Part one: How many Australians have been homeless?

Homelessness in Australia is measured at the Census, by counting everyone who can be found at that point in time. New research by Chris Chamberlain and Guy Johnson, Centre for Applied Social Research, RMIT University, looks how many people have experienced homelessness in their lifetime.  Today’s post is part one of an edited extract of their presentation at last week’s Australian Social Policy Conference. It covers how may people have been homeless in Australia. Part two tomorrow looks at  the issue of rough sleeping. 

This paper investigates two issues: how many Australians have experienced homelessness during their lifetime and how many people have slept rough. The two most commonly used sources of quantitative information about the homeless population are the Specialist Homeless Services (SHS) data collected by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), and the quinquennial Census of Population and Housing undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Both datasets provide important information on the characteristics of the homeless population. However, both datasets have limitations when it comes to examining the research questions that we are interested in.

The SHS database collects information on all persons who request assistance from homelessness services over a 12 month period. This is an important database and it provides valuable information for policy makers and service providers. However, many homeless people do not use these agencies. One study found that only 40 per cent of homeless people had sought assistance from services while they were homeless (ABS 2011, p.27).

The census counts those who seek assistance from services as well as those who do not, but census data has other limitations. One problem concerns the ability of census collectors to identify individuals who sleep rough. Census collectors are unlikely to find all of them because the census is held in winter when rough sleepers hide away to escape the cold, as well as for their own safety and security.

The second problem is that the census counts homeless people on a particular night. These counts are also referred to as ‘point-in-time’ counts or ‘point prevalence’ counts. Phelan and Link (1999) argue that point-prevalence counts do not provide an accurate picture of the homeless population. This is because those who have a long-term problem are more likely to be counted on census night than those who have a short-term problem.

In seminal research carried out in 1990, Link et al. (1994, 1995) attempted to draw a sample of the homeless in the United States that adequately represented both the short-term and the long-term homeless. They undertook a national telephone survey (N=1507) of people who were housed and asked them if they had ever been homeless, and our research builds upon their methodological insights. The findings of Link and his colleagues (1994, 1995) were startling. They found that 14 per cent of Americans, or 26 million people, had been homeless at some point during their lives, and that 7.4 per cent of them, or 13.5 million people, had slept rough (literal homelessness). Estimates of the lifetime prevalence of homelessness have also been undertaken in Belgium (9.6 per cent), Germany (5.6 per cent), Italy (10.5 per cent) and the United Kingdom (13.9 per cent) (Toro et al. 2007).

The first Australian research into lifetime homelessness was undertaken by the ABS in 2010, as part of their General Social Survey (GSS). The GSS collected information from a random sample of 15,028 households living in ‘private dwellings’. Private dwellings include houses, flats, home units and any other structure used as a private residence (ABS 2011, p.31). The GSS does not include people who are currently homeless.

Using the cultural definition of homelessess, the GSS found that 13 per cent of adults aged 18 or older had been homeless during their lifetime, and it estimated that 2.1 million Australians had experienced a period of homelessness (ABS 2011, p.27).

In this research we focus on the number of people who have experienced homelessness, their duration of homelessness, and the different experiences of men and women. After that, we estimate how many people have slept rough.

The data were gathered as part of the inaugural National Social Survey (NSS) undertaken in 2014 by the Population Research Laboratory at the University of Central Queensland through a telephone survey. The survey asked about a range of topical issues, including questions on homelessness. The response rate for the NSS was 29 per cent and the sample size was 1,349 and responses were weighted to reflect the population.

This survey found that 13.1 per cent of our respondents had been homeless (Table 3, 95% CI = 11.3%, 14.9%)[i]. This confirms that homelessness is much more common than previously thought.

We found that 15.1 per cent of men had been homeless compared with 11.1 per cent of women (Table 3). The Australian population (aged 18 and over) was 18.2 million in 2014 (9.0 million men and 9.2 million women). This means that approximately 1.35 million men and 1.0 million women (or 2.35 million people) had been homeless at some point during their lives.

We also asked, ‘How many times have you been homeless across your lifetime?’ This is information is important as the prevailing view is that for most people homelessness ‘is an isolated event – it happens once and for a short time’ (Australian Government 2008, p.xi; Busch-Geertsema et al. 2010). Our findings cast some doubt on this judgment. Table 4 shows that half (53 per cent) of our respondents had a once-off experience, but a quarter (25 per cent) had been homeless twice and one-fifth (22 per cent) had been homeless three or more times. Furthermore, when we examined gender, once again there were differences. Table 4 shows that 70 per cent of women had experienced one period of homelessness, 14 per cent had been homeless twice, and 16 per cent had been homeless three or more times. In contrast 41 per cent of men had been homeless once, 34 per cent had been homeless twice and 25 per cent had been homeless three or more times.

The General Social Survey asked people how long they had been homeless for during their most recent period of homelessness during the last 10 years. Table 5 shows that 31 per cent had a short-term problem, 47 per cent had a medium-term problem and 22 per cent had a long-term problem. However, this does not tell us how long people have been homeless for during their lifetime. Table 5 shows that 38 per cent of our respondents had a long-term problem with homelessness during their lifetime (about 890,000 people); 34 per cent had a short-term problem (about 800,000 people) and 28 per cent had a medium-term problem (about 660,000 people).

Table 5 also shows gender differences: 45 per cent of women had a short-term problem with homelessness compared with 25 per cent of men; in contrast, 32 per cent of men had a medium-term problem compared with 23 per cent of women; and 43 per cent of men had a long-term problem compared with 32 per cent of women.

[i] Two-fifths (41 per cent) of our respondents had been homeless within the preceding four years, 15 per cent had been homeless between five and nine years ago and 44 per cent had last been homeless 10 or more years ago.

Posted by Sarah Toohey