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‘Having to ask for somewhere to live, it’s difficult indeed’: Single, female, homeless. Australia’s shameful crisis

She used to be on first-name terms with TV hosts Michael Parkinson and Mike Walsh, and with the superstars – Dusty, Elton, Billy, Twiggy and Ringo – who thought nothing of jetting halfway round the globe to be interviewed by them in front of record-breaking Aussie audiences.

It was the 1970s and ’80s, the heyday of the chat show and there was money to burn. Later, she worked with Mike Munro (This Is Your Life), Barry Humphries (Flashbacks), Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Paul West (River Cottage Australia), an off-camera genie coolly engineering the impossible to conjure, unmissable prime-time TV.

Growing up in Clifton, an affluent suburb of Bristol in south-west England, she’d dreamed of following her big sister into professional repertory theatre. In 1969, at the age of 18, she applied to Bristol Old Vic and was offered one of only 20 places. Jeremy Irons was in the year above her; she was mates with Pete Postlethwaite.

But in 1973, after just two years in rep, she decided to follow her older brother to Sydney, travelling alone for six weeks on board a ship that docked in Tenerife, Casablanca, Cape Town, Durban, Fremantle and Melbourne before finally dropping anchor one night just outside Sydney Heads.

“I remember the dawn coming up the next morning,” she says, “and it was the most beautiful May day, cool but sunny. We came round the Heads and there was the bridge in the sunlight! I’ll never forget it.”

Within a month, she was working for Channel 10 in North Ryde as a vision mixer, earning $70 a week. And when colour television came to Australia, as it did in 1975, she moved into production and trained as a director’s assistant. Her first big job was on Number 96, the incredibly popular nightly soap that chronicled the goings-on inside a four-storey apartment block in Sydney’s Paddington.

The next decades of her career, which she spent as an associate producer, were a kaleidoscopic whirl of hit game shows, Logie Awards, Australia Day concerts, talk shows and talent quests across most of the nation’s TV networks. She earned good money and had a comfortable lifestyle on Sydney’s northern beaches.

In 1974, just one year after coming to Australia, she gave birth to her first son, James. She lived with her baby’s father for four years before they separated and, much later in 1991, she gave James a little brother, Oliver. Never married, she is, she says, “terribly independent and always have been”. She remains great friends with both boys’ dads.

What she couldn’t yet know was that when she left work that day, and a career she loved, she’d never be able to return to it.

Over the years, she maintained strong ties to her parents and siblings in Oxfordshire. “I came from an incredibly warm, loving family, whom I missed greatly,” she says. “As a result, I spent all my money going backwards and forwards to the UK. My sons spent every long summer holiday there.”

In 2000, at 49, she was diagnosed with glaucoma. Both her parents had been late-life sufferers, but it had come for her early and with apparent spite. She managed to keep it stable for a decade and a half through a combination of medication and surgery – a trabeculectomy, which relieves pressure inside the eye by introducing a small hole in the sclera.

But one day in 2015, as she was midway through casting for I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!, she became aware of a rapidly intensifying pain in her eye sockets. By the time she saw her specialist that day, head of the  glaucoma unit at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital, her pressure reading was 60 (a normal reading is in the low teens). What she couldn’t yet know was that when she left work that day, and a career she loved, she’d never be able to return to it.

Today, at 68, Rhiannon* is elfin in denim dungarees and black ankle boots, a silk scarf a flourish of unstudied glamour in her pixie cut. Her voice is as rich as a Redgrave’s, her vowels as clear as a vicarage bell on a rain-crested morning in the Home Counties. Behind heavy tortoiseshell frames her eyes are an unusual colour, the dark blue of a newborn’s, the result, she tells me, of repeated surgeries. She’s now blind in her left eye, with 40 per cent vision remaining in her right, but that, too, is failing. The diagnosis is end-stage advanced glaucoma.

“I always have a glimmer of hope that maybe the sight that I have left will last me the rest of my life, but I don’t know … I have the severest case,” she says.

The past few years have been a pride-swallowing siege of repeated personal setbacks and humiliating bureaucratic defeats. Unable to work, Rhiannon applied for the means-tested sickness allowance (the highest fortnightly allocation for a single person with dependent children is currently $604), but could no longer afford her rented apartment in northern Sydney’s Manly Vale.

