Homelessness is difficult to quantify. There are different definitions, the statistics aren’t straightforward, and the nature of the issue itself makes it hard to measure.
But it is certainly on the rise. Determining how many people are homeless varies depending on how it’s defined and how it is counted. In Homelessness Week, we take a look at the available data.
How many people are homeless?
According to the 2011 census, the number of homeless people in Australia is 105,000, up from 89,728 in 2006. There isn’t a comparable figure from the 2016 census yet as the homelessness figures need to be derived from data by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as the census does not ask directly if a respondent is homeless.
Researchers argue the ABS figures don’t capture the full picture, either due to the definition of homelessness used or the methods used to survey people.
For example, one study conducted in Adelaide counted more than four times as many homeless people using an alternative method to that used by the ABS.
What’s the definition of homelessness?
Any statistic on the number of homeless people also depends greatly on the definition of homelessness. Until 2008, the ABS used the cultural definition of homelessness based on a person’s housing situation. Then in 2012, the ABS introduced a new statistical definition to estimate Australia’s homeless population.
The new definition was broader than those used previously because it included those living in conventional houses and flats if they lacked privacy, safety and security of tenure in their dwelling. This is a type of homelessness known as “housed homelessness”.
In a report for the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI), homelessness academic Chris Chamberlain argued that ABS’s definition of homelessness might not give an accurate picture as it doesn’t capture most types of housed homelessness.
This type of homelessness can often be caused by situations involving mental health problems, domestic and family violence and other kinds of abuse. It can also shift the proportion of the homeless population towards family units and may overstate Indigenous homelessness.
What other data is out there?
Another way to measure trends in homelessness is by examining specialist homelessness services provided by not-for-profit organisations. This data is collected and reported by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
Published yearly, these reports paint a picture that show homelessness getting steadily worse despite government intervention.
The most recent AIHW report found 279,000 people were assisted by specialist homelessness services in 2015-16, up from nearly 256,000 in 2014–15.
The reports reveal year-on-year increases in use of homelessness services since the institute began collecting data in 2011. The rate has increased from one person in 98 in 2011-12 to one in 85 in 2015-16.
Rates of homelessness differ between states and territories as well as between urban and regional areas. For instance the Northern Territory has the highest rate of homelessness services use with one person in 30, while Queensland has the lowest with one in 112. People living in areas classified as remote or very remote are more likely to access homelessness services than less remote areas, and these areas have a higher growth rate.
Why do people become homeless?
The reasons for homelessness are many and varied and can include a mixture of structural factors, systematic failures and individual circumstances.
Domestic and family violence is an increasingly common reason for seeking homelessness services. The AIHW found that 106,000, or 38% of people requiring services, sought support due to domestic and family violence in 2015-16. This was a 33% increase from 2011–12, when the collection began, and a 14% increase from 2014–15.
Domestic and family violence was the most common reason for accessing services in Victoria, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. The latter had the highest rate (43%), while the Northern Territory and Victoria came close behind with 40% and 42% respectively. Nationally, 35% of people access homelessness services for this reason.
Another common reason for homelessness is housing affordability. In five of the eight states and territories, this was the most common reason for accessing homelessness services. It was most common in Tasmania where 60% of clients cited it as a reason, while 54% of clients reported it in New South Wales, which is notorious for its soaring capital city house prices.
Indigenous Australians are more likely to access homelessness services
Indigenous Australians are much more likely to access homelessness services than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Almost one in four people who accessed services in 2015-16 were Indigenous and that rate has been increasing since 2011-12.
Indigenous Australians are also more likely to be repeat users of homelessness services. In 2015-16, there were more returning Indigenous people (53%) than new Indigenous people, while the opposite was observed for non-Indigenous people.
What are the impacts of homelessness?
The impacts of homelessness are wide-reaching. The AIHW estimates the cost of rough sleeping to the community is in excess of $27,000 per person per year, with the cost increasing the longer a person is homeless.
The cost to the individual is difficult to quantify but homelessness poses all kinds of barriers to accessing education, employment, healthcare and basic safety.
This piece was first seen on ‘The Guardian’ 7 August 2017.