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. These 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 2018).

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 2018).

How many people are 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

Number

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

8,200

Persons in supported accommodation for the homeless

21,235

Persons staying temporarily with other households

17,725

Persons living in boarding houses

17,503

Persons in other temporary lodgings

678

Persons living in severely crowded dwellings

51,088

All homeless persons

116,427

Source: ABS 2018.

Trends

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 persons living in severely crowded dwellings. This increased from 41,370 people to 51,088 over the period.
  • 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).

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, 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 million Australians between 2011–12 and 2017–18 (AIHW 2018). In 2017–18, 288,800 clients were assisted, equating to a rate of 117 clients per 10,000 population, or 1.2% of the Australian population. Most clients (143,000) were at risk of homelessness when first presenting to SHS in 2017–18. Another 109,000 clients were experiencing homelessness. (Housing status at the start of support was unknown for around 36,000 SHS clients.)

Characteristics of SHS clients

Of the 288,800 clients SHS agencies assisted in 2017–18: 

  • 6 in 10 were female (61% or almost 176,000)
  • 1 in 6 were children under the age of 10 (17% or nearly 48,000)
  • 1 in 10 were children and youth aged 10–17 (12% or 35,000)
  • the largest age group of adult clients were aged 25–34 (19%)
  • about 14,000 were women aged 55 or older (4.8% of total clients) and 10,000 were men aged 55 or older (3.6% of total clients)
  • 1 in 3 (35%) clients were living in single–parent families when they sought support (AIHW 2018).

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 2017–18, about 121,100 SHS clients experienced family and domestic violence at some point during the reporting period (Table 2). Some SHS client groups were more likely to be homeless than other groups at the beginning of support. This included young people aged 15–24 presenting alone (52% experiencing homelessness), children on care and protection orders (51%) and Indigenous Australians (47%).

Table 2: Characteristics of cohorts at a particular risk of homelessness, 2017–18

Client group

Number of clients

 

Female

(%)

Homeless at the beginning of support

(%)

 Median length of support (days)(a)

 

Receiving accommodation

(%)

Family and domestic      violence

121,000

 

77.7

39

43

34.6

Young people
(15–24 years)

43,200

63.7

52

49

31.2

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

8,700

51.1

51

97

50.6

Indigenous Australians

65,200

 

42.4(a)

47

48

41.3

People leaving care(b)

6,900

45.0

26

63

45.1

Older people (55 years or older)

24,000

57.3

33

28

16.0

(a) Proportion based on clients aged 18 years or over.

(b) Clients are identified as leaving care if, in their first support period during 2017–18, their dwelling type was, for example, hospital or aged care facility, or their reason for seeking assistance was, for example, transition from care arrangements.

Source: AIHW 2018.

Trends

The number of clients assisted by SHS agencies each year has increased from around 254,000 people in 2013–14 to more than 288,000 in 2017–18 (Table 3). Over the same period, the:

  • rate of all SHS clients increased from 109.7 to 117.4 clients per 10,000 population
  • number of support days increased by 4.1 million days, from 20.6 to 24.7 million.

Table 3: SHS clients, by number, rate and housing situation at the beginning of support, 2013–14 to 2017–18

 

2013–14

2014–15

2015–16

2016–17

2017–18

Number of clients

254,001

255,657

279,196

288,273

288,795

Rate (per 10,000 population)

109.7

108.8

117.1

119.1

117.4

Housing situation at the beginning of the first support period (proportion all clients)

Homeless

42

43

44

44

43

At risk of homelessness

58

57

56

56

57

Length of support (median number of days)

33

33

35

37

39

Proportion receiving accommodation

34

33

31

30

29

Median number of nights accommodated

35

34

33

33

32

Notes:

  1. Rates are crude rates based on the Australian estimated resident population (ERP) at 30 June of the reference year.
  2. Data for 2013–14 to 2016–17 have been adjusted for non–response; 2017–18 data are not weighted. For more information, refer to the Technical Notes in AIHW 2018.

Source: AIHW 2018.

Where do I go for more information?

See Homelessness services for more on this topic.

For more information on homelessness and homelessness services, see:

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2012. Information paper—a statistical definition of homelessness, ABS cat. no. 4922.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018. Census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness, 2016. ABS cat. no. 2049.0. Canberra: ABS.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2018. Specialist Homelessness Services annual report 2017–18. Cat. no. HOU 299. Canberra: AIHW.  

Fitzpatrick S, Bramley G & Johnsen S 2013. Pathways into multiple exclusion homelessness in seven UK cities. Urban Studies 50:1.

Fitzpatrick S & Christian J 2006. Comparing homelessness research in the US and Britain. International Journal of Housing Policy 6:313–33.

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. Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) final report no. 248. Melbourne: AHURI.

Lee BA, Tyler KA & Wright JD 2010. The new homelessness revisited. Annual Review of Sociology 36:501–21.

Wood G, Batterham D, Cigdem M & Mallet S 2015. The structural drivers of homelessness in Australia 2001–11. Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) final report no. 238. Melbourne: AHURI.

Alternative text for figures

Figure 1: Rate of homelessness, people per 10,000 population, by homelessness group, 2001 to 2016

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.