Homelessness and overcrowding
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2021) Homelessness and overcrowding, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 30 November 2023.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2021). Homelessness and overcrowding. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/children-youth/homelessness-and-overcrowding
Homelessness and overcrowding. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 25 June 2021, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/children-youth/homelessness-and-overcrowding
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Homelessness and overcrowding [Internet]. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2021 [cited 2023 Nov. 30]. Available from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/children-youth/homelessness-and-overcrowding
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2021, Homelessness and overcrowding, viewed 30 November 2023, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/children-youth/homelessness-and-overcrowding
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On this page:
- Key findings
- How many young people are experiencing homelessness?
- Has the homelessness rate for young people changed over time?
- Are rates of homelessness the same for everyone?
- How many young people live in overcrowded housing?
- Have rates of overcrowding improved over time?
- Are rates of overcrowding the same for everyone?
- Where do I find more information?
- Technical notes
- In 2016, young people aged 15–24 made up 21% of the homeless population (around 24,200 young people).
- In 2016, rates of homelessness were substantially higher among young people aged 15–24 living in Remote and Very remote areas (6.2%) than among those living in Major cities (0.8%).
- Between 2006 and 2016, the proportion of young people aged 15–24 experiencing homelessness increased from 0.7% (or 18,500 young people) in 2006 to 0.8% (or 24,200) in 2016.
- In 2019–20, 3 of the main reasons young people aged 15–24 sought assistance from specialist homelessness services were a housing crisis (17%), family and domestic violence (17%) and inadequate or inappropriate dwelling conditions (12%).
Being homeless can substantially harm young people’s health and wellbeing, whether they are part of a family or living alone. Young people are particularly vulnerable to the enduring harm caused by disruption not only to their education and transition to employment but also to the formation of stable and healthy social networks (Heerde & Patton 2020).
Being homeless can limit access to medicine, treatment and basic hygiene and expose young people to sexual exploitation, violence and social isolation (Davies & Wood 2018). Homeless young people can also experience high levels of mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, behavioural problems and alcohol and drug misuse. Due to a combination of these factors, homeless young people face a high mortality (Aldridge et al. 2017; Heerde & Patton 2020).
Further, a linkage study found that young people involved in one of either the child protection, youth justice or homelessness systems were more likely than the general population to become involved in the others (AIHW 2012).
If young people live in overcrowded conditions, it can:
- be a major source of stress for them, limiting their privacy, social behaviours and the autonomy in their lives
- limit their access to basic amenities, clean conditions and encourage the spread of disease and illness
- expose them to increased violence and abuse (Bilotta et al. 2018; Waters 2001).
These factors can all lead to poorer health outcomes and reduced wellbeing.
Young people are a national priority homelessness cohort in the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement, an agreement between the Australian and state and territory governments that came into effect on 1 July 2018 (CFFR 2018). This Agreement aims to help improve access to affordable, safe and sustainable housing across the housing spectrum, contribute to the reduction and prevention of homelessness and support social and economic participation. Under the agreement, priority cohorts are to be featured in the homelessness strategies of the states and territories.
In 2020, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs launched an inquiry into homelessness in Australia. The inquiry has a wide-ranging terms of reference, which pay particular regard to support and services for young people (SCSPLA 2020a). An interim report presents evidence received on COVID-19 and homelessness in Australia (see COVID-19 and the impact on young people). (SCSPLA 2020b).
For an analysis of monthly data for specialist homelessness service clients during the COVID-19 pandemic (see COVID-19 and the impact on young people).
ABS Census of Population and Housing
Data on young people experiencing homelessness and living in overcrowded dwellings come from the ABS Census of Population and Housing. The Census is collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) every 5 years, with the most recent data available for 2016. It is completed by the householder if present, or any adult member of the household (ABS 2016a). The ABS also has strategies targeting ‘rough sleepers’, ‘couch surfers’ and people living in supported accommodation to maximise the number of homeless people counted on Census night (ABS 2018a).