“I nearly bought a house back in the ’80s, but didn’t,” she says ruefully. “If I were sighted today, I’d still be working – and for as long as possible. I loved my job. And then, all of a sudden, it was stripped away from me. I had nothing. I’d spent whatever money I’d saved going backwards and forwards to the UK.”

Three years ago, when she turned 65, Rhiannon transitioned with heartbreaking inevitability from sickness allowance to the age pension, but couldn’t find anywhere affordable to live. The Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) told her she didn’t qualify for priority social housing, but offered no explanation. Devastated, she didn’t have the strength to question it; she was told the waiting list could be 10 years.

For a while, she, James, Oliver and their partners rented a large house together in Manly. It was a happy time for all of them and Oliver’s son was born there. When the owner decided to sell the house, though, the family was forced to disband. She travelled north to Mullumbimby with Oliver and his partner, but it was hot there, and she was too far away from her specialist in Crows Nest.

“I loved my job,” says Rhiannon*. “And then, all of a sudden, it was stripped away from me. I had nothing.”

“I loved my job,” says Rhiannon*. “And then, all of a sudden, it was stripped away from me. I had nothing.”Credit:Tim Bauer

Feeling ever more despondent, she returned to Sydney, where friends offered her their spare room. “I hate asking for help,” she says. “It’s terribly hard for me. It’s that independent spirit that I’ve always had. I’ve never, ever asked for anything and having to ask for somewhere to live – begging, really – well, I’m a very proud person and it’s very difficult indeed.”

She remembers sitting on a bench in Manly, looking out to sea and feeling more lost and hopeless than at any other time in her life: “I just sat there thinking, ‘What’s going to become of me? What’s going to happen to me?’ The anxiety was awful.”

Rhiannon’s nadir came the day she walked into Mission Australia in Brookvale to ask for help finding somewhere to stay. “It was hard for me to go there,” she says, starting to cry. “It was a very, very tough thing – and not because I think they aren’t wonderful there – I know that they are. It was because, at that point, I felt I’d lost everything. It felt like the end of the world.”

Older women are the fastest-growing cohort of homeless people in Australia today. According to census data, the number of women aged 65 to 74 describing themselves as homeless increased by 51 per cent in the five years to 2016. But the crisis may be even deeper than these figures show, since older female homelessness often plays out invisibly in relatives’ guest rooms, or on friends’ sofas. It’s not an easy thing to admit to.

The general public is quick to apportion blame, misguidedly citing addiction, unemployment, mental health issues and domestic violence as causes, but the reality is more nuanced – and disturbingly close to home. In fact, the reasons why a single woman is likely to approach the end of her working life more financially disadvantaged than a man often have more to do with entrenched systemic failures than her personal shortcomings.

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Consider, first, the pay gap, which has hovered between 14 and 19 per cent for the past two decades. Then there’s the fact that by sheer virtue of her sex, a woman is most likely to have been her family’s primary caregiver, the one who has taken time out of the workforce, often permanently stunting her career growth, to look after children and, later, care for elderly parents. According to national advocacy group Women in Super, an older woman generally retires with 47 per cent less superannuation than a man – and yet will very likely outlive him by at least five years.

Currently, more than 330,000 single women over the age of 45 are living in a state of economic distress – that is, spending more than 30 per cent of their gross income just keeping a roof over their heads – with as many as 45 per cent of them earning the minimum wage or less. Additionally, reports the Career Development Association of Australia, in 2019, 273,000 work positions were made redundant, a 45 per cent surge on the figures for 2017.

The security of a “job for life” has long gone, replaced by the burgeoning digital freelance marketplaces of the gig economy, which gives growing numbers of Baby Boomers eager to maximise late-career earnings the opportunity to bypass the ageism of conventional bosses. But the grey-haired “gigger” has to face some inhospitable truths: this new marketplace offers no minimum-wage regulation, no super and, consequently, fewer tools with which to carve out a secure financial future.

Elsewhere, workplace ageism abounds: at a time in her life when she’s finally unburdened of all her caring responsibilities and able to lean into the important business of bulking up her super, a 55-plus woman with still so much to offer is gutted to realise that she’s the least likely of any job applicant to receive a call-back.

