

Jack was living in public housing. He was an active alcoholic who was not caring for himself, not eating, couldn’t walk, couldn’t do anything. And now he’s fantastic. ACAT (Aged Care Assessment Team) had been notified about him, but didn’t know quite what to do with him ... so I started visiting. I took him things. I got to know him. I negotiated with the neighbours to get them to try and stop buying him beer ... I just did general things which were trust-building exercises ... So while he was getting all this attention, invariably he started to respond, eventually started to walk somewhat [he was bedridden] ... Whenever I took him out I was really at risk because he would shake and stumble and he was very, very frail. Quite skinny, malnourished. And so I worked to get to know Jack and gained some trust and then negotiated with ... [a hospital] to place him there in the rehab section to get his legs working again ... I worked on him about coming into care. And although he was reluctant I just kept focusing on, this is how you’ve been living, this is squalor, that’s not appropriate, that’s not living, it’s just surviving, you know ... Ah, it [his accommodation] was filthy. He couldn’t even get to the toilet. He would pee in a bottle under the bed. So the stench was there all the time. There was no cleaning up done. There was nothing done. He didn’t even have any heating.

Jack is now living in supported housing and has his own room in a clustered retirement unit. He shares a lounge with four other older people and there is a dining room, where residents have prepared meals. Jack is now a much more social and functional individual. Clearly, the intervention has extended his life span.

Another ACHA manager described the case of an 88-year-old man:

He’d been there [in a boarding house], very isolated, for some years. And was unwell and was not coping well looking after himself. And he was in his 70s. This is a long time ago. He’s now 88. So this was 10 years ago, and he’s now one of our regular volunteers that comes and does the statistics and ... the thank-you letters and all of that. But when he came to us, there was years of neglect. He had operations and problems and wasn’t looked after properly, couldn’t shop and couldn’t eat. He was just lying there on his bed. But he also had a problem in being willing to accept help, because he was a very proud, very intelligent man, very capable, and very disappointed that his own family had abandoned him, you know ... So we invited him to just see us as a neighbourhood house that he could come to and talk about art and look at our Monet books in the library and, you know, to engage him in all sorts of ways and have a meal while he was at it, and then gradually we invited him in to share a house with one of our other men and now he’s got his own little house and we have a cleaner that cleans it and somebody provides his meals, and someone who takes him shopping. And he’s really well. He’s a very happy man. It’s just that there’s lots and lots of stories like that, but he’s sort of classic ...

A woman in her late 60s — who was in serious financial difficulties, had a sick husband and was in a spiral of decline — reflected poignantly:

She [the ACHA worker] saved my life, as far as I’m concerned, because I really had had it. And you know, things started to turn a bit better for me then, because Cathy [the ACHA worker] looked after me ... And through her actually, meeting her, it was the turning in my life, in as much as she was a complete stranger, but she is just so good to us.

The lives of these three individuals had been dramatically transformed by their contact with the agencies and individuals concerned. It is fair to conclude that the outside intervention had not only improved the quality of their lives, but had also, in all probability, significantly extended their life expectancy.

Ontological security

Giddens (1984: 50) defines ontological security as the fundamental trust that develops between a parent and child. If a child experiences a strong routine and positive ties with his or her parents from infancy, this creates the basis for the development of a strong sense of self. Giddens (1984: 4) argues that ‘in the enactment of routines agents sustain a sense of ontological security’. Elsewhere he argues that ‘the radical disruption of routine produces a sort of corrosive effect upon the customary behaviour of the actor, associated with the impact of anxiety or fear ...’ (Giddens 1979: 126). In situations where routine is violently disrupted (an extreme example that Giddens points to is the concentration camps of Nazi Germany), the individual personality is severely affected. It could be argued that the constant anxiety about their accommodation and their future seriously undermined the ontological security of many of our informants. They became distrustful, fearful and anxious. The intervention of the service provider, the resolving of their accommodation concerns and the support provided helped to restore trust and a degree of ontological security. These factors gave people stability, control and identity. This feeling is captured in the following quote by a 69-year-old female informant:

It doesn’t matter how drab the room is, you get things to lighten it up. You get pictures, you put the pictures up ... You’ve got a roof over your head ... You’ve got nobody telling you what to do and what not to do ... You are a free spirit and you can do what you like.

A male informant spoke of the importance of having a space where you can have your personal items and a sense of ownership:

I think when people get to the stage of having something, you know, some kind of accommodation, they can say this is my little chair, this is my little table, this is my little kitchen and this is my little bathroom ... You can’t, you cannot pretend in your mind that they’ve got to provide you with a castle.


