How Mum Became Homeless

11 May 2018 Magazine

How Mum Became Homeless

More older women than ever before are finding themselves homeless. Carmen Angerer looks at what happens when your own mother doesn’t have a place to stay.

When my mum told me she was “pretty much homeless” I didn’t believe her. My mother is a woman who relishes hyperbole, but that wasn’t the only reason I dismissed her comment. I was afraid for her. It was too much to take in all at once.

She was living with a boyfriend when things soured. It was his house and it was expected that she would move out. In her late fifties – with mental health issues, no job and limited access to her superannuation – she couldn’t afford to rent in the inner city. She felt like she didn’t have anywhere else to go.

As her only child, our relationship has been complicated over the years by her health – manic depression and MS are not the easiest of bedfellows. She has been in and out of hospital since I was nine and with the stress of her situation building, I could already see the signs of another hospitalisation. I wondered if my housemates would be okay with her crashing on the couch, but I knew it was too much to ask of our bursting-at-the-seams share house. The truth was I was already struggling to make ends meet and I knew our relationship would not survive if she moved in with me.

“Can you stay with your sister?” I asked, wondering how we had ended up here.

Of the more than 116,000 homeless people in Australia, single women over 55 are the fastest growing group of people without a place to go. The number of older women forced to couch surf in Australia has almost doubled in the past four years. There are a variety of reasons why this might be, from reduced economic mobility after caring for children, to increased financial vulnerability when relationships break down, to the lack of affordable rental housing.

This situation was not new for us. Years before, during her separation from my father, my mum slept on the downstairs couch for two years. She believed it was important for her to stay in the family home until I finished high school. It was also because she could not afford to move out.

I remember feeling incredibly sad that my mum was in such a vulnerable situation, and mixed with the sadness was a deep sense of helplessness because I could not provide a home for her. But there was also a part of me that was angry. Everyone makes choices about their health, their employment and their relationships that can affect their economic freedom. Where did my mum’s situation begin and how did the factors of her health, age and gender fit in?

We’re looking at a time where there were (and still are) cultural expectations on women to be the primary caregiver, then these same women are expected to reintegrate into a changed workforce and when they retire, they face the ramifications of a gender pay gap and reduced superannuation. Australian women generally retire with half the amount of retirement savings as men.

My mum did stay with her sister on and off over the years, but family relationships are complicated and so is living in someone else’s house. My mum isn’t an easy person to live with and fluctuations in her mental health meant things were often strained. Ultimately, she was lucky enough to have a supportive friend who let her live in his house for a long time, years in fact. Always one to joke, my mum called it “an extended sleepover” and I was relieved that she had a safe place to stay with someone who helped her manage her health. Some of us are lucky to have family close by and a good network of friends. Others are not.

People with mental health concerns are over-represented in homelessness statistics. Looking for housing when their life is upside-down can increase the stress and anxiety on someone already suffering.

For my mum, finding a “forever home” meant managing her expectations about what she could afford. We discovered that renting in a country town was a viable option, but her medical history creates challenges. How close was the nearest major hospital? What would happen if she couldn’t drive to her doctor’s appointments? What if she had to break her lease?

Meanwhile I was managing my own fear. As a daughter, I wonder if my resistance to my mum using the word homeless wasn’t just because of my understanding of what it meant. Acknowledging that she was vulnerable and needed a place to stay that I couldn’t provide made me feel helpless and ashamed.

In some ways our relationship has been characterised by these moments. As we have bounced from one moment of chaos to another, having a secure place to stay has been the deciding factor in whether she was safe, stable and cared for. Without it, we were both adrift.

My mum’s sleepover lasted six years, and ended when an unexpected inheritance let her buy a small house in the country. After living out of bags for so long it’s a relief to see her settle into a space that she can finally call her own.

Carmen Angerer is a Melbourne writer, who is working on her first novel. Her mother has given her approval to share their story.

This article originally appeared in the Generation Hope edition of The Big Issue (#561) as part of the 'Living Homeless' series. 

Illustration courtesy Michel Streich.

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