Shifting beneath all of these trends like a straining tectonic plate is our worsening housing crisis. In Sydney, the nation’s most expensive capital, less than one per cent of private rentals is affordable to someone on the age pension, with the maths becoming even more impossible for a single person on Newstart who receives just $277.50 a week. (According to an October 2019 snapshot of rentals across Australia by real estate website domain.com.au, the median weekly rent on a unit in Sydney is $520 a week, and $420 a week in Melbourne.)

“The rental market is under stress at both ends,” explains Professor Hal Pawson, associate director of City Futures Research Centre at the University of NSW. “Home ownership has gradually become harder to access, so it’s taking people on moderate to quite high incomes much longer to get to a point where they’re able to buy.

“They’re stuck at the top of the ladder, just below the ceiling, waiting for home ownership to become feasible. At the bottom end of the market, pressure has become more intense as a result of our social housing stock effectively having been frozen for the last 25 years. Back then, social housing comprised six per cent of all housing here; now, it’s four per cent – a cut of one-third – and the population’s increasing.”

The steady rise of “grey divorce” is catapulting older women, even the ones who’d considered themselves safely middle-class, into the badlands of the housing market.

Calculating the number of people who are currently homeless in Australia – 116,000, according to the 2016 census – and a second group who are at risk of becoming so, Pawson estimates that there’s currently a shortfall of 433,000 social housing dwellings. There are 140,000 people on the social housing waiting list; some of them could be stuck there for a decade.

The steady rise of “grey divorce” is catapulting older women, even the ones who’d always considered themselves safely middle-class, out into the badlands of this merciless housing market – and, as many are finding, it’s a desperate place to be.

A deep and systemic gender inequality contributes to a woman’s financial vulnerability in her later years. When a critical life event happens on top of that – a shock medical diagnosis, for example, a sudden job loss or a rent hike – her situation can become perilous overnight.

MARIA* is 56, tall with tawny hair that she wears in a long ponytail over her shoulder. Despite the cheerfulness of her jungle-print top, her dark eyes look as weary as cracked onyx. We meet in inner-western Sydney’s Rozelle, in the office of the St Vincent de Paul Society. She emigrated from Europe to Australia as a seven-year-old, she tells me haltingly; her formative years were spent in Rockdale, in south Sydney.

She married as a young woman in 1985, to a “gentleman from Uruguay”, but it didn’t work out. “It was an abusive relationship,” she says, “and the fact that he couldn’t speak very good English at the time made things more difficult. I went to college and learnt South American Spanish so we could communicate but, in the end, I had to leave.” They divorced in 1993. Maria’s daughter, Adriana, is 33 and a teacher.

In 2017, Maria was feeling on top of the world. She’d just come home from a two-month holiday in Greece. She’d worked hard for 18 years in a job she loved – grocery manager of a supermarket at Ramsgate Beach in southern Sydney – and could finally afford to visit all the beautiful islands she’d heard about growing up, one of five kids, to a seamstress mother and shoe-maker father.

She was looking and feeling like a million bucks. With fingers that tremble a little, she shows me a picture on her phone. In it, she’s tanned, slim and smiling, white-toothed and wholesome: another woman in another time. She shakes her head sadly at her physical deterioration: she’s gained weight, she says, and her teeth … “All of them at the bottom have gone off, but I’m on Newstart and can’t afford to see a dentist.”

A friend of the family asked her to leave her job at the supermarket and work for him as his national business manager. He was launching a drink and wanted to get it into shops: he asked her to make some introductions for him and help him distribute it. He offered to double her salary; there’d be a company car, a computer and a phone. He had what she reckoned to be a $14 million yacht bobbing around in Darling Harbour with the product’s name emblazoned on its side. Excited, Maria could see no reason not to accept his offer.

Within months, she realised she’d made a terrible mistake. The car she’d been promised never materialised, and once the all-important introductions had been made and the distributor deal inked, her new employer told her he didn’t need her anymore. Before long, he refused to pay her. At 53, Maria found herself suddenly unemployed and struggling to find another job.

“I felt totally worthless,” she says. “I wasn’t suicidal, but I developed an understanding of how someone could take that path.”

