Policy framework for reducing homelessness and service response

People experiencing homelessness and at risk of homelessness are among Australia’s most socially and economically disadvantaged. Governments across Australia fund a range of services to provide support to those who are experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of homelessness. These services are delivered by various government and non-government organisations including agencies specialising in delivering services to specific target groups (such as young people or people experiencing family and domestic violence), as well as those that provide more generic services to those experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

The data in this publication are produced from the Specialist Homelessness Services Collection (SHSC), conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). Data are provided to the AIHW by more than 1,600 homelessness agencies allowing this report to be compiled and published. The AIHW thanks the agencies and their clients for making this report possible. People who are experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of homelessness may also access a range of mainstream services that are available to the broader community (such as income support payments or health services). These services are not described in this report.

On 1 July 2019, new data items were added to the SHSC and some other items were updated or modified. New data items include a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) indicator, main language other than English spoken at home and proficiency in spoken English. The updated or modified data items include the addition of sex=other for clients and changes to items related to receiving assistance for family and domestic violence. The ability to use and report on the new and updated data items in the Specialist Homelessness Services Annual Report for 2019–20 is dependent on data quality and the number of valid responses received.

The policy framework for reducing homelessness

Many Australians experience events in their lifetime that may place them at risk of, or result in, homelessness. Access to affordable housing is a key issue for all Australians, particularly those on low-incomes. A lack of affordable housing puts households at an increased risk of experiencing housing stress and can affect their health, education, employment and place them at risk of homelessness. It is estimated that around 1 million low-income households experience housing affordability issues due to rental stress—defined as paying more than 30% of their gross weekly income on housing costs (AIHW 2019, ABS 2019, SCGSP 2019).

On Census night in 2016, 116,427 Australians were homeless, up from 102,439 people in 2011. This equates to a 4.6% increase in the population adjusted rate of homeless persons over 5 years, from 47.6 per 10,000 population in 2011 to 49.8 in 2016. Census homeless estimates include people in supported accommodation for the homeless, people in short-term or emergency accommodation, those ‘sleeping rough’ and people living in severely crowded dwellings—defined as those that require 4 or more extra bedrooms to accommodate the residents. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) acknowledges that the homeless circumstance may mean that some people are not captured at all in datasets, nor will all those experiencing homelessness be captured in datasets of those accessing particular homelessness services. In addition, certain groups of people (including Indigenous populations, rough sleepers and those in supported accommodation) are more likely to be undercounted on Census night. Hence, homelessness data collected in the Census is an estimation, and susceptible to under/overestimation and under enumeration (ABS 2018).

The National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA)

In the 2017–18 Budget, the Federal Government announced the establishment of a new National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA), which came into effect on 1 July 2018. This agreement reformed previous funding agreements with states and territories (the National Affordable Housing Agreement (NAHA) supported by the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness (NPAH)). The NHHA provides more than $1.5 billion in Commonwealth funding to the states and territories a year, including dedicated funding of $125 million for homelessness services in 2019–20, which states were required to match. Funding for homelessness services will be ongoing and indexed for the first time to provide certainty to front line services assisting Australians who are experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of homelessness (CFFR 2018). Most SHS must contribute data to the SHSC under this agreement.

The objective of the NHHA

The objective of the NHHA is to contribute to improving access to affordable, safe and sustainable housing across the housing spectrum from crisis housing to home ownership, including to prevent and address homelessness, and to support social and economic participation.

The key outcomes this agreement will contribute to include:

  • a well-functioning social housing system that operates efficiently, sustainably and is effective in assisting low-income households and priority homeless cohorts to manage their needs
  • affordable housing options for people on low-to-moderate incomes
  • an effective homelessness system, which responds to and supports people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness to achieve and maintain housing, and addresses the incidence and prevalence of homelessness
  • improved housing outcomes for Indigenous Australians
  • a well-functioning housing market that responds to local conditions
  • improved transparency and accountability in respect of housing and homelessness strategies, spending and outcomes.

Several national priority cohorts have been specifically identified in the agreement and are expected to be addressed in each state and territory’s homelessness strategy:

  • 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.

In addition, several homelessness priority policy reform areas have been identified:

  • achieving better outcomes for people
  • early intervention and prevention
  • commitment to service program and design.

The Specialist Homelessness Services Collection

Around 1.3 million clients have been supported by Specialist Homelessness Services since the collection began on 1 July 2011.

The SHSC collects data from homelessness agencies funded under the NHHA (and the previous NAHA and NPAH). State and territory departments identify agencies that are expected to participate in the data collection. These agencies vary widely in terms of the services they provide and the service delivery frameworks they use. The operational frameworks may be determined by the state or territory funding department or developed as a response to local homelessness issues (see What are specialist homelessness agencies? for more details).

