People experiencing homelessness, and those at risk of homelessness (see glossary), are among Australia’s most socially and economically disadvantaged. Governments across Australia fund services to support people who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness. Services are delivered mainly by non–government organisations, including those specialising in delivering services to specific target groups (such as young people or people experiencing Family and domestic violence) and those providing more generic services to people facing housing crises (AIHW 2021a).

The data on Specialist Homelessness Services on this page are drawn from the Specialist Homelessness Services annual report (AIHW 2021a) and the Specialist Homelessness Services monthly data report (AIHW 2021b), two dedicated reports for detailed data on people receiving support.

Why do people experience homelessness?

Homelessness can be the result of many social, economic and health–related factors. Individual factors, such as low educational attainment, whether someone is working, experience of family and domestic violence, ill health (including mental health issues) and disability, trauma, and substance misuse may make a person more at risk of becoming homeless (Fitzpatrick et al. 2013). Structural factors, including lack of adequate income and limited access to affordable and available housing, also contribute to risk of homelessness (Johnson et al. 2015; Wood et al. 2015). Determining how individual and structural risk factors interact to influence a person’s vulnerability to, and experience of, homelessness is an important ongoing focus of homelessness research (Fitzpatrick & Christian 2006; Lee et al. 2010).

Defining homelessness

There is no single definition of homelessness.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) defines homelessness, for the purposes of the Census of Population and Housing, as the lack of one or more elements that represent ‘home’.

The ABS statistical definition of homelessness is ‘… when a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives they are considered homeless if their current living arrangement:

  • is in a dwelling that is inadequate;
  • has no tenure, or if their initial tenure is short and not extendable; or
  • does not allow them to have control of, and access to space for social relations’ (ABS 2012).

The Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) (see glossary) collection is the national dataset about specialist support provided to Australians who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. It considers that a person is homeless if they are living in non–conventional accommodation (such as living on the street), or short–term or emergency accommodation (such as living temporarily with friends and relatives) (AIHW 2021a).

People experiencing homelessness

On Census night in 2016, more than 116,000 people were estimated to be homeless in Australia—58% were male, 21% were aged 25–34 and 20% identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians (ABS 2018). Around 51,000 (44%) were living in severely crowded dwellings. Over 21,000 (18%) were living in supported accommodation for the homeless and 8,200 (7%) were rough sleepers (Table 1).

Table 1: Number of homeless persons, by homelessness type, Census night 2016

Type of homelessness


Persons living in improvised dwellings, tents, or sleeping out (rough sleepers)


Persons in supported accommodation for the homeless


Persons staying temporarily with other households


Persons living in boarding houses


Persons in other temporary lodgings


Persons living in severely crowded dwellings


All homeless persons


Source: ABS 2018.

Trends in the number of people experiencing homelessness

Census data shows the rate of homelessness has fluctuated, from 51 per 10,000 population in 2001 to a low of 45 in 2006. The rate increased to 50 in 2016 (Figure 1, ABS 2018).

  • Between 2011 and 2016, most of the increase in homelessness rate was due to people living in severely crowded dwellings. This increased from 41,400 people in 2011 to 51,100 in 2016.
  • From 2011 to 2016, the number of homeless people living in boarding houses increased by 17%, from around 14,900 to 17,500 persons.
  • In 2016, the Northern Territory had the highest rate of homeless people (about 600 persons per 10,000 population) and Tasmania the lowest (32 per 10,000).

This vertical bar chart shows that the rate of homelessness has changed from 50.8 per 10,000 population in 2001, to 45.2 per 10,000 population in 2006, 47.6 per 10,000 in 2011 and 49.8 per 100,000 population in 2016. Most of the increase in homelessness between 2006 and 2016 occurred in persons living in ‘severely’ crowded dwellings, which increased from 15.9 per 100,000 population in 2006 to 21.8 per 100,000 population in 2016.

Homelessness services

Across Australia, SHS agencies provide services aimed at prevention and early intervention, crisis and post crisis assistance to support people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. The agencies receive government funding to deliver accommodation-related and personal services. They vary in size and in the types of assistance provided.

As noted above, SHS agencies provide assistance to both people experiencing homelessness and people at risk of homelessness. Each year (since the start of the collection in 2011–12), SHS have assisted a greater proportion of clients at risk of homelessness than those experiencing homelessness.

How many people received assistance?

SHS agencies supported more than 1.4 million Australians between 2011–12 and 2020–21 (AIHW 2021a). In 2020–21, almost 278,300 clients were assisted, equating to a rate of 108.3 clients per 10,000 population, or 1.1% of the Australian population. Most clients (57% or 144,500 clients) were at risk of homelessness when first presenting to SHS in 2020–21. Another 111,100 clients (43%) were experiencing homelessness. (Housing status at the start of support was unknown for around 22,700 SHS clients.)