Maria*, 56

Paying $410 a week for her one-bedroom unit in Sans Souci was decimating her savings, her fortnightly Newstart payments weren’t enough to lift her out of an ever-deepening hole and she was going under. Her parents had both died young, she tells me, she didn’t feel she could call on any of her four brothers for help, and although she and Adriana are close, she doesn’t get on with her son-in-law. She was on her own.

In April 2018, she crossed an unthinkable divide: she gave notice to her landlord, put her furniture in storage and started to live out of her Honda CR-V. “I was homeless, helpless and hopeless – broken in ways that I never dreamed could be possible,” she says.

For three months she parked in beach car parks, at Coogee, Maroubra or Botany Bay, using the toilets and showers she could find there. “I was often scared,” she says. “I couldn’t leave the windows down, so I’d keep the sunroof open a bit to breathe. When I got really frightened, I’d leave my car and take public transport to Central and join other homeless people rough-sleeping in parks. I felt safer around them.”

She lived on sandwiches, crisps and fruit. “I felt totally worthless,” she says. “I wasn’t suicidal, but I developed an understanding of how someone could take that path. I prayed for help to get back to the life I’d had.”

Her counsellor in Rockdale helped Maria transition into temporary accommodation, a pop-up women’s refuge in Leichhardt. She liked it at first – it was good to be in the company of other women with similar stories – but her discovery, one afternoon, of an attempted suicide by a fellow resident shocked her to her core.

Maria’s emergency phone call probably saved the woman’s life, but she found the aftermath of the incident – the chemical cleaning of the woman’s room and the harsh interrogation she had to endure at the hands of eight policemen – harrowing. In March last year, the head of the refuge put her in touch with the Rozelle office of St Vincent de Paul.

Concerned about her spiralling mental health, Maria’s client service officer, Donna Boyd, took on the task of trying to expedite an application for priority social housing through FACS. In May, Boyd secured a new, two-bedroom unit in southern Sydney’s Peakhurst for her for $93 a week. Maria shows me a photo of it, pointing out all her “beautiful things”: a glass table, white sofa, Versace mirror. I tell her it looks lovely because it really does.

“I’m just so grateful,” she says, her spirits visibly lifting. “I think how lucky I am every minute of the day. I feel so safe there.”

Boyd, a woman with a kind face and a small diamanté angel pinned to her cardigan, has been working at St Vincent’s for 11 years. She’s seen a “marked increase over the last four to five years” of older women in Maria’s predicament. “I see someone like her a few times a week,” she tells me. “I’m drowning in paperwork. The situation is dire, really dire, and getting worse.

“You cannot work on any aspect of your life if you don’t have somewhere safe and secure to call home. I see what having a safe, affordable home can do for people – I see it every day – but I also see what not having that does and that’s the sad part. They feel lonely, become isolated, lose hope and deteriorate mentally.”

“Women speak about this experience as like being catapulted out into space and of not knowing where they’re going to land.”

Monica Thielking, professor at Swinburne University

Maria is under the care of a psychiatrist who’s treating her for a severe depressive disorder. “The awful thing about being on medication,” she says, her voice cracking, “is that you still have all the feelings and you want to cry, but you can’t. It makes you feel numb. I just want to get back on my feet so that I can start helping women in my position.”

Professor Monica Thielking is chair of the Department of Psychological Sciences at Melbourne’s Swinburne University and an expert in the effects of poverty and marginalisation on the human psyche.

“The shock of finding oneself homeless when this hasn’t been a part of your experience before is overwhelming,” she tells me. “A sense of disbelief and dislocation in relation to the self is experienced, as well as a profound sense of grief related to the loss of a life that had been built over time and of a future that was imagined to be ahead. Women speak about this experience as like being catapulted out into space and of not knowing where they’re going to land. They become extremely isolated and vulnerable.”

Homelessness isn’t a lifestyle choice: it’s a systems failure. Unless these failures are addressed, say experts, the crisis is only going to get much worse.

“Right now there are more than 300,000 women between the ages of 45 and 65 who are at significant risk of homelessness when they retire, if not before,” says Kobi Maglen, director of strategy and advocacy for housing at Social Ventures Australia (SVA), a not-for-profit that works with partners to alleviate social disadvantage.

“They’re currently working and renting, but as they’re on low incomes and living on their own, they won’t be able to afford renting on the age pension and there isn’t enough social housing.”

