People experiencing homelessness
The most recent data from the census of population and housing show that there were approximately 122,000 people experiencing homelessness in Australia on Census night 2021 (10 August). This is a rate of 48 people for every 10,000 population and includes people who were in:
- improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out
- supported accommodation for the homeless
- temporary accommodation in other households
- boarding houses
- other temporary lodgings
- in severely crowded dwellings (those requiring 4 or more extra bedrooms to accommodate them adequately) (ABS 2023).
The Journeys Home project (a longitudinal survey of Australians), found that of those people who had experienced housing instability or homelessness, risky use of substances was also reported for alcohol (57%), illicit drug use (39%) and the injection of drugs (14%) in the previous 6 to 12 months (Scutella et al. 2014).
Research from homelessness services in Melbourne showed that 43% of the homeless population reported that they had alcohol and other drug use problems. Of these, one-third reported that they had these problems prior to becoming homeless, with the remaining two-thirds reporting that they developed problems with alcohol and other drugs following homelessness (Johnson & Chamberlain 2008). The duration of substance use problems is often prolonged in the homeless population, because their social networks may perpetuate their alcohol and other drug problems.
Specialist homelessness services (SHS) are delivered by non-government organisations and include specific services for those people seeking housing as well as other services that assist them to maintain housing. These include people who experience alcohol and/or other drug issues.
In 2021–22, 8.6% or around 23,400 SHS clients aged 10 and over, reported problematic alcohol and/or drug use (AIHW 2022).
The following Figure SUB.1 is from the Specialist homelessness services annual report 2021–22.
Figure SUB.1: Key demographics, clients with problematic drug and/or alcohol use, 2021–22
Of the 23,400 SHS clients who reported problematic alcohol and/or drug use in 2021–22:
- Over 3 in 4 (76.1%) clients were aged under 45 years (AIHW 2022, Table SUB.1).
- Of those who needed accommodation (18,900), almost two-thirds (62.5%) were provided accommodation while a further 13.9% were referred to another agency (AIHW 2022, Table SUB.2).
- Around 1 in 6 (16.8%) clients were sleeping rough (no shelter or improvised/inadequate dwelling) when they sought services and over 1 in 10 (11.0%) exited services sleeping rough (AIHW 2022, Table SUB.3).
- Around 1,100 (4.8%) clients were formally referred to a SHS agency by an alcohol and drug service (AIHW 2022, Table SUB.7).
- 43.2% had a current mental health issue, 8.0% had experienced family and domestic violence and 31.9% experienced both vulnerabilities (AIHW 2022, Table CLIENTS.45).
The general health status of the people experiencing homelessness tends to be poorer than the general population.
- In the absence of national smoking rates for people experiencing homelessness, a study in Melbourne from 1995–96 found that 77% of people who were experiencing homelessness were smokers and this increased to 93% for those people experiencing homelessness who were sleeping rough (living on the streets) (Kermode et al. 1998).
- Studies have shown that people experiencing homelessness may adapt their smoking behaviours in order to save money, thus exposing themselves to greater health risks. This can include sharing cigarettes and smoking from used cigarette butts or filters (Okuyemi et al. 2006).
- The Journeys Home data showed that an average increase in consumption of one cigarette a day increased the risk of experiencing homelessness by 0.2% (Johnson et al. 2015).
Research has found that problematic alcohol consumption is associated with homelessness.
- The Journeys Home data showed that an average increase in alcohol consumption of one drink a day, increased the risk of experiencing homelessness by 0.2% (Johnson et al. 2015).
- Around 2.6% (7,100) of SHS clients reported that they had sought assistance for problematic alcohol use in 2021–22, a similar proportion to previous years (AIHW 2022).
- Among those who received specialist alcohol and other drug treatment services, alcohol was the principal drug of concern (40.4%) for people who sought support from both SHS and alcohol and other drug (AOD) treatment services. This was slightly higher than those who had not sought assistance for homelessness (AIHW 2016, Table S1.1).
Regular drug use is correlated with entries into homelessness (Johnson et al. 2015). In 2021–22, around 5.3% of clients (14,300) who sought assistance from SHS reported problematic drug or substance use (AIHW 2022).
The Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) is an annual survey of people across Australia who regularly inject illicit drugs (Sutherland et al. 2022). Of the 879 participants interviewed in 2022, one-quarter (26%) reported that they were homeless (that is, current accommodation was no fixed address, shelter/refuge or boarding house/hostel). This is stable when compared to 2021 (27%).
In 2022, Brisbane (32%), Melbourne (29%), and Perth (27%) had the highest proportion of respondents reporting homelessness. While Sydney (23%) Canberra (18%), Hobart (19%) and Adelaide (25%) had lower percentages. In Darwin, 81% of respondents reported owning a home (includes renting); other responses were not recorded (Sutherland et al. 2022, Table 1).
IDRS data collection for 2022 took place from May to July. Due to COVID-19 restrictions being imposed in various jurisdictions during data collection periods, interviews in 2020, 2021 and 2022 were delivered face-to-face as well as via telephone. This change in methodology should be considered when comparing data from the 2020, 2021 and 2022 samples relative to previous years.
