Homelessness can be the result of many social, economic and health–related issues. Individual factors, such as low educational attainment, whether someone is working, experience of family and domestic violence, ill health (including mental health issues), 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). 

Australians experiencing homelessness

Estimates of the homeless population in Australia can be derived from the Census of Population and Housing (ABS 2018a). These estimates are underpinned by the ABS definition of homelessness wherein a person is homeless if they do not have suitable accommodation alternatives and 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.

On Census night in 2016, 116,400 people enumerated in the Census were experiencing homelessness, an increase from 102,400 people in 2011. The number of older homeless people (aged 55 and over) also increased, from 14,600 in 2011 to 18,600 in 2016. During this time, the rate of older people experiencing homelessness increased from 26 persons per 10,000 of the population in 2011 to 29 persons in 2016. By comparison, the homeless rate for the total population increased from 48 persons per 10,000 population in 2011 to 50 persons in 2016.

In 2016, older people represented 16% of the total homeless population, an increase from 14% in 2011. While the number of older homeless females increased by 31% (from 5,300 in 2011 to 6,900 in 2016), males continued to make up the majority (63% in 2016 and 64% in 2011) of older persons who were homeless (ABS 2018a, 2012b).

In 2016, most homeless older people were living in boarding houses (29%) or staying temporarily in other households (25%). In contrast, the majority of younger homeless persons (aged 12–24) were living in ‘severely’ crowded dwellings (59%) or in supported accommodation for the homeless (18%) (ABS 2018a).

Older women

Older women are increasingly experiencing homelessness due to lower lifetime incomes, less access to financial assets such as superannuation because they are more likely to take on informal care responsibilities, relationship breakdown, and the consequences of family and domestic violence (Power et al. 2018; Cameron 2013). In 2016, there were an estimated 6,900 older homeless women on Census night, an increase of 2,100 (44%) from 4,800 in 2006 (ABS 2012a, ABS 2018a). Research has suggested that there may be more homeless women given the hidden nature of older women’s homelessness (Australian Human Rights Commission 2019).

During their lifetime, women are more likely to take leave from the workforce and return to paid employment on a part-time or casual basis, which influences their lifetime superannuation savings.

  • In 2017–18, a smaller proportion of women (64%) than men (75%) aged 20–74 years were employed and of those employed, women (44% of those employed) were more likely to be working part-time compared with men (16%) (ABS 2018b).
  • In 2015–16, the median superannuation balance at, or approaching, 55–64 years, for women was $96,000, considerably lower than $166,300 for men (ABS 2018b).
  • In 2015–16, for those aged 65 years and over who were not in the labour force, a smaller proportion of women relied on their superannuation pension or annuity as their main source of income than men (14% of women compared with 22% of men) (ABS 2018b).

Real stories from older tenants

Understanding the experiences and challenges of older people in maintaining safe, secure and stable housing is central to understanding their overall wellbeing. Data about use of homelessness services provide important evidence about demand for services, nevertheless individual stories provide people’s lived experiences and perspectives but there is always more to learn about people’s circumstances and experiences. Ageing on the Edge — Older Persons Homelessness Prevention Project is a national research project that provides valuable insight into the housing situations of older people across Australia. For the New South Wales phase of the project, more than 120 older people told their stories, a sample of which are included here (Fiedler & Faulkner 2017). 

So I am left with $177 per fortnight for everything else

My Centrelink income is currently $727 per fortnight, inclusive of rent allowance, medical and miniscule power subsidies. The rent is $550 per fortnight that is about 75% of my income. So I am left with $177 per fortnight for everything else.

‘Anxiety’ about my living arrangements has been with me for 20 years

I am a single female aged 76 and paying for private rental. I have never married and I am living on a pension. ‘Anxiety’ about my living arrangements has been with me for 20 years when I realised I would not earn any more money in my job. I have never married or had children, or applied for a government first home loan. I have rented privately for 50 years at different addresses, as owners wanted to sell, I had to move. I do not smoke or drink. I have worked full time for over 50 years with not much sick leave, I am still healthy and well and active. I do have 6 hours a month paid employment doing data entry which also helps my computer skills. When I was working I tried to get a bank loan to buy a house, but I was seen as a ‘single female, not enough deposit.”

My 'stress' is caused by not having security of tenure

I am a 71 year old single female, retired 7 years, in good health and living in private rental accommodation. My rental stress is not financial as where I live the rents are much cheaper than living in a capital city. I am currently renting a two bedroom unit for $250 a week. Mind you it's not flashy!

My "stress" is caused by not having security of tenure, always wondering whether I will have to move again at the end of the lease because the rent has increased too much, or the property has changed owner and is no longer available for rent or, as in one instance, there was a difficult relationship with the agent and owner and it was preferable to move on after just 12 months.

All these moves are costly, physically exhausting and mentally stressful. Just finding a new place that is available at the right time is a problem in itself. A couple of times I have had to withdraw a lump sum from my superannuation because I did not have sufficient funds in the bank. I do worry about the future. How long can I go on living like this, never knowing when I will have to move again? I am in that situation right now. My lease expires in five weeks time and I haven't received any notification about whether the lease will be renewed or not. They should be giving me two months notice if I need to vacate, and also if the rent is to increase. The result of this uncertainty every year is that I can never make plans for October in case I need to move!’

Specialist Homelessness Services clients

People experiencing homelessness and those at risk of homelessness are among Australia’s most socially and economically disadvantaged. Governments across Australia fund services to support such people, known as Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS). These 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 2019).

A detailed profile of older people accessing SHS services is the focus of the remainder of this report. In summary, in 2017–18, 8% (24,100 clients) of all SHS clients were people aged 55 or older; comprising 10,300 males and 13,800 females (supplementary Table 1). The number of older people receiving services has increased by 40% since 2013–14 (from around 17,300 clients) (AIHW 2019). The rate of older clients increased from 29 older clients per 10,000 persons in Australia (aged 55 and over) in 2013–14 to 36 in 2017–18 (Supplementary table 1). By way of contrast, the rate of all SHS clients who presented to SHS agencies increased from 110 per 10,000 Australian population to 117 over the same period (AIHW 2019). The proportion of SHS clients aged 55 and older increased from 7% of all SHS clients in 2013–14 to 8% in 2017–18.

In 2017–18, most older SHS clients presented to agencies were housed, but at risk of homelessness (67%), with the remaining 33% presenting as homeless. By contrast, around 57% of all SHS clients were at risk of homelessness at presentation to agencies and 43% were experiencing homelessness (AIHW 2019).

About the SHS collection

All SHS agencies report standardised data about the clients they support each month to the AIHW. Data are collected about the characteristics and circumstances of clients when they first present to an agency. Further data on assistance received and client circumstances are collected at the end of every month in which the client receives services and again when contact with the client has ceased. This data is known as the SHS collection.

The data supplied builds a comprehensive picture of the clients and their needs as well as the outcomes achieved for those clients (AIHW 2019).