Think homelessness couldn’t happen to you? Neither did Helen Simmons.

Forty years ago, Helen, now aged 79, ‘had it all’—a husband, three children, a nice house with a pool, lots of friends. It was the 1980s, a time of dizzying highs and living large—until the stock market crashed, and then came the spectacular lows.

This week (1–7 August) is Homelessness Week, an opportunity to raise awareness around people experiencing homelessness and the action needed to achieve long-lasting solutions, including more social and affordable housing.

Helen is one of 436 people aged over 55 living in VMCH’s 21 affordable homes communities. She’s also among the fastest growing cohort of people experiencing homelessness, women aged over 55. Around 90 per cent of VMCH’s affordable homes residents are female.

The number of older Australian women accessing homelessness services has increased by 63 per cent in the last five years (Australian Human Rights Commission, Older Women’s Risk of Homelessness, 2019).

The Retirement Living Council reports that ‘the largest proportion of older women facing homelessness in Australia have led conventional lives ... they’ve been employed, had stable homes and families. [Homelessness] is forced upon them after critical life events, like a relationship breakdown, financial troubles, or the onset of illness.’ They describe these women as ‘the missing middle’.

Helen’s story reflects these statements.

Back in the ’80s, Helen’s husband made some bad business decisions and had (without her knowledge) remortgaged their house twice to stay afloat. When things went south, the stay-at-home mum found herself divorced and homeless. She and the children moved in with her mother with not a penny to their name.

‘I was completely blindsided,’ Helen recalls. ‘I was surprised how so many of my “friends” disappeared. The whole experience was life-changing.’

With three children to take care of, Helen sprang into action. Despite just a few years’ experience as a teenage hairdresser, Helen secured a retail job with Katies and worked her way up to running its then bridal department.

The home front wasn’t so stable. When Helen’s parents passed away, she was able to purchase a small unit with some money they’d left her. When her son started his own business years later, he bought her a beautiful home in Lower Plenty, but then was forced to sell when his business went under. Helen then moved in with her daughter, where she stayed for 10 years until it was recently time to leave.

The breast cancer survivor says a chance encounter with an old friend turned her life around. ‘She told me about VMCH’s affordable homes, but I didn’t think they’d take me. I didn’t have anything to give,’ she said. ‘But they accepted me anyway, and now here I am. I love it. When I first came, I asked if I could put anything up on the walls. I was told, “Of course, it’s your forever home. Do what you like.” To know this place was mine was amazing. I just wish I’d known about this earlier.’

Helen Simmons in her garden
Helen Simmons in her garden. (Photo courtesy of VMCH)

VMCH CEO Sonya Smart says providing affordable homes is part of the Catholic, for-purpose organisation’s mission to support the most vulnerable people in the community.

‘All people, and especially older people, deserve to live in comfort with security and with dignity,’ she says. ‘There is a huge gap in housing for older people, particularly older women who are still very independent and many years away from requiring aged-care services. That’s why we continue to actively grow our affordable homes across Melbourne, including the development of a new and modern affordable homes community in Ford Street, Ivanhoe East, and providing land for peppercorn leases (where the lease payments do not reflect the fair value of the property being leased) for another 40-plus homes in Bundoora and Wantirna South through the Director of Housing.’

VMCH is also a supporter of the Everybody’s Home campaign, which calls for an additional 500,000 social and affordable homes to be built by 2026.