Specialist homelessness services

The Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) Collection describes clients who receive services from specialist homelessness agencies, and the assistance they receive, including clients with a current mental health issue.

This section presents information provided by SHS agencies on clients with a current mental health issue who received services in 2019–20.

Data downloads:

Specialist Homelessness Services 2019–20 tables (286KB XLS)

Specialist Homelessness Services 2019–20 section (771KB)

Data source information and key concepts related to this section

Data coverage includes the time period 2011–12 to 2019–20. This section was last updated in July 2021.

Key points

  • 88,338 (about 1 in 3) of the 241,966 SHS clients aged 10 years and over in 2019–20 had a current mental health issue.
  • The national rate of SHS clients with a current mental health issue has increased each year from 2011–12 to 2019–20.
  • The rate of clients with a mental health issue was 7 times as high for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People than non-Indigenous Australians.
  • The top reasons clients with a mental health issue sought SHS support were housing crises/inadequacy, family/domestic violence, and financial difficulties.
  • 62.2% of clients with a current mental health issue received support for longer than 45 days. 

Clients with a current mental health issue

Around 241,966 people aged 10 years and older were assisted by specialist homelessness agencies nationally in 2019–20 (AIHW 2020). Of these, 1 in 3 (88,338 or 36.5%) were clients with a current mental health issue.

In 2019–20, there were 395.6 SHS clients per 100,000 population nationally with a current mental health issue (Figure SHS.1). Tasmania had the highest rate of clients (688.5) with a current mental health issue, followed by Victoria (603.4) and the Northern Territory (512.4).

Figure SHS.1: SHS clients with a mental health issue,  states and territories, 2019-20.

Vertical bar graph showing SHS clients with a current mental health issue per 100,000 population for each state/territory and nationally in 2019–20. Rates: NSW 356.5; Vic 603.4; Qld 261.0; WA 267.3; SA 383.3; Tas 688.5; ACT 470.3; NT 512.4; National total 395.6. Refer to Table SHS.1.

Visualisation not available for printing

Source data: Specialist homelessness services 2019–20 tables (286KB XLS)

The national rate of SHS clients with a current mental health issue has been increasing since the beginning of the collection in 2011–12. These clients represent one of the fastest growing sub-groups within the SHS collection. This could indicate an increase in the number of SHS clients that have a current mental health issue, or an increase in the reporting of mental illness among SHS clients due to potential factors such as increased identification, community awareness and reduced stigma. Some of the increase may also be due to changes in service delivery models by some states and territories. Nationally, the population rate of clients with a current mental health issue increased between 2015–16 and 2019–20 (Figure SHS.2) at an annual average rate of 3.4%. The national population rate of all SHS clients decreased slightly over the same period at an annual average of 0.6% (AIHW 2020). The average annual change in the rate of clients with a current mental health issue has varied between jurisdictions since 2015–16, ranging from –2.3% in the Australian Capital Territory to 5.5% in South Australia.

Figure SHS.2: SHS clients with a mental health issue, states and territories, 2015-16 to 2019-20.

Line graph showing SHS clients with a current mental health issue per 100,000 population from 2015–16 to 2019–20 for each state/territory and nationally. The rates show an overall increase over time, with the exception of the ACT. Rates: NSW: 2015–16, 332.6; 2016–17, 356.4; 2017–18, 348.2; 2018–19, 359.9; 2019–20, 356.5. Vic: 2015–16, 509.0; 2016–17, 539.2; 2017–18, 573.8; 2018–19, 603.0; 2019–20, 603.4. Qld: 2015–16, 238.8; 2016–17, 235.9; 2017–18, 251.0; 2018–19, 261.8; 2019–20, 261.0. WA: 2015–16, 228.1; 2016–17, 244.0; 2017–18, 247.7; 2018–19, 266.5; 2019–20, 267.3. SA: 2015–16, 309.2; 2016–17, 335.1; 2017–18, 347.1; 2018–19, 373.6; 2019–20, 383.3. Tas: 2015–16, 608.9; 2016–17, 629.5; 2017–18, 630.0; 2018–19, 671.8; 2019–20, 688.5. ACT: 2015–16, 516.3; 2016–17, 467.8; 2017–18, 440.5; 2018–19, 415.2; 2019–20, 470.3. NT: 2015–16, 496.5; 2016–17, 520.1; 2017–18, 538.4; 2018–19, 499.4; 2019–20, 512.4. National total: 2015–16, 345.5, 2016–17, 364.0; 2017–18, 375.0; 2018–19, 393.3; 2019–20, 395.6. Refer to Table SHS.1.