According to the ABS, a person is considered to be experiencing homelessness if they are:
- living in an improvised dwelling, tent or sleeping out
- in supported accommodation for the homeless
- staying temporarily with another household and do not have a usual residence (see Technical notes), also known as ‘couch surfing’
- staying in a boarding house or other temporary lodging, or
- living in a severely crowded situation.
People living in severely crowded housing are defined as those living in a residence requiring 4 or more additional bedrooms according to the Canadian National Occupancy Standard (CNOS). These people are considered homeless as they do not have control of, nor access to, space for social relations (ABS 2018b). This definition of homelessness recognises that a home should be secure, stable and safe, with access to privacy for adults and children as well as space for sleep, study and play (CHP 2018).
Defining overcrowded households
The ABS definition of overcrowding is used in this section: households are considered overcrowded if they are estimated to require 3 extra bedrooms according to the CNOS (ABS 2018a). People living in overcrowded dwellings are considered a marginal housing group, at risk of homelessness.
This ABS definition differs from that used in National Housing and Homelessness Agreement reporting and in the Report on Government Services, where overcrowding is defined as households requiring 1 or more additional bedroom/s (SCRGSP 2019).
Canadian National Occupancy Standard
The CNOS assesses the bedroom requirements of a household based on the following criteria:
- there should be no more than 2 persons per bedroom
- children less than 5 years of age of different sexes may reasonably share a bedroom
- children 5 years of age or older of different sexes should have separate bedrooms
- children less than 18 years of age and of the same sex may reasonably share a bedroom
- single household members 18 years or older should have a separate bedroom, as should parents or couples (ABS 2017).
While the CNOS model for assessing overcrowding can be useful to compare certain population groups, it may not be appropriate in the Indigenous and other culturally diverse contexts (AIHW 2019; 2020a). This is particularly true for cultures that value strong family connections and sharing accommodation with temporary and semi-permanent visitors (including ‘couch surfers’). Such cultural values and behaviours may influence household size.
Overcrowding can be assessed at either the household level or the individual level. This section reports on overcrowding at the individual level.
AIHW Specialist Homelessness Services Collection
Data on young people receiving assistance from specialist homelessness services come from the Specialist Homelessness Services Collection (SHSC). The SHSC collects information about people who seek assistance from specialist homelessness services (SHS) agencies. Data are collected on an ongoing basis and submitted to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) on a monthly basis.
SHS agencies assist people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. A client’s ‘homeless’ status is based on their housing (AIHW 2020b). This section reports ‘homelessness’ status based on client housing circumstances at the start of their first support period.
Homelessness services definitions
The SHSC considers people to be experiencing homelessness if they:
- have no shelter or are living in an improvised/inadequate dwelling
- are living in short-term temporary accommodation, or
- are couch surfing or living with no tenure in a house, townhouse or flat.
People are considered at risk of homelessness if they are at risk of losing their accommodation and are living in:
- public or community housing, either as a renter or rent free
- private or other housing, as a renter, rent free or owner, or
- institutional settings (AIHW 2020b).
In 2016, based on the ABS Census of Population and Housing, around 24,200 young people aged 15–24 (0.8% of all young people) experienced homelessness on Census night with:
- similar rates of homelessness among males and females
- lower rates of homelessness among those aged 15–19 (0.6% or 9,000 young people) than among 20–24 year olds (1.0% or 15,200) (ABS 2016b).
Young people made up around 21% of the homeless population.
Among homeless young people aged 15–24 (around 24,200 young people):
- the most common form of homelessness was living in severely crowded dwellings (58% or 14,100 young people)
- 17% (or 4,200) were living in supported accommodation for the homeless, with the proportion nearly twice as high for homeless 15–19 year olds as for homeless 20–24 year olds (25% or 2,200 compared with 13% or 1,900) (ABS 2016b)
- 11% (or 2,700) were staying temporarily with other households (couch surfing)
- 11% (or 2,600) were staying in boarding houses and other temporary lodging
- 3.0% (or 720) were ‘sleeping rough’ (that is, living in improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out).