Characteristics of SHS clients

Of the 278,300 clients SHS agencies assisted in 2020–21:

  • 6 in 10 were female (60% or 167,400 clients)
  • 1 in 6 were children under the age of 10 (16% or 44,200 clients)
  • 1 in 8 were children and youth aged 10–17 (12% or 34,300 clients)
  • the largest age group of adult clients were aged 25–34 (18% of all clients or 51,900 clients)
  • about 13,300 were women aged 55 or older (8% of total female clients) and 10,600 were men aged 55 or older (9.5% of total male clients)
  • 1 in 3 (33% or 84,900) clients were living in single-parent with 1 or more children families when they sought support (AIHW 2021a).

Australians known to be at particular risk of homelessness include those who have experienced family and domestic violence, young people, children on care and protection orders, Indigenous Australians, people leaving health or social care arrangements, and Australians aged 55 or older.

In 2020–21, about 91,400 SHS clients had experienced family and domestic violence at some point during the reporting period (Table 2). Some SHS client groups were more likely to be experiencing homelessness than other groups at the beginning of support, in particular, young people aged 15–24 presenting alone (51%), clients with current mental health issues (50%) and children on care and protection orders (50%).

Table 2: Characteristics of client groups of interest, 2020–21
Client group(a) Number of clients

Female (%)

Homeless at the beginning of support (%)

Median length of support (days)

Receiving accommodation (%)

Family and domestic violence


77 37 60 36
Current mental health issues 88,200 62 50 85 37
Indigenous Australians 73,300 61 47 55 41
Young people presenting alone (15–24 years) 41,700


51 60 32
Older people (55 years or older) 23,900 56 35 41 20

Children (0–17 years) on care and protection orders(b)

8,300 53 50 102 49

(a) Clients may be in one or more client vulnerability group. Client vulnerabilities groups are domestic and family violence, mental health, and problematic drug and/or alcohol.

(b) A client is identified as being under a care or protection order if they are aged under 18 and have provided any of the following information in any support period (any month within the support period) during the reporting period (either the week before, at the beginning of the support period or during support): they reported that they were under a care and protection order and that they had care arrangements, or they reported ‘Transition from foster care/child safety residential placements’ as a reason for seeking assistance, or main reason for seeking assistance.

Source: AIHW 2021a.

Trends in clients assisted by SHS agencies

The number of clients assisted by SHS agencies each year has decreased from around 288,300 people in 2016–17 to about 278,300 in 2020–21 (Table 3). Over the same period, the:

  • rate of all SHS clients decreased from 119.2 to 108.3 clients per 10,000 population
  • number of support days increased by 4.3 million days, from 23.4 to 27.7 million.
Table 3: SHS clients, by number, rate and housing situation at the beginning of support, 2016–17 to 2020–21
  2016–17 2017–18 2018–19 2019–20 2020–21
Number of clients 288,273 288,795 290,317 290,462 278,275
Rate (per 10,000 population) 119.2 117.4 116.2 114.5 108.3
Housing situation at the beginning of the first support period (proportion all clients)    


44 43 42 43 43

At risk of homelessness

56 57 58 57 57
Total days of support (millions) 23.4 24.7 26.0 26.1 27.7

Length of support (median number of days)

37 39 44 43 51

Median number of nights accommodated

33 32 29 28 31


1. Rates are crude rates based on the Australian estimated resident population (ERP) at 30 June of the reference year. Minor adjustments in rates may occur between publications reflecting revision of the estimated resident population by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

2. Data for 2016–17 have been adjusted for non-response. Due to improvements in the rates of agency participation and SLK validity, data from 2017–18 are not weighted. The removal of weighting does not constitute a break in time series and weighted data in 2016–17 are comparable with unweighted data for 2017–18 onwards. For further information, please refer to the Technical Notes.

Source: Specialist Homelessness Services Collection 2016–17 to 2020–21.

Between 2012–13 and 2020–21, the rate of SHS clients was highest in 2016–17, decreasing in more recent years. The overall rate for female clients increased from around 125.3 clients per 10,000 population in 2012–13 to 129.2 in 2020–21; the rate of male clients declined from 89.4 in 2012–13 to 87.1 in 2020–21 (Figure 2).

This line graph shows that the rate of all clients assisted by specialist homelessness agencies increased from around 107.4 clients per 10,000 population in 2012–13 to 108.3 in 2020–21. The rate for female clients increased from around 125.3 in 2012–13 to 129.2 in 2020–21; the rate for male clients declined from 89.4 in 2012–13 to 87.1 in 2020–21.

Impacts of COVID-19 on SHS clients 

The COVID-19 has been a significant challenge to the Australian health system as well as the economy (The Treasury 2020).  

A number of policies to support people experiencing homelessness were implemented by governments across Australia, not all of which were delivered through SHS funded agencies. See Specialist Homelessness Services: monthly data for the most up to date information (AIHW 2021b). In June 2020, around 3,100 female and 2,900 male SHS clients cited COVID-19 as a reason for seeking assistance (AIHW 2021b); by September 2021, this decreased to 2,000 female and 2,100 male clients who cited COVID-19 as a reason. The number of clients supported by SHS agencies each month increased from around 90,900 clients in March 2020 to 92,700 clients in September 2021.

Where do I go for more information?

See Homelessness services for more on this topic.

For more information on homelessness and homelessness services, see: