If you struggled to get out of your warm bed this morning, spare a thought for the 115,000 Australians who didn’t have a bed to sleep in last night. No safe place to return to at the end of a cold winter’s day. No place with a door to lock and the fear of facing another night sleeping rough.

One of the fastest growing groups of people facing homelessness are those aged 65 years and over. Almost 20,000 older people across Australia are homeless. Disturbingly, 64% of this group will die within five years of becoming homeless.

Older women in particular have emerged as a demographic at heightened risk of homelessness. For a lot of older women, extended periods out of paid work has resulted in significantly less acquired savings and not enough superannuation to support them in retirement. This, together with the loss of a partner, a serious illness or other major life event, can put their housing security at considerable risk. These women have spent their whole lives contributing to society. They’ve worked hard, paid their bills, raised their kids and cared for ageing parents.

There are many different types of homelessness, and the majority of people experiencing it are hidden from view. They are living invisibly, almost completely ignored by society. Chances are they could be a respected colleague or friend, living out of their car. They could be a former neighbour, who’s in and out of crisis accommodation. They could even be a family member, who is couch surfing between friends’ or strangers’ homes.

The scary thing is that as little as one or two life circumstances can take any of us from having everything, to having next-to-nothing. A lost job. A relationship breakdown. A serious illness. It can happen to any of us and all it can take is a bad run of luck.

So, what do we do about it?

  • Start by taking a real good look around you and make sure that you are ‘seeing’ all ages of disadvantage and overcoming any stereotypes that older people have it all ‘sorted’.
  • Assist local organisations doing great things for the people facing homelessness in our own communities. Wollongong Homeless Hub, Wollongong Emergency Family Housing and Supported Accommodation and Homelessness Services Shoalhaven Illawarra are just a few.
  • Consider intergenerational solutions such as job sharing, co-housing of students and older people. A current shift in policy that prioritises youth means that our vulnerable older people are being overlooked and, as a community, we need to leverage the capacity and enthusiasm of our multi-generational society to create a structure that supports ageing well.
  • Support pop-up ‘pay as you feel’ restaurants. In Wollongong, pop-up restaurant GoodWill only ran for two months, with a pay-it-forward model raising over $37,000 for people in need.

These are just some of the opportunities to create a better world for all ages.  Homelessness is at crisis point in this country and it’s going to take more than any one organisation or government body to solve the many complex challenges that lead to and sustain its vicious cycle. We live in a developed nation, but we are leaving these people behind. People who have helped make this country what it is today.

Toby Dawson, IRT Foundation Manager