Box 2: How many young people use specialist homelessness services?
In 2019–20, based on data from the AIHW Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) Collection, around 58,200 young people aged 15–24 (1.8% of young people) received assistance through homelessness services, with more females (63% or 36,700) than males (37% or 21,500) (AIHW 2020b).
Young people made up 20% of all people who received SHS assistance.
What do we know about young people using services?
In 2019–20, among young people aged 15–24 using SHS:
- around 1 in 6 (17%) were secondary school students, 5.4% were in vocational education and training, 2.2% were university students and 1.9% were in other education or training at the start of support
- around 1 in 8 had problematic drug or alcohol issues (12%)
- 1.5% reported having disability (see Technical notes)
- more than a third had experienced family and domestic violence (37%) (see Technical notes)
- 3.3% were in the process of leaving care arrangements (see Technical notes)
- 59% lived in Major cities, 25% in Inner regional areas, 11% in Outer regional areas and 5.3% in Remote or Very remote areas (AIHW 2020b).
Young people using SHS made up a particularly high proportion of all service users in Inner regional areas (22%, compared with 20% in Major cities, 20% in Outer regional areas and 19% in Remote and Very remote areas) (AIHW 2020b).
What are the main causes/reasons for accessing services for young people presenting alone?
Almost three-quarters (73% or 42,400) of young people receiving support from homelessness services in 2019–20 were young people presenting alone. Of those presenting alone that had a homeless status reported at first presentation for SHS services, around half (51%) were recorded as homeless, and around half (49%) were at risk of homelessness. The main reasons young people presenting alone sought assistance were:
- housing crisis (17% or 7,200 young people)
- family and domestic violence (17% or 7,100)
- inadequate or inappropriate dwelling conditions (12% or 5,100)
- relationship/family breakdown (12% or 5,100) (AIHW 2020b).
Between 2006 and 2016, the proportion of young people aged 15–24 experiencing homelessness increased, from 0.7% (or 18,500 young people) in 2006 to 0.8% (or 24,200) in 2016, with:
- a greater increase for males (from 0.7% or 9,800 to 0.9% or 13,200) than for females (from 0.7% or 8,700 to 0.8% or 11,000)
- a greater increase for 20–24 year olds (from 0.8% or 10,200 to 1.0% or 15,200) than 15–19 year olds (from 0.6% or 8,300 to 0.6% or 9,000) (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Proportion of young people aged 15–24 experiencing homelessness, by age group, 2006 to 2016
Source: ABS 2018b.
The most common form of homelessness among young people has consistently been living in severely crowded dwellings (44%, 53% and 58% of homeless young people in 2006, 2011 and 2016, respectively). The increase in young people experiencing homelessness over time is also predominantly due to an increase in those living in severely crowded dwellings (from 0.3% or 8,200 of all young people in 2006 to 0.5% or 14,100 in 2016) (ABS 2018b).
In 2016, rates of homelessness among young people aged 15–24 varied by population group. Rates of homelessness were:
- substantially higher among those living in Remote and Very remote areas (6.2% or 3,600 young people) than among those living in Major cities (0.8% or 16,700), Inner regional areas (0.5% or 2,300) and Outer regional areas (0.7% or 1,500). Higher rates of homelessness in Remote and Very remote areas were predominantly due to higher rates of severe crowding among young people in these areas (5.6% compared with 0.4% for Major cities, the next highest)
- higher among those living in the lowest socioeconomic areas (1.7% or 9,800) than among those living in the highest socioeconomic areas (0.2% or 1,200)
- higher among those born overseas (1.7% or 10,200) than among those born in Australia (0.5% or 11,900) (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Proportion of young people aged 15–24 experiencing homelessness, by selected population groups, 2016
Source: ABS 2018b.
Box 3: Couch surfers
Young people who are ‘couch surfing’ are recorded in the Census as those who are staying temporarily with other households and do not have a usual residence (see Technical notes). The ABS considers people recorded in this category as homeless.