Visualisation not available for printing

Source data: Specialist homelessness services 2019–20 tables (286KB XLS)

Client characteristics

In 2019–20, the number of SHS clients with a current mental health issue was highest for 35–44 year olds, followed by 25–34 year olds. The number of SHS clients without a current mental health issue was highest for 25–34 year olds in 2019–20, followed by 35–44 year olds. The age group with the lowest number of SHS clients either with or without a current mental health issue was 65 years and over (Figure SHS.3).

Figure SHS.3: SHS clients with and without a current mental health issue, by age group, 2019-20.

Horizontal bar chart showing number of SHS clients with and without a current mental health issue in 2019–20. Number of clients with a current mental health issue: 10–14, 3,781; 15–17, 6,534; 18–24, 17,232; 25–34, 19,513; 35–44, 19,900; 45–54, 14,129; 55–64, 5,454; 65+, 1,795. Number of clients without a current mental health issue: 10–14, 15,650; 15–17, 10,582; 18–24, 23,896; 25–34, 34,056; 35–44, 31,139; 45–54, 21,133; 55–64, 10,372; 65+, 6,800. Refer to Table SHS.2.

Visualisation not available for printing

Source data: Specialist homelessness services 2019–20 tables (286KB XLS)

In 2019–20, the rate of SHS clients with a current mental health issue was higher for females (418.9 per 100,000 population) than for males (272.1). This difference reflects the higher proportion of female SHS clients (62.2%) than male clients (37.8%) overall rather than indicating that female SHS clients are more likely to have a mental health issue than male SHS clients (35.8% and 37.6% respectively had a current mental health issue).

The rate of SHS clients with a current mental health issue was 7 times higher for Indigenous Australian clients than non-Indigenous Australian clients in 2019–20 (2,028.5 and 276.6 per 100,000 population respectively). The rate of SHS clients without a current mental health issue was 11 times higher for Indigenous Australian clients than non-Indigenous Australian clients (4,601.6 and 401.1 per 100,000 population respectively).

In 2019–20, almost half (49.3%) of SHS clients with a current mental health issue reported an episode of homelessness in the 12 months before presenting to an agency, compared with about a third (32.9%) of clients without a current mental health issue. It should be noted that many SHS clients are at risk of homelessness rather than currently experiencing homelessness when they start receiving support from an SHS agency. Half (51%) of all SHS clients with a current mental health issue were at risk of homelessness at the start of SHS support in 2019–20 (AIHW 2020).

Sources of referral and reasons for seeking assistance

For clients with a current mental health issue, the most frequently recorded source of referral to an SHS agency was a Specialist homelessness agency/outreach worker (27.2%), followed by Other agency (government or non-government) (19.3%) and Mental health service (7.3%).

In 2019–20, 20.0% of SHS clients with a current mental health issue reported Family and domestic violence as the main reason for seeking assistance (20%), followed by Housing crises (19.8%), Inadequate or inappropriate dwelling conditions (13.1%) and Financial difficulties (9.4%) (Figure SHS.4). Clients without a current mental health issue reported the same top 4 reasons, with Family and domestic violence as the main reason (28.9%), followed by Housing crises (16.7%), Financial difficulties (13.7%) and Inadequate or inappropriate dwelling conditions (10.4%). About 1 in 24 (4.1%) SHS clients with a current mental health issue had mental health issues recorded as their main reason for seeking assistance.

Figure SHS.4: SHS client with and without a current mental health issue, by the 10 most frequently reported main reasons for seeking assistance, 2019-20.

Horizontal bar chart showing per cent of SHS clients with and without a current mental health issue by main reason for seeking assistance 2019–20. Clients with a current mental health issue: Family and domestic violence, 20.0; Housing crises, 19.8; Inadequate or inappropriate dwelling conditions, 13.1; Financial difficulties, 9.4; Housing affordability stress, 6.6; Relationship/family breakdown, 6.5; Previous accommodation ended, 4.9; Mental health issues, 4.1; Transition from custodial arrangements, 3.2. Clients without a current mental health issue: Family and domestic violence, 28.9; Housing crises, 16.7; Inadequate or inappropriate dwelling conditions, 10.4; Financial difficulties, 13.7; Housing affordability stress, 6.7; Relationship/family breakdown, 3.6; Previous accommodation ended, 3.9; Mental health issues, n.a; Transition from custodial arrangements, 2.2. Refer to Table SHS.5.

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Source data: Specialist homelessness services 2019–20 tables (286KB XLS)

SHS clients can nominate other reasons for seeking assistance alongside their main reason for seeking assistance. When all presenting reasons for seeking assistance are considered, Financial difficulties (55.4%), Mental health issues (55.3%) and Housing crises (46.4%) were the most frequently reported reasons for clients with a current mental health issue. For clients without a current mental health issue, Financial difficulties (39.1%), Family and domestic violence (36.2%), and Housing crises (30.1%) were the most frequently reported reasons.