All SHSC agencies report standardised data about the clients they support each month to the AIHW, as specified by the SHS National Minimum Dataset (NMDS). Data are collected about the characteristics and circumstances of clients when they first present at 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.

Data supplied in accordance with the SHS NMDS, known as the SHSC, builds a comprehensive picture of clients, the specialist homelessness services that were provided to them and the outcomes achieved for those clients (Figure FRAMEWORK.1). The SHSC data provide a measure of the service response directed to those who are experiencing housing difficulty. The data do not provide a measure of the extent of homelessness in the community, although SHSC data on emergency accommodation and supported accommodation do contribute to the profile on homelessness in Australia.

Figure FRAMEWORK.1: Conceptual framework of the Specialist Homelessness Services Collection

The flow diagram illustrates the relationships between the clients of specialist homelessness services, the assistance provided, and the outcomes for the client. The data collected on each of these 3 items were collected from more than 1,600 specialist homelessness agencies in 2019–20.

The data collected by agencies are based on periods of support provided to clients. Support periods vary in terms of their duration, the number of contacts between SHS workers and clients during the period, and the reasons that support ends. Some support periods are relatively short—and are likely to have begun and ended in 2019–20—while others are much longer, many of which might have been ongoing from the previous year and/or were still ongoing at the end of 2019–20.

Further information about the collection and information about the quality of the data obtained through the SHSC for 2019–20 is available in Technical information.

What are specialist homelessness services agencies?

A specialist homelessness service in scope for the SHSC is an organisation that receives government funding to deliver accommodation related and/or personal services to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. While it is recognised that other organisations not directly funded by governments also provide a wide range of services to this sector, these organisations are not required to provide data to the SHSC.

SHS agencies vary in size and in the types of assistance they provide. Across Australia, agencies provide services aimed at prevention and early intervention, as well as crisis and post crisis assistance to support people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. For example, some agencies focus specifically on assisting people experiencing homelessness, while others deliver a broader range of services, including youth services, family and domestic violence services and housing support services to those at risk of becoming homeless. The service types an agency delivers range from basic, short-term interventions such as advice and information, meals and shower or laundry facilities through to more specialised, time intensive services such as financial advice and counselling and professional legal services (see Glossary for a complete list of service types).

Nationally 1,625 agencies delivered specialist homelessness services to almost 290,500 clients during 2019–20 (Figure FRAMEWORK.2).

Figure FRAMEWORK.2: Specialist homelessness agencies and clients by jurisdiction, 2019–20

This map of Australia shows the number of clients and homelessness agencies in each jurisdiction. In addition, each state and territory is differentially coloured according to a rating scale for the number of clients per 10,000 population. The Northern Territory had the highest rate while Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia had the lowest client rates in 2019–20.


  1. Clients may access services in more than one state or territory, therefore the Australia total will be less than the sum of jurisdictions.
  2. The agency count includes only those agencies that provided support periods with a valid Statistical Linkage Key (SLK).

Source: Specialist Homelessness Services Collection 2019–20.

SHS agencies vary considerably in size, with some agencies assisting less than 100 clients per year and others assisting upwards of 1,500. Some agencies are represented by a larger ‘parent’ organisation while others are individual stand-alone agencies. The number of client’s agencies assist (agency size) not only reflects the type and complexity of services provided, but also differing state and territory service delivery models. Agency size is also influenced by jurisdictional specific factors such as the size and geographical distribution of their population. Figure FRAMEWORK.3 illustrates the wide range in agency sizes in each state and territory. In 2019­–20, almost half of all agencies assisted fewer than 100 clients (751 agencies or 46%). In New South Wales, a smaller number of agencies assisted 100–199 clients than assisted fewer than 100 clients (99 compared with 105), while in South Australia 25 agencies assisted fewer than 100 clients and 21 agencies assisted 100–199 clients. Agencies assisting a large number of clients (more than 1,500 in 2019–20) exist in all jurisdictions. Victoria had the most agencies of this size (23 agencies).

Figure FRAMEWORK.3: Specialist homelessness agencies, by number of clients assisted and state and territory, 2019–20

The stacked vertical bar graph shows the large variation in the make-up of agency sizes across the states and territories. The largest proportion of agencies in all states and territory assisted fewer than 100 clients in 2019–20. The Australian Capital Territory (72%25), Western Australia (53%25) and the Northern Territory (53%25) had the highest proportion of these agencies while South Australia had the fewest at 29%25. Agencies assisting 1,500 or more clients exist in all jurisdictions.

Source: Specialist Homelessness Services Collection 2019–20, Supplementary table FRAME.2.