In 2016, young people aged 15–24 represented around 15% of all people recorded as couch surfing (around 2,700 young people) with:
- 15–19 year olds representing 4.5% (or 799) of all couch surfers
- and 20–24 year olds representing 10% (or 1,900) of all couch surfers (ABS 2016b).
Young males aged 15–24 represented 14% (or 1,400) of all males recorded as couch surfing and young females represented 17% (or 1,200) of all females.
Comparing the data for 2006 and 2016, while the estimated number of people couch surfing has remained the same (17,700), the proportion of all homeless people who couch surf has fallen (from 20% to 15%). The proportion of all couch surfers aged 15–24 has also fallen over time (from 18% in 2006 to 15% in 2016) (ABS 2016b).
It is likely that the number of young people couch surfing is underestimated by the Census (see Technical notes).
Based on data from the SHSC for 2019–20, 24% (or 13,900) of SHS clients aged 15–24 were couch surfing or living with no tenure in a house, townhouse or flat at the start of their first support period (AIHW 2020b).
In 2016, around 22,900 young people aged 15–24 lived in overcrowded housing (0.8% of all young people) (excluding those living in severely crowded dwellings, see Box 1 for definitions).
- The rates among young males and young females were similar (0.8% or 12,700 and 0.7% or 10,300, respectively).
- Rates were higher among 20–24 year olds (0.9% or 14,400) than among 15–19 year olds (0.6% or 8,500).
- Young people aged 15–24 were over-represented in overcrowded living situations, making up 28% of all people living in overcrowded housing but comprising 12% of the Australian population (ABS 2016b).
From 2006 to 2016, the proportion of young people aged 15–24 who lived in overcrowded housing increased by 1.6 times (from 0.5% or 12,500 young people to 0.8% or 22,900).
- it increased more for 20–24 year olds than for 15–19 year olds (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Proportion of young people aged 15–24 living in overcrowded housing, by age group, 2006–2016
Source: ABS 2018b.
In 2016, the proportion of young people aged 15–24 living in overcrowded housing varied by population group. The proportion was:
- at least 3 times as high for those living in Remote and Very remote areas (2.9% or 1,700 young people) as for those living in Outer regional areas (0.4% or 1,000), Major cities (0.8% or 18,700) or Inner regional areas (0.3% or 1,500)
- 8 times as high for those living in the lowest socioeconomic areas compared with those living in the highest (1.7% or 9,800 compared with 0.2% or 1,200)
- more than 5 times as high for young people born overseas as for young people born in Australia (2.2% or 13,300 compared with 0.4% or 9,200) (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Proportion of young people aged 15–24 who live in overcrowded housing, by selected population groups, 2016
Source: ABS 2018b.
For information on topics related to homelessness in Australia’s youth, see:
For information on Indigenous young people, homelessness and overcrowding, see:
- Section 3.4, Housing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adolescent and youth health and wellbeing 2018.
- Measure 2.01, Housing in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework (HPF) 2020.
For information on:
- children living in overcrowded dwellings or children experiencing homelessness, see the sections Overcrowding and Homelessness in Australia’s children.
For other information on young people and homelessness, see:
- Vulnerable young people: interactions across homelessness, youth justice and child protection: 1 July 2011 to 30 June 2015
- Specialist Homelessness Services annual report for persons seeking assistance from SHS.
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2016a. Census household form. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 28 August 2019.
ABS 2016b. Census of Population and Housing: estimating homelessness, 2016. Customised report. Canberra: ABS.
ABS 2017. Census of Population and Housing: understanding the Census and Census data, Australia, 2016. ABS cat. no. 2900.0. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 21 April 2021.
ABS 2018a. Census of Population and Housing: estimating homelessness methodology, 2016. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 21 April 2021.
ABS 2018b. Census of Population and Housing: estimating homelessness, 2016. ABS Website. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 21 April 2021.
AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2012. Children and young people at risk of social exclusion: links between homelessness, child protection and juvenile justice. Data linkage series no. 13. Cat. no. CSI 13. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 21 April 2021.
AIHW 2019. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: a focus report on housing and homelessness. Cat. no. HOU 301. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 21 April 2021.
AIHW 2020a. Housing assistance in Australia 2020. Cat. no. HOU 320. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 21 April 2021.
AIHW 2020b. Specialist Homelessness Services Annual Report 2019–20. Cat. no. HOU 322. Canberra AIHW. Viewed 21 April 2021.
Aldridge RW, Story A, Hwang SW, Nordentoft M, Luchenski SA, Hartwell G et al. 2017. Morbidity and mortality in homeless individuals, prisoners, sex workers, and individuals with substance use disorders in high-income countries: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet 391(10117):241–50. Viewed 21 April 2021.
Bilotta E, Vaid U & Evans GW 2018. Environmental stress. In: Steg L & de Groot JIM (eds). Environmental psychology: an introduction. 2nd edn. 36–44. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Viewed 21 April 2021.
CFFR 2018 (Council on Federal Financial Relations). National Housing and Homelessness Agreement. Canberra: CFFR. Viewed 21 April 2021.
CHP (Council to Homeless Persons) 2018. No room to breathe; why severe overcrowding is a form of homelessness. Melbourne: CHP. Viewed 21 April 2021.
Davies A & Wood L 2018. Homeless health care: meeting the challenges of providing primary care. Medical Journal of Australia 209(5):230–4. Viewed 21 April 2021.
Heerde JA & Patton GC 2020. The vulnerability of young homeless people. Lancet 5(6):E302–3. Viewed 21 April 2021.
SCRGSP (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision) 2020. Report on Government Services 2020. Canberra: Productivity Commission. Viewed 21 April 2021.
SCSPLA (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs) 2020a. The Inquiry into Homelessness in Australia. Canberra: SCSPLA. Viewed 21 April 2021.
SCSPLA 2020b. Shelter in the storm—COVID-19 and homelessness interim report of the National Inquiry into Homelessness in Australia. Canberra: SCSPLA. Viewed 21 April 2021.
Waters A 2001. Do housing conditions impact on health inequalities between Australia’s rich and poor? Melbourne: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute. Viewed 21 April 2021.
ABS Census of Population and Housing
- The ABS defines a usual residence or address as the address at which the person has lived or intends to live for a total of six months or more in the relevant Census year.
- The population of young couch surfers can be underestimated when a person filling out the Census form on behalf of the young person does not know that they are unable to return home or do not have a home. The young person is then recorded as a visitor with a usual residence, masking their homelessness status and underestimating the number couch surfing.
- The ABS reports that it, ‘…has not yet been able to establish any reliable way, with existing data sources, of estimating homelessness among youth staying with other households and for whom a usual address is reported in the Census.’
For more details, see the Census of Population and Housing: Estimating Homelessness methodology.
Specialist Homelessness Services Collection
- This section uses the definition of disability presented by the Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) Collection. Clients with disability are defined as people who identified that they have a limitation in core activities (self-care, mobility and/or communication) and who also reported that they always or sometimes needed assistance with one or more of these core activities.
For more details, see the Specialist Homelessness Services annual report, Clients with disability.
- SHS clients are identified as experiencing family and domestic violence if it was why they sought assistance or they required family and domestic violence assistance during the reporting period in any support period.
- SHS clients leaving care arrangements includes people transitioning from health care settings (hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, rehabilitation and aged care facilities) and young people transitioning from out-of-home care (foster care and residential care facilities).
- The large disparity between young couch surfers in the 2016 Census and the 2019–20 SHS collection is likely due to a difference in recording method and definitions rather than an increase over time. The number of young couch surfers determined by the SHS collection is limited in its ability to estimate the total population as it relies on self-reporting and only includes those who seek services.
For more details, see the Specialist Homelessness Services annual report.
For general technical notes relating to this report, see also Methods.
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