Services accessed by clients with a current mental health issue

Service types

Following presentation to an SHS agency, clients may receive Accommodation services, Other support services (excluding accommodation services), a combination of both, or no services or referral provided.

Nationally, nearly 43,000 clients with a current mental health issue accessed accommodation services in 2019–20. Of all SHS clients who accessed accommodation services in each state and territory, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory had a larger number of SHS clients with a current mental health issue than SHS clients without, while Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory had a larger number of SHS clients without a current mental health issue than SHS clients with a current mental health issue (Figure SHS.5).

Figure SHS.5: SHS clients with and without a current mental health issue, accomodation service use, states and territories, 2019-20. 

Vertical bar chart showing number of SHS clients with and without a current mental health issue by state/territory who received accommodation services in 2019–20. Number of clients with a current mental health issue: NSW 11,130; Vic 16,348; Qld 6,338; WA 3,853; SA 2,891; Tas 2,440; ACT 961; NT 8,788. Number of clients without a current mental health issue: NSW 8,788; Vic 13,907; Qld 8,866; WA 7,626; SA 4,262; Tas 1,706; ACT 684; NT 2,812. Refer to Table SHS.7.

Visualisation not available for printing

Source data: Specialist homelessness services 2019–20 tables (286KB XLS)

Service provision

Episodes of assistance provided by SHS agencies are referred to as support periods and clients may have one or more during a reporting period, either at the same agency at different times or with different agencies. Different service provision models between states and territories can result in differing support period profiles. For example, some states and territories have central intake models  which causes their support period profile to differ from other jurisdictions.

In 2019–20, nationally there were 939.4 support periods per 100,000 population for SHS clients with a current mental health issue. Victoria had the highest rate of support periods (1,931.1 per 100,000 population), followed by Tasmania (1,590.6) and the Northern Territory (912.0).

Nationally, the rate of support periods (per 100,000 population) increased between 2015–16 and 2019–20 at an annual average rate of 3.8%. The amount of change varied between jurisdictions, ranging from an annual average decrease of 4.0% in the Australian Capital Territory to an increase of 5.8% in Victoria.

Services and assistance and length of support

Of the around 88,300 SHS clients with a current mental health issue in 2019–20, almost all received a service or referral (around 86,300 or 97.7%). The most common service or assistance provided was Advice/information (89.8%), followed by Other basic assistance (76.6%), Advocacy/liaison on behalf of client (69.6%) and Material aid/brokerage (43.7%).

In 2019–20, clients with a current mental health issue received longer periods of support (that is, continuous support or multiple support periods throughout the financial year) than clients without a current mental health issue overall—about 3 in 5 (62.2%) received support for longer than 45 days, including a quarter (25.3%) who received support for longer than 180 days (6 months) (Figure SHS.6). By contrast, almost 3 in 5 (59.6%) clients without a current mental health issue received support for 45 days or shorter, and 11.6% received support for longer than 180 days. These figures represent the total length of support provided to a SHS client during 2019–20.

Figure SHS.7: SHS clients with and without a current mental health issue, by total length of support provided, 2019-20. 

Horizontal bar chart showing the per cent of SHS clients with and without a current mental health issue by the length of support provided in 2019–20. Clients with a current mental health issue: up to 5 days, 12.4; 6–45 days, 25.4; 46–90 days, 17.3; 91–180 days, 19.6; over 180 days, 25.3. Clients without a current mental health issue: up to 5 days, 28.1; 6–45 days, 31.5; 46–90 days, 15.6; 91–180 days, 13.2; over 180 days, 11.6. Refer to Table SHS.10.

Visualisation not available for printing

Source data: Specialist homelessness services 2019–20 tables (286KB XLS)

Client additional vulnerabilities

In 2019–20, over half (55%) of the 88,300 SHS clients who had a current mental health issue were experiencing additional vulnerabilities. Just over 4 in 10 (41%) clients also experienced family and domestic violence, about one quarter (24%) reported problematic drug and/or alcohol use and 10% experienced both of those vulnerabilities, in addition to a current mental health issue (AIHW 2020).

Outcomes at the end of support

The proportion of clients with a current mental health issue known to be experiencing homelessness decreased from about half (49%) to 37% at the end of SHS support. Fewer clients were ‘rough sleeping’ (13% to 8%) and ‘couch surfing’ (18% to 13%). The majority (over 8 in 10) of clients who were at risk of homelessness at the start of support were assisted to maintain housing. The number of clients living in public or community housing (renter or rent free) increased from 11% to 18% from the start to the end of SHS support (AIHW 2020).