Homelessness services across Australia

Each state and territory manage their own system for the assessment, intake, referral and ongoing case management of SHS clients. The key delivery systems operating in Australia are summarised in Box FRAMEWORK.1. Although presented as three distinct models, these systems are representative of a range of approaches that jurisdictions may take to coordinate entry to becoming a client of SHS. Changes implemented by state and territories in the delivery of services and their associated responses have the potential to impact SHSC annual data.


Community sector funding and support

  • Assessment and intake: managed by individual SHS providers, consistent with state or territory policies.
  • Referral: refer to other SHS providers if clients’ needs can’t be met by initial SHS provider.
  • Can be supported by a coordinating service.

Central information management

  • Assessment, intake and referral: managed at any SHS provider, via state or territory central information management tool.
  • Central information management system assists in the identification of appropriate services and indicates the availability/vacancy of services at all SHS providers.

Central intake

  • Assessment, intake and referral: managed by one or more ‘central intake’ agency.
  • Central intake agencies prioritise access to services and only refer clients as services and/or vacancies are available.
  • Central information management tool may exist to share information between SHS providers.

Specialist Homelessness Services agencies and their service delivery

Once a person has made contact, specialist homelessness services can either be provided to the client by the agency, or a client may be referred to another agency for a specific service (Figure FRAMEWORK.4). In some instances, a client may not receive nor be referred for a service and their need remains unmet. These unmet needs are captured to assist in determining the ability of the sector to respond to client needs.

An ‘unassisted request for service’ is an instance where a person(s) who approaches an agency is unable to be provided with any assistance (see Technical information). Limited data are collected about these occasions.

Figure FRAMEWORK.4: Access to and delivery of Specialist Homelessness Services

The flow diagram shows the potential pathways people seeking homelessness services may follow. A client had their service needs assessed; services may either be provided by that agency or the client may be referred to another agency for support. Not all the needs of a client may be met and this unmet need is reported. Some people seeking assistance do not become clients, known as unassisted request for services.

Services provided by specialist homelessness agencies in all states and territories can be categorised as either ‘accommodation services’ (either the direct provision or referral of accommodation or assistance for the client to remain housed) or ‘services other than accommodation’ (Figure FRAMEWORK.5). The proportion of SHS clients receiving accommodation services varied across states and territories in 2019–20, with almost 8 in 10 clients in Tasmania (78%) and more than 6 in 10 clients in Western Australia (70%), the Australian Capital Territory (69%) and Queensland (66%) receiving these services. In contrast, 49% of clients in Victoria, 45% of clients in New South Wales and 44% of clients in South Australia were provided services other than accommodation. This variation reflects differences in the demand for accommodation services, service delivery models and housing options across jurisdictions.

Figure FRAMEWORK.5: Clients of Specialist Homelessness Services by service type, state and territory, 2019–20

Clients were classified on the basis of whether or not they were provided or referred accommodation services as part of the assistance they received. The stacked vertical bar graph shows the variation across jurisdictions in the proportion of clients in each classification group, and reflects in part, jurisdictional service delivery models. In all jurisdictions, the majority of clients received accommodation services as a component of their homelessness needs.


  1. Clients provided or referred accommodation services (short-term or emergency accommodation, medium-term/transitional housing, long-term housing, assistance to sustain tenancy or prevent tenancy failure or eviction and assistance to prevent foreclosures or for mortgage arrears) are included in the accommodation services category. These clients may have also been provided additional services other than accommodation.
  2. The denominator for the proportions is the number of clients who were provided or referred any service during 2019–20.
  3. Clients may access services in more than one state or territory. If they received accommodation services in any jurisdiction they will be counted as having received these services in all jurisdictions in which they received services.

Source: Specialist Homelessness Services Collection, Supplementary table FRAME.3

How do people find Specialist Homelessness Services: a focus on the Ask Izzy website

There are several avenues through which people can find nearby homelessness services. One such mechanism is Ask Izzy, a ‘mobile-first’ designed website connecting people in need to housing, meals, support and counselling services in their local area. Ask Izzy is free and anonymous and has over 370,000 services listed across Australia. The website was launched early in 2016 and has received more than 2.4 million searches on the site to date (Infoxchange 2019).

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen increased use of Ask Izzy, with searches for help across Australia increasing to the highest levels in Ask Izzy’s 4-year history. During March and April 2020, Ask Izzy received over 450,000 searches for help from across the community (Infoxchange 2020).

There were also changes in the categories searched, for example food searches jumped 40% in the week that most state and territory governments declared a state of emergency and panic-buying took hold in supermarkets. The following week saw an increase in the searches for Centrelink around the time of the announcement of the JobSeeker payment by the Federal Government. Food and emergency relief have continued to be the most commonly searched categories during the pandemic (Infoxchange 2020).