Our research has shown that a worrying proportion of those older Australians who do not own their own homes and are not in public housing are marginally housed and at risk of becoming homeless. The virtual freeze on the building of social housing has meant that individuals in this category are increasingly totally dependent on the relatively expensive and far less secure private rental sector. From a human rights perspective, this is clearly an unacceptable situation. Older Australians on income support are arguably the most vulnerable adult grouping. In a wealthy country such as Australia, every citizen should have the right of access to adequate and affordable accommodation. This component of social citizenship has been constantly whittled away over the last decade, despite the fact that Australia has now had 13 years of continuous and strong economic growth. The marginalised sections of the population are increasingly being left to fend for themselves. In June 2003, a spokeswoman for the Department of Housing in NSW argued that ‘more than $76 million in real terms’ had been ‘taken out of public housing in NSW under the last Commonwealth State Housing Agreement’’ (Masters 2003).

As shown, in many instances it was only because of outside intervention that our informants did not lapse into homelessness. The obtaining of help is often determined by chance or by an individual’s social capital. The intervention of relevant service providers and ongoing support had made it possible for most of our informants to live out the last chapter of their lives with a degree of independence, hope and dignity. This research evokes the question of what happens to those older Australians who require accommodation assistance and support but who, for one reason or another, are not in contact with an agency. It is probable that, in many instances, their level of social exclusion is dramatic and their health and life expectancy are adversely affected.

The dramatic shortage of public housing comes at a time when structural unemployment, low earnings and high housing prices mean that an ever-increasing proportion of Australians face old age as renters in the private sector. The 2001 census found that 66.2 per cent of all occupied private dwellings ‘were either fully owned or being purchased’ and 26.3 per cent were being rented (ABS 2002). In the larger cities, a greater and greater proportion of families are finding it difficult to purchase a home. In September 2004, the median price of a Sydney home was $500,000, and the median price for a unit was $370,000 (Real Estate Institute of New South Wales 2004). In Campbelltown, Sydney’s cheapest area, the median price for a home was $325,000 and for a unit, $250,000 (Real Estate Institute of New South Wales 2004). This means that even well-paid workers are finding it difficult to purchase a home in Sydney. This scenario suggests that by the middle of this century, when 24–26 per cent of the population or approximately six million Australians are over 65, there could be two or three million older people who are not homeowners. A proportion would have accumulated enough superannuation to afford the private market comfortably. Most, however, are unlikely to be in this position. Periods of unemployment, enforced early retirement, disability and a career of poorly paid employment will ensure that a large proportion of older Australians will remain dependent on income support.

The research suggests that if in the future Australia wants to avoid the spectre of tens of thousands of older people being stuck in a marginal housing situation with the ever-present possibility of primary or secondary homelessness, it is crucial to rethink the virtual freezing of the building of public housing. In many respects, this is the easiest way to ensure that poorer, older Australians are adequately housed. If public housing is not a viable route, then the level of rental assistance must increase so that older people dependent on a government pension are able to access adequate private accommodation. The funding for substantial intervention and support also must be increased. The interviews with the ACHA managers indicated that the agencies are hopelessly overstretched and in dire need of more resources. The creation of a society that is characterised by social justice requires not only that all sections of our society be able to access adequate and affordable accommodation, but also that those who require support to maintain independent living should be given the resources needed to do so.

* Alan Morris, School of Social Science and Policy, University of New South Wales; Bruce Judd, Faculty of the Built Environment, University of New South Wales; Kay Kavanagh, Manager, Mercy Arms, Mercy Family Centre; and Yuvisthi Naidoo, School of Social Science and Policy, University of New South Wales.

1 The study was made possible by a grant from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI).

2 The 59 interviews with ACHA clients were carried out in NSW, Victoria and SA. Most of our informants were over 65. The ACHA program was established by the Commonwealth in 1993 with the aim of assisting vulnerable older people to meet their housing and support needs so that they could remain living in the community. At present there are 46 ACHA programs nationally and about 6000 people are assisted annually.

3 This figure was arrived at by extrapolating from the ABS Report Australian Social Trends 1999: Income & Expenditure — Income Distribution: Economic Resources of Older Australians (ABS 2000).

4 For the purposes of this study, the definition of ‘homelessness’ has been aligned with that used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as developed by Chamberlain and Johnson (2000a). Homelessness encompasses primary, secondary and tertiary homelessness. Primary homelessness is when individuals find themselves without conventional accommodation, such as living on the streets, in cars, in deserted buildings and so on. Secondary homelessness involves moving between various forms of temporary shelter, including friends, emergency accommodation and boarding houses. Tertiary homelessness entails living in single rooms in private boarding/rooming houses on a long-term basis, without one’s own bathroom, kitchen or security of tenure. Marginally housed individuals live in flats or houses but are at constant risk of losing their accommodation.

5 There is a tendency to forget that 80 per cent of older people living in Australia enjoy good health (Rowland 2003).

6 ‘A household is defined as being in housing stress where they earn the NSW median income or less ($36,400 in 1999) and are paying more than 30% of their income on housing’ (Holliday 1999).

7 All the names used here are pseudonyms.

8 Our survey of ACHA agencies found that only one quarter of their clients were in need only of housing. The remainder needed support only (13.3 per cent) or support and housing (63.2 per cent).


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