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“I thank my lucky stars”: Joanna’s story of near homelessness

Losing your spouse or partner as you age takes on a completely different level of sadness and grief when it means you’re no longer able to afford the home you’ve shared and are facing financial and housing stress, and possible homelessness.

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Growing up in Ireland and England, Joanna, 72, moved to Australia 21 years ago, where she fell in love with John. Sadly, three years ago John was diagnosed with dementia, and Joanna finished her work as a child care educator to care for him until he passed away in early 2020.

Like so many older women, Joanna's story isn’t uncommon and shows how housing can change overnight with the death of a partner, illness, domestic and family violence, and playing out right now, a housing crisis including a shortage of social and affordable housing.

Older women are becoming increasingly vulnerable, with a 2019 report showing that Australia’s fastest-growing cohort of people experiencing homelessness is women aged 55 and over, with an increase of 31% between 2011 and 2016[1].

Having rented privately and relatively comfortably with John on their combined pensions, Joanna was now on a single pension and with debts beginning to mount, was no longer able to pay her rent.

Joanna stayed with different friends for just over two months, couch surfing and changing where she’d stay from the week to the weekends, so she wasn’t overstaying her welcome. She was struggling emotionally and financially.

“Without my friends, I don’t know where I’d be. They were so good. And it helped me heal a little bit,” says Joanna.

After navigating her way onto the social housing list, which currently spans a ten-year wait, it was BaptistCare’s new social and affordable housing development in Sydney’s Inner West that saw Joanna’s priority listing picked up and a phone call made to offer Joanna a new home.

“The day I got that call. The lady said they took my name off the housing list and oh my God, I’ll never forget that day. She told me where it was and I came up and looked from the outside, and then a couple of days later I had an appointment… and she bought me in to have a look. I told her I was in heaven. I thought I died and went to heaven. It was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. So, I thank my lucky stars, and I thank BaptistCare,” she said.

“It’s beautiful. One bedroom. The bathroom could be like a bedroom as well. Storage, a nice lounge and galley kitchen; it’s lovely, inside and outside.”

BaptistCare Kitty Doyle Apartments in Five Dock was transformed in 2020 from 32 bedsits units built in the 1960s into 79 apartments featuring lift access, a BBQ and garden area, and a community centre.

The much-needed housing for seniors on low incomes was part of the NSW Government’s Social and Affordable Housing Fund (SAHF) project.

BaptistCare’s 11 community housing locations across NSW features wrap around support services that enhance the independence and wellbeing of tenants, including home care, counselling, chaplaincy and no interest loans via the support of BaptistCare’s on-site housing managers and tailored support coordinators.

The housing promotes community, friendships and support networks for tenants, which Joanna has experienced first-hand.

“I am really grateful. It’s such a beautiful place, and you have some nice neighbours. My next door neighbour and I like doing the garden, we do our own section of the garden and buy plants and you know, it’s lovely,” shares Joanna.

“I have peace of mind. All the stress I went through, so much stress, and that just drifted away from me. I was in a very very bad state for a couple of years, but I’m relaxed, I’m very happy where I am.”

“I know there is support there for me, I know if anything goes wrong, I know that the support is over there in the office with Belinda; she’s a wonderful woman,” she smiles.

This Homelessness Week, BaptistCare is calling on the Federal Government to invest in and build more social housing, especially for women who are escaping violence. To add your support to this campaign, sign the petition here:

[1] Australian Human Rights Commission, Older Women’s Risk of Homelessness Background Paper, 2019