Maglen’s language is meteorological: she talks about a “perfect storm” of adverse conditions, an “impending tidal wave” of women. “We have to tackle this issue before this next onslaught of women retires into poverty,” she says. “We know that if you can reach people before they are at crisis point, their needs are less complex, the services and support they require much simpler and more cost-effective.”

Last year, SVA partnered with HESTA, the industry super fund for workers in the health and community services sector (80 per cent of them women), and Nightingale Housing to develop a scalable response to the problem: a 185-apartment, carbon-neutral residential project in Melbourne’s inner-city Brunswick.

HESTA committed $20 million to the project from its $70 million Social Impact Investment Trust, which SVA manages. Twenty per cent of the apartments were allocated to nurses, aged-care and not-for-profit workers; another 20 per cent were sold to community housing providers; many of the rest went to first-home buyers.

“We have to tackle this issue before this next onslaught of women retires into poverty.”

Kobi Maglen, director of strategy and advocacy for housing at Social Ventures Australia (SVA)

UNSW’s Hal Pawson agrees that there’s no time to waste. It’s “regrettable”, he says, that since Kevin Rudd set homelessness targets back in 2008, successive governments have not only abandoned them, they’ve made cuts. (In 2014, the then-prime minister Tony Abbott cancelled the National Rental Affordability Scheme, Australia’s last affordable-housing construction program.)

Pawson proposes an annual building scheme of 36,000 units for the next 20 years – enough to cope not only with new demand, he says, but also to absorb the backlog. It’s a tenfold increase in current construction rates.

Pawson believes the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (NHFIC), introduced by Scott Morrison as Malcolm Turnbull’s treasurer – a scheme that allows a housing provider to access cheaper, longer-term financing – could also be part of the solution.

“Credit where it’s due,” he says. “It was a progressive idea, but it can’t make any impact unless there’s also a government subsidy. A provider can’t buy land, pay a builder to put up housing on it and manage it over the long term for the price that low-income tenants can afford to pay. There has to be a subsidy stream that bridges the gap.”

Another part of the solution could be inclusionary zoning, a mechanism that’s used widely overseas but has only seen very small-scale application here. It allows state governments to require that a housing developer, in exchange for receiving planning approval, allocates a percentage of new dwellings for rent or sale at a below-market price.

Advocates of inclusionary zoning look to the UK, where this technique typically sees low-cost rental housing being provided by a non-profit housing association for low-income earners priced out of home ownership and standard private rental.

“These planning rules enable the community to share with the landowner the value uplift – the gain in land value – when you’re allowed to redevelop a former factory site or car park as housing,” says Pawson. It’s controversial, though: the preferred business model for many powerful property industry players is based on trading land rather than developing it.

There’s little on the policy landscape. When I ask federal housing minister and assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar for comment, he points out, via email, that the government spends more than $6 billion every year to improve housing and homelessness outcomes: “This includes $4.6 billion in Commonwealth Rent Assistance [CRA] in 2019-20 to more than 1.3 million individuals.”

Unfortunately, CRA suffers from exactly the same flaw as Newstart: it’s been indexed to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) since 1994, effectively preserving it in amber for the past 25 years, while rents, alongside other necessities such as transport and healthcare, are rising at a steeper rate, effectively outrunning inflation; as time goes on, the benefit works less hard.

The solution, argue those who’d like to see Newstart and CRA increased, is to index the payments to average earnings rather than inflation, in exactly the same way that the age pension is.

SVA has also been working closely with grassroots organisation Housing for the Aged Action Group in Victoria to make our byzantine welfare system easier to navigate. For the women and caseworkers Good Weekend spoke to, it can’t come fast enough.

“Everywhere you looked there was some conservative Christian bloke telling you to stay home and look after the children! It’s appalling!”

Jane Caro, social commentator

“There absolutely needs to be more people-to-people contact,” says St Vincent’s Donna Boyd, clearly frustrated. “Everything is done online. I know modern technology’s marvellous, but not everyone can access the internet or navigate their way through all the material on a computer. Sometimes you just need to talk to a person!”

Meanwhile, Women in Super is calling for the Superannuation Guarantee (SG) to be raised to 12 per cent and for it to be paid to all working women, regardless of their income level, as well as when they’re on maternity leave. (It’s estimated that 220,000 women miss out on $125 million of super contributions because they don’t meet the requirement of earning $450 a month from a single employer; many women who work part-time have more than one job.)

