Homeless in plain sight: first-of-its-kind report shines a spotlight on Australia’s ‘rough sleepers’

On Census night in 2016, around 8,200 Australians were ‘sleeping rough’—living on the streets, sleeping in parks, squatting, staying in cars or living in improvised dwellings. For the first time, a new report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) provides insights into this complex and vulnerable group in our society.

The report Sleeping rough: A profile of Specialist Homelessness Services clients, uses 4 years of Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) data to build a comprehensive picture of this group, the challenges they face and the services they use.

Despite being the most visible, rough sleepers account for only around 1 in 14 homeless people in Australia according to the latest Census estimates, with the remainder having other accommodation, such as at shelters or refuges, couch surfing or in emergency accommodation. While rough sleepers make up a relatively small proportion of Australia’s homeless population, the number people in Australia who are sleeping rough has grown by 20% since 2011.

The report shows that compared to other clients of SHS rough sleepers are generally older males, often with drug, alcohol or mental health issues.

‘While 36% of all SHS clients are male, this is much higher, at 66%, for rough sleepers. However, male rough sleepers tend to be older than females. Around 55% of female rough sleepers were aged 15–34 compared with 41% of males,’ said AIHW spokesperson Matthew James.

The complex needs and vulnerability of rough sleepers is seen in the higher rates of mental health and drug and alcohol issues among this group. Mental health issues were reported by 47% of rough sleepers, compared with 34% of other SHS clients. Similarly, while 17% of other SHS clients reported a drug and/or alcohol issue, these issues were twice as likely (34%) in rough sleepers.

These factors are among 3 ‘vulnerabilities’ identified in the report—mental health issues, problematic drug and/or alcohol use, or domestic or family violence. The 3 vulnerabilities are associated with different patterns of SHS use among rough sleepers, greatly increasing the level of services accessed through SHS agencies. SHS agencies provide a range of services, including emergency accommodation, meals, employment services, and services or referrals for health and legal needs.

‘Persistent services users—that is, rough sleepers who accessed services every financial year over the 4 years from 2011–12 to 2014–15—had the most complex needs but accounted for only 13% of all rough sleepers,’ Mr James said.

‘Eight in 10 persistent rough sleepers reported a mental health issue, while two-thirds reported at least 2 of the 3 vulnerabilities—that is, out of the 3 factors of mental health issues, problematic drug and/or alcohol use, or domestic or family violence, they experienced at least 2.’

Service cyclers are those who accessed services in 2 or 3 years out of the 4-year period. This group accounts for 42% of all rough sleepers with more than half of the group reporting a mental health issue, while 2 in 5 reported at least 2 of the 3 vulnerabilities. Transitory service users are those who accessed services in 2011–12 only.  This group was the largest group (44%) of all rough sleepers and was the least likely to report additional vulnerabilities.

The report shows that many rough sleepers experience multiple periods of homelessness, highlighting the journey that many people face exiting homelessness. At the end of the 4-year study period, SHS agencies had assisted more than one-quarter of rough sleepers (27%) into housing; others were in ongoing SHS support and for about a quarter of rough sleepers, their housing situation was unknown.

‘Looking forward, there may be opportunities to bring SHS data together with information on rent assistance, income support and social housing to build a more comprehensive picture of the journey of rough sleepers, towards independent housing and community participation.’

‘This will also give service providers the evidence they need to build targeted programs to assist their clients and evaluate the effectiveness of the programs that are currently in place,’ he said.

The report contains a series of profiles, painting a picture from the data of the ‘typical’ characteristics of persistent service users, service cyclers and transitory service users. The profiles aim to bring to light the circumstances and challenges faced by these three groups of rough sleepers.

‘By looking specifically at rough sleepers over multiple years, today’s report fills an important gap in the data, which will help us better understand the complexity of homelessness in Australia,’ Mr James said.

The next report in the series on homeless SHS clients will focus on the experiences and service use of couch surfers and is due for release in late 2018.

Next week is Homelessness Week.


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