COVID-19 impacts on SHS clients in 2019–20

The COVID-19 pandemic in Australia is part of the ongoing worldwide pandemic of the coronavirus disease 2019 with the first confirmed Australian case identified in January 2020 (DoH 2020). Australian borders were closed to all non-residents in March 2020, social distancing rules were imposed on 21 March and state governments started to close ‘non-essential services’ (PM 2020; The Guardian 2020).

In the time period captured in this report, that is up to 30 June 2020, the following policies were implemented by states/territories as a response to the pandemic which may have impacted the number of SHS clients and the services they received:

  • In NSW, the Government initiated a number of strategies in response to COVID-19 including additional funding and supports for homelessness initiatives. The funding included provisions for emergency accommodation, as well as keeping people in stable, affordable housing. Since 1 April 2020, almost 3,000 people sleeping rough have been provided with temporary accommodation and are being supported to transition to long term permanent accommodation and post-crisis support.
  • In Victoria, demand for emergency accommodation has increased notably since March 2020. Significant resources have been allocated to meet demand and to provide safe housing exits for these clients.
  • In Queensland, the Government delivered several responses to COVID-19 including:
    • The Housing and Homelessness COVID-19 Immediate Response Fund (IRF) to enhance existing service offerings across the housing and homelessness continuum, including delivery of additional brokerage, emergency accommodation, and outreach services to ensure vulnerable Queenslanders had enhanced access to homelessness and housing responses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • The Emergency Housing Assistance Response was initiated providing short-term accommodation to individuals and families requiring an immediate accommodation solution
    • A rapid response domestic and family violence COVID-19 initiative that to move women and their children in inappropriate accommodation in Brisbane to safer short-term accommodation with coordinated specialist supports and services, including safety planning.
    • Relocated up to 300 vulnerable Queenslanders who were residing in homelessness shelters or rough sleeping in inner Brisbane into safe, secure, self-contained accommodation to reduce the chances of COVID-19 infection or spread.

    It is anticipated that an overall increase in the number of clients seeking and provided support as a result of COVID-19 will be reflected through the SHSC.

  • In Western Australia, during the COVID-19 period, the Department of Communities, in line with the Department of Finance (Western Australia) instructions, reduced non-essential contract compliance requirements for services to assist organisations responding to the changing COVID-19 environment. These reductions in reporting requirements are not considered likely to have impacted on the Specialist Homelessness Services Collection. In WA, relief fund grants have been available through Lotterywest and other one-off initiatives have taken place which fall outside the scope of the SHSC but may influence the numbers reported. The WA Recovery Plan inthistogether  outlines other current and upcoming initiatives which may provide further contextual information.

  • In South Australia, the COVID-19 Emergency Accommodation Rough Sleeper (CEARS) Response to accommodate people sleeping rough in the inner city in hotels and motels has been implemented. SHS agencies are assisting these people to transition from rough sleeping into safe and affordable accommodation in collaboration with the Public and Community Housing sectors. People in greater metropolitan and regional/country areas are being supported by SHS agencies and referred to an expanded emergency accommodation response.

  • In Tasmania, the Government introduced a Housing and Homelessness Support Package to assist people in housing stress and at risk of homelessness in response to COVID-19. This included uncapped brokerage funding to assist people to access emergency accommodation if required. Additionally, funding for Safe Spaces was introduced to deliver 24/7 models of care in three regions to assist people who are homeless to access day and night services. Complementing the Safe Spaces program has been the introduction of new clinical mental health services and telephone health screening for homeless Tasmanians during the COVID-19 emergency period. This has enhanced the availability of services to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, with the aim of improving long term housing outcomes.

  • In the ACT, funding for the following has been provided:
    • Accommodation support for emergency and long term accommodation for clients dealing with physical distancing in shelters, self-isolation or quarantine.
    • Support services to clients in short- to medium- term accommodation to promote stability.
    • An increase in demand for family and domestic violence and sexual assault services
    • Brokered accommodation in motels and hotels, via the central intake system for those who cannot be accommodated through SHS
    • New accommodation programs including temporary shelters for rough sleepers, men and women with children. Additionally, the ACT’s Housing First program has been expanded to provide assistance to more rough sleepers.
  • In the NT, the Government implemented a Return to Country program in collaboration with a range of non-government organisations to facilitate Aboriginal people returning to their home communities from urban regional centres. The Australian Government also imposed biosecurity zones between March 26 and June 5 around remote communities in the NT. Visitors were required to quarantine for 14 days prior to entering these zones. Together, these policies restricted the movement of people between remote communities and the urban regional centres where SHS agencies are based. This would have resulted in a reduction in the number of prospective clients for SHS agencies. In addition, accommodation options were reduced to manage physical distancing measures and public health requirements around shared rooms, particularly for non-connected family members, and shared bathrooms.