Jane Caro, social commentator and author of last year’s book Accidental Feminists, is incensed by the situation. “It would be relatively easy for us to overcome [older women’s homelessness] if we had the political will,” she says.

“How can you look a generation of women in the face – particularly as a Christian man, right? – and say, ‘Look, I’ve seen how you’ve put others’ needs in front of your own, including the necessity to earn additional income and accumulate super, but, really, it’s just too bad that you’re living in your car. Silly you!’ I mean, everywhere you looked there was some conservative Christian bloke telling you to stay home and look after the children! It’s appalling!”

She pauses for breath. “I can’t tell you the number of female journalists who interviewed me about my book and told me [this issue] had scared them to death. ‘This could happen to me,’ they said.”

After a horrific accident, Fiona*, now 62, could no longer work and had to move into a boarding house.

After a horrific accident, Fiona*, now 62, could no longer work and had to move into a boarding house.Credit:Tim Bauer

Fiona*, 62, never saw it coming. One minute she was out on the town with friends in Sydney’s CBD, celebrating the start of the 2012 Christmas holidays; the next she was in the back of an ambulance as it sped through Darlinghurst’s festive, neon-lit streets on the way to the nearest emergency department. Her life, as she knew it, was over.

She remembers standing by a railing on a mezzanine floor in the club, looking at her friends on the dance floor below. It was late, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s Thrift Shop was pumping, the floor heaving. Her mates gestured for her to join them. She gave them the thumbs-up; she was on her way.

Just then, a surge in the crowd behind her pushed her up against the railing; as the press of bodies intensified, worsening the pressure, she started to lose her balance. The railing, which stopped at her hips, wasn’t high enough to keep her upright and suddenly, she went over the top of it, plummeting head-first onto the concrete floor below. She’d lost three-and-a-half pints of blood before the paramedics even arrived.

I meet Fiona on a sunny spring morning at her home in inner Sydney’s Woolloomooloo. A large, Mediterranean-blue evil eye amulet hangs on a silk cord from the front-door knob of her unit, a gift from a friend. “I need all the help I can get,” she says laughing.

She moved in two years ago, just before her 60th birthday. When she was first shown this spotless apartment inside a new residential block on this quiet, leafy street, she cried with gratitude. It had been built by the Women’s Housing Company, an award-winning not-for-profit community-housing provider for women on limited incomes – and it was the sanctuary she craved.

She shows me around: the twin silver candelabra on her coffee table beside a vase of pale pink peonies; plumped cream cushions on a grey sofa; a natty, Ikea-furnished kitchen and a balcony with views of the
city and, in the distance, the Harbour Bridge. “I still have anxiety about it being taken away from me,” she says, the soft burr of a Highlands accent betraying her long-ago Scottish origins.

In the mid-’80s, she married the love of her life, a “consummate gentleman” and the father of her only child, a daughter, who is 31 and lives in South Australia. “But as our tree grew, our branches started to reach in opposite directions,” she says. “And by the time I was 40, in ’97, I knew I had to leave.” Fiona moved back to Sydney alone; in time, she and her husband divorced.

Fiona’s accident in the nightclub left her with two shattered vertebrae at the base of her skull and an assortment of symptoms, including extreme vertigo with nausea and vomiting, insomnia, fatigue and short-term memory loss, which would coalesce over time into a single diagnosis: acquired brain injury.

Although she’s loquacious, her mind can’t always alight on the word she wants. “I get frustrated,” she says. “People repeat the question and I get more frustrated. They think I’m angry. I’m not, I’m just frustrated. But they label you. Society’s quick to label you.”

Fiona used to work in customer relations for a European luxury goods company in North Sydney. “I loved my work,” she says. “I thought I’d be there forever.”

But after three months in hospital, her neck encased in a Miami J collar, it became clear she wouldn’t be going back. “I didn’t have disability or income-protection insurance. You don’t, do you, when the sun’s shining?”

But that wasn’t all. Just before the accident, she’d moved all her belongings out of the workman’s cottage she rented in Surry Hills to a new address, a share house with a gay couple – one of them a very old friend – who’d asked if she’d be interested in splitting the rent.

