Handwritten notes placed under internal doors at a western Sydney apartment building was the first sign to residents that something was wrong.
Their neighbour Cathy* had fallen a few hundred dollars behind in rent during the Covid-19 pandemic and was evicted on January 26. That's because despite working 50 hours a week, the professional cook had been unable to get out of arrears.
Her note explains the "heartbreaking decision" she had to make to leave her cat behind in the foyer, along with litter, bedding, food and water.
“Unfortunately I have to move out quickly and I don’t know where to place Sage,” the note read. “Can you please take care of her until I find safe accommodation?”
Cathy was unable to take her cat with her because she'd be living in her car, and the temperature was expected to soar to over 30 degrees. She's sharing her story because she fears no one is safe from Sydney's rental crisis and feels real estate is now about investing rather than a human right.
Sitting down with Yahoo News Australia at 9.30pm after a long day working, she was exhausted. Four nights of sleeping in her car had taken its toll. Parked beside a busy beach, there was constant noise, from a stream of lovers, drinkers, dog walkers and joggers.
“It’s traumatic not having a roof over your head and there’s no privacy. There are people around. You can’t just put on a happy face and everything’s okay. You try to manage with what you’ve got."
You think at 53 you'd have your life together and you'd have support from community, but it's just not the case for many Australians.Cathy
She'd never imagined she'd be evicted. Taking respite from the car she would keep her mind together by swimming in the ocean or practising yoga on the sand. Then the heatwave came. The car became unbearable. Exhausted, she'd fallen asleep in a park and woken up in a pool of sweat.
Because public toilets are locked at night Cathy had also limited her water intake and became dehydrated, resulting in the pain of an incoming urinary tract infection. “I was having trouble holding myself… there were times I had to go down to the beach and go. And that was just horrible to think that I’d have to crouch down and go when I was busting."
Cat leads to homeless woman finding new home
Cathy was one of many homeless Australians living in their vehicles in Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs, where the median house price is over $3.5 million.
Estranged from most of her family and with few friends, she believed it was up to her to find a solution. But finding somewhere to live was proving difficult and the experience had left her in shock.
Surprisingly, it was a group of strangers who offered help. Derek Knox, the founder of cat rescue group Mini Kitty Commune, read about her plight and thought something needed to be done.
“This was someone who cared so much about her cat,” he said. “What happened to Cathy should not happen. She is working, she is part of society.”
Mr Knox took Sage into his own home and called for donations and help to find Cathy accommodation. Within hours spare rooms and couches were offered. Then an offer of a granny flat came through, clearing the path for Cathy and Sage to be reunited.
But despite being buoyed by the generosity of his online community, Mr Knox believes Cathy should never have ended up homeless. Countless other older Australians remain without affordable and secure accomodation and he's urging the government to fix the crisis.
Is the government aware of the housing problem?
Although the NSW government has allocated over $1.2 billion towards housing programs for 2022-2023, shadow minister for homelessness Rose Jackson accused it of failing to provide enough assistance.
“The stories I hear almost every day of older women struggling in the private rental market, waiting for social housing, or living in forms of homelessness, tell the story of a failure that isn’t about numbers or statistics — although they are important — but about people left behind by this government,” she said.
The state government’s housing support responsibilities are primarily shared between the communities and planning portfolios.
Communities Minister Natasha Maclaren-Jones told Yahoo News Australia the government recognises a “growing trend of people becoming homeless for the first time later in life, particularly older women”. Women aged 55 and older were the fastest group of homeless Australians in the last census period from 2011 to 2016.
Minister for Planning Anthony Roberts added that older women are “one of the largest demographics in need of homes", saying the government has long-term strategies to support them by proving safe and stable accommodation. "Everyone in NSW deserves the right to a home, no matter where they live or what their income,” he said.
Women's work not valued by Australian society
In February, the NSW government released its response to 40 recommendations made by a parliamentary inquiry into the problem, accepting nine, giving in-principle support to 24 and noting seven.
The government maintains it did not commit to some recommendations because they're already being met by existing programs or policies.
Yumi Lee, the CEO of advocacy and support group Older Women’s Network (OWN), is dismayed by the current homelessness situation and wants the government to adopt all recommendations, particularly the need to establish a specialist housing service for older people, similar to that in Victoria. She’d also like to see the age older women receive specialised housing assistance dropped from 80 to 55.
She believes they are disproportionately impacted because society does not value the work of women and they are paid significantly less. “A lot of the women who are now retiring into poverty and housing insecurity have not had the opportunity to accumulate savings and superannuation to enable them to retire in comfort and with a roof over their heads,” she said.
*Cathy requested we use a pseudonym.
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