For clients with problematic alcohol and/or other drug use, additional vulnerabilities such as mental health issues, may make them more vulnerable to homelessness. In 2019–20, 44% (or more than 12,400) clients with problematic drug and/or alcohol use also reported a current mental health issue and 31% (almost 8,700) reported a current mental health issue and experiencing family and domestic violence (AIHW 2020). For clients with problematic alcohol and/or other drug use, additional vulnerabilities such as mental health issues, may make them more vulnerable to homelessness. In 2019–20, 44% (or more than 12,400) clients with problematic drug and/or alcohol use also reported a current mental health issue and 31% (almost 8,700) reported a current mental health issue and experiencing family and domestic violence (AIHW 2020).
Research has shown that there is often overlap between drug and alcohol misuse and homelessness (AIHW 2016). The Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Services National Minimum Data Set (AODTS NMDS) collects information on treatment provided to clients by publicly funded alcohol and other drug treatment services, yet it does not collect information on the client’s experience of homelessness.
To better understand the characteristics of those experiencing homelessness and alcohol and other drug issues, a recent study linked the AODTS NMDS to the SHS data collection (AIHW 2016). The key findings demonstrate that the homeless population experiences additional complexities. Specifically, clients who had sought assistance from both SHS and AODTS:
- had lower rates of unemployment (6%), compared to 13% of SHS-only clients
- comprised a higher proportion of Indigenous Australians (27%) compared to 13% of AODTS only clients
- sought treatment for multiple drugs (18%), 3 times higher than the AODTS only population
- had poor AOD treatment and housing outcomes compare to the AODTS-only and SHS-only populations.
Of those who had sought assistance for both homelessness and AOD treatment, the most common principal illicit drugs of concern (the main substance that the client sought treatment for) were cannabis (28.6%) and amphetamines (20.5%) (Figure HOME1).
Persons who sought assistance from both SHS and AODTS were twice as likely to report heroin as a principal drug of concern (11.3%) compared to 5.7% for AODTS only (AIHW 2016, Table S1.1).
Figure HOME1: Principal drug of concern, by matched AODT and SHS clients and AODT only clients (percent)
The figure shows that similar proportions of AODT only and matched clients listed alcohol (38.7% for AODT only and 40.4% for matched clients) or cannabis (28.0% and 28.6%) as the principal drug of concern. Compared with AODT only clients, matched clients were more likely to list amphetamines, heroin, or pharmaceuticals as the PDOC, and were more likely to report multiple PDOCs (17.7% compared with 6.9%).
The National Housing and Homelessness Agreement
From July 1 2018, the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA) replaced the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness and the National Affordable Housing Agreement (supported by the National Affordable Housing Specific Purpose Payment). The NHHA is a multilateral national agreement and its objective is to contribute to improving access to affordable, safe and sustainable housing across the housing spectrum, including to prevent and address homelessness, and to support social and economic participation (CFFR 2018).
The Federal Government in partnership with states and territories to outline priority homelessness cohorts and policy areas that must be addressed in homelessness strategies (CFFR 2018). The NHHA has a focus on policy areas that include achieving better outcomes for people, early intervention and prevention, and commitment to service program and design. The priority homelessness cohorts identified in the NHHA include:
- women and children affected by family and domestic violence
- children and young people
- Indigenous Australians
- people experiencing repeat homelessness
- people exiting institutions and care into homelessness
- older people.
Other priority homelessness cohorts may be identified with states in their respective bilateral schedules.
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2023. Estimating Homelessness: Census. ABS Website accessed 25 September 2023.
AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2016. Exploring drug treatment and homelessness in Australia: 1 July 2011 to 30 June 2014. Cat. no. CSI 23. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 10 January 2018.
AIHW 2022. Specialist homelessness services annual report 2021–22. Cat. no. HOU 327. Canberra: AIHW, accessed 7 December 2022.
CFFR (Council on Federal Financial Relations) 2018. National Housing and Homelessness Agreement. Viewed 26 June 2018.
Johnson C & Chamberlain G 2008. Homelessness and substance abuse: which comes first? Australian Social Work, 61(4)342:356. Viewed 1 February 2018.
Johnson G, Scutella R, Tseng Y & Wood G 2015. Entries and exits from homelessness: a dynamic analysis of the relationship between structural conditions and individual characteristics. AHURI Final Report no. 248. Melbourne: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute. Viewed 31 January 2018.
Kermode M, Crofts N, Miller P, Speed B & Streeton J 1998. Health Indicators and risks among people experiencing homelessness in Melbourne 1995–1996. Australia and New Zealand Public Health, 22:464–70.
Okuyemi KS, Caldwell AR, Thomas JL, Born W, Richter KP, Nollen N, et al. 2006. Homelessness and smoking cessation: Insights from focus groups. Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 8(2):287–96.
Scutella R, Chigavazra, A Killackey E, Herault N, Johnson G, Moschion J et al. 2014. Journeys home research report no. 4. Melbourne: University of Melbourne.
Stafford J & Breen C, 2017. Australian Drug Trends 2016. Findings from the Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS). Australian Drug Trend series no. 163. Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW Australia.
Sutherland R, Uporova J, King C, Jones F, Karlsson A, Gibbs D, Price O, Bruno R, Dietze P, Lenton S, Salom C, Daly C, Thomas N, Juckel J, Agramunt S, Wilson Y, Que Noy W, Wilson J, Degenhardt L, Farrell M and Peacock A. 2022. Australian Drug Trends 2022: Key Findings from the National Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) Interviews. Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW Sydney. Viewed 13 October 2022.