On Census night in 2016, around 8,200 Australians were sleeping rough (ABS 2018)—living on the streets, sleeping in parks, squatting, staying in cars or living in improvised dwellings. Despite accounting for only around 1 in 14  Australians who are homeless, rough sleepers are the most   visible of those experiencing homelessness and are recognised as some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in society (Phillips and Parsell 2012).  This report presents, for the first time, a comprehensive analysis of Australia’s rough sleepers, over a 4 year period, using the Specialist Homelessness Services Collection (SHSC).

Rough sleepers are more likely to be male, aged 35 or over, unemployed, living alone and have mental health and/or drug or alcohol issues

As a group, the nearly 13,700 rough sleepers showed different demographic characteristics from all other adult clients (143,000) who sought the assistance of specialist homelessness services (SHS) upon their first presentation to services in 2011–12:

  • 66% were male, compared with 36% of other adult SHS clients
  • 54% were aged 35 or compared with 45% of other adult SHS clients
  • 68% were living alone, compared with 34% of other adult SHS clients
  • 47% had a mental health issue (34% of other adult SHS clients) and 34% reported a drug and/or alcohol issue of other adult SHSclients).

Analysis of the service use patterns of rough sleepers presenting to SHS in 2011–12 revealed 3 cohorts of rough sleepers

Persistent service users: accessed services every financial year from 2011–12 to 2014–15 and account for 13% of all rough sleepers.

Service cyclers accessed services in 2 or 3 years of the 4-year period and account for 42% of all rough sleepers.

Transitory service users accessed services in 2011–12 only and account for 44% of all rough sleepers.

Service use increases with increasingly complex needs

While rough sleepers have a similar demographic profile, they showed increasing service use according  to their needs or ‘vulnerability conditions’—in this analysis, based on whether someone had ever reported: a mental health issue, experienced problematic drug and/or alcohol use, and/or experienced domestic or family violence.

Persistent service users (1,800 people) had the most complex needs. Eight in 10 reported a mental health issue, while two-thirds reported at least 2 of the 3 vulnerability conditions.

Service cyclers (5,800 people): more than half reported a mental health issue, while 2 in 5 reported   at least 2 of the 3 vulnerability conditions.

Transitory service users (6,100 people) were the least likely to report experiencing mental health issues, domestic or family violence and/or problematic drug and/or alcohol use. Fewer than 1 in 5 reported at least 2 out of 3 vulnerability conditions.

Rough sleepers most frequently seek accommodation and financial services

Accommodation and financial services were most commonly sought by all 3 groups of rough sleepers. Younger clients aged 15–24 were more likely to seek these services than clients aged 50 and over.

Rough sleepers also sought assistance with interpersonal relationships—particularly domestic and family violence, and sexual abuse. Across all 3 groups of rough sleepers, females were around 5 times as likely as males to seek assistance with domestic and family violence and sexual abuse.

Short-term or emergency accommodation most commonly provided to rough sleepers

Rough sleepers were much more likely to receive short-term or emergency accommodation (ranging from 65% of transitory service users to 86% of persistent service users), over medium-term or transitional housing (20%–41% across the 3 groups) and only a small proportion received a long-term housing solution (6%–14%).

Accordingly, a lack of long-term housing solutions—that is, neither receiving nor being referred to another agency for a long-term housing solution—was identified as the largest gap in service provision.

Persistent service users most likely to engage with services

Consistent with persistent service users accessing support in all 4 years examined, they were also more likely to have more frequent contact with services (a greater number of support periods per person) than all rough sleepers. Almost half of this group had 10 or more support periods, while fewer than 1 in 10 service cyclers had the same level of engagement. As transitory service users accessed support only in 2011–12 this group had far less engagement—three-quarters (76%) had only 1 support period.

Persistent service users were also more likely to receive more nights of accommodation, compared with both service cyclers and transitory service users.

Many rough sleepers experience repeat episodes of homelessness

Despite receiving support from SHS agencies, many rough sleepers experienced repeat episodes of homelessness, and remained homeless at the end of the 4-year period. More than 6 in 10 persistent service users had repeat periods of homelessness during the 4 years (that is, transitioned from  homeless to housed and then to homeless again) and around 5 in 10 remained homeless at the end of the study, even after accessing services in each of the 4 years being reported. Around one-quarter of service cyclers also experienced repeat episodes of homelessness and 4 in 10 were homeless at the   end of the period. While transitory service users accessed services only in 2011–12, more than 6 in 10 were homeless after their support. For up to 1 in 5 rough sleepers who accessed support over the 4 years, their housing outcome was unknown at the end of the reporting period.

Linking data sets could provide more comprehensive information

This analysis reports only on clients accessing services from SHS agencies, and not all homeless or   rough sleepers. It also reports only on findings to 30 June 2015. Linking this data to other sources—for example, information on rent assistance, income support, or social housing—would provide more comprehensive information on a client’s circumstances, journey and outcomes, to better inform service responses.