Coming out of hospital, though, she found their phones were dead and the house empty. Finally, a real estate agent told her the couple had done a runner, moved out suddenly without paying the rent, and had sold all of her stuff – her furniture, clothes and jewellery – for cash to take with them. There was nothing left.

Physically very fragile, mentally shattered, her only income her sickness allowance, 2015 found Fiona at her lowest ebb, eking out a miserable existence inside a Paddington boarding house.

“Lying in bed at night, I’d ask God why He’d let me survive the accident. Surely not for this hell? It was the darkest period of my life.”

Fiona*

“I was in there with all the dreadfulness of society – men and women with alcoholism and other substance-abuse problems and mental afflictions – paying $330 a week for a room with a single bed, a bar fridge and two hotplates. I didn’t even have a wardrobe.” She starts to cry. “Homeless in my 50s! I was the only older woman there and I felt very, very afraid and alone. How had my life come to this?”

Her darkest moments came at night, lying in her bed behind a locked door, the abject horrors of the communal bathroom down the corridor behind her for the day.

“God, it was in an appalling state, faeces everywhere … I had a pair of thongs that I would keep on and then I’d dry my feet when I got back to my room. All the other residents were much younger than me – and I was so afraid of their violence and unpredictable behaviour. Lying in bed at night, I’d ask God why He’d let me survive the accident. Surely not for this hell? It was the darkest period of my life.”

I ask her why she didn’t call her daughter and ex-husband in South Australia. “Too much pride,” she says. “And too much shame. Later I told them some of it, but even now they don’t know the whole story.”

She decided to apply for social housing. “I asked a friend to go with me to FACS in the city,” she says. “I was so lost I didn’t even know how to ask for help, but I knew I must be eligible for something. The woman behind the counter that day – I’ll never forget her – she looked at me and said, ‘I could be you.’ She gave me a number for the [not-for-profit support service] Women’s And Girls’ Emergency Centre [WAGEC] in Redfern. I went to see them the next day. They said, ‘We’ve been waiting for you.’ ”

Horrified by conditions inside the boarding house, Rebecca, Fiona’s caseworker at WAGEC, expedited her into temporary accommodation before putting her in touch with the Women’s Housing Company. She’s never stopped feeling grateful to the women who worked together to get her out of that boarding house and into a unit she still can’t quite believe is hers. She goes to TAFE in inner-city Ultimo two days a week, where she’s studying for a Certificate IV in Community Services: “I want to pay it forward,” she says.

As it turns out, walking into that Mission Australia office three months ago was the best thing Rhiannon could’ve done. With the help of her case manager, Ainsley – “my wonderful saviour” – she discovered that FACS had made a mistake in rejecting her application for priority social housing three years earlier; now it intended to make amends.

Rhiannon is the new occupier of a one-bedroom unit in northern Sydney’s Brookvale, minutes from public transport. It’s small – a world of reduction and altered circumstance circumscribed by its buff walls and nondescript carpet – but it’s clean and safe. And her furniture, reminiscent of the quality, time-worn fittings you’d find in an English country cottage – antique chest, small swing-leaf table, dusky-pink two-seater sofa and, hanging on the walls, framed sepia photographs of elegantly dressed forebears (“My grandfather was a timber merchant”) – is warming and cosy.

On the white eiderdown of her bed, newly arrived from her sister in the UK, is a pair of weighty, custom-made, crewel-embroidered curtains for the French windows of her new living room that open onto a small balcony. “I’m a very, very fortunate woman,” says Rhiannon appreciatively. “I’ve now got a place to live, somewhere to call mine, and I can feel my confidence coming back.”

Homelessness is a harsh place filled with demons and sudden, bright angels. If it has been the most difficult experience of these women’s lives, they’re determined it won’t be the defining one. Now secure in their new homes and rediscovering what it feels like to live without constant fear, they talk of wanting to be useful again – and of helping others. And there’s time for reflection.

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I ask Rhiannon what advice she would give to her faraway self, the curious 22-year-old standing on the deck of a ship on a bright May morning 46 years ago.

“The choices you make now are your destiny,” she says. “Keep a strong eye on your future. You can’t see it now because you’re busy having fun, but it’ll be here before you know it. Make sure you’re ready.”

* Full names withheld for privacy.

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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