Ghost-hunting: will the census reveal the true scale of homelessness in Australia?

Ghost-hunting: will the census reveal the true scale of homelessness in Australia?
Ghost-hunting: will the census reveal the true scale of homelessness in Australia?

The Conversation


On August 9, most of the Australian population will complete the 2016 Census of Population and Housing. Census night comes less than a week after national Homelessness Week, which aims to raise awareness of the plight of homeless people. With that in mind, the week’s theme this year is “Homelessness Counts”.

While homelessness does count in that most people share concern about its rising incidence and societal impact, a perplexing issue is how to count the people who are homeless. It is essential that the information collected accurately reflects the true extent of homelessness in Australia. Reliable data about the homeless population is vital when developing policy, allocating funding and developing services for vulnerable people.

At the previous 2011 Census, 105,000 people were homeless. That was an increase of 17 percent from the 2006 Census. Anecdotal evidence suggests the number of homeless people – in particular the very old and the very young – is still increasing.

ShelterWA notes the majority of people become homeless due to financial and emotional reasons. The biggest cause of homelessness is family and domestic violence (25 percent), followed by financial difficulties (16 percent). Mental illness and addiction issues can play a role.

Most people experiencing homelessness have lived “normal” lives. They become homeless after a life crisis such as a job loss, illness or marital breakdown.

When is a person defined as homeless?

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), when a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives they are considered homeless if their living arrangement:

  • is in a dwelling that is inadequate; or

  • has no tenure, or their initial tenure is short and not extendable; or

  • does not allow them to have control of and access to space for social relations.

This definition is much broader than commonly held perceptions of homelessness. While obviously the term covers the archetypal person “sleeping rough”, homelessness refers to a variety of precarious housing circumstances. This includes:

  • people living in hostels and refuges;

  • people without a usual address – for example, “couch surfing” or staying with friends; and

  • those living in a single room without a kitchen or bathroom of its own.

How do we ensure homeless people are counted?

Even armed with the ABS definition, the next issue for the census is how to identify and locate people experiencing homelessness.

Identification is an issue for several reasons. These include:

  • it is not obvious that people who are couch-surfing are not living permanently on the premises;

  • people may not self-identify or feel comfortable about elaborating on their circumstances;

  • as they have a roof over their heads, such as in a hostel, people may not realise they are regarded as homeless.

Locating people is another issue. This is especially challenging in the case of those sleeping rough.

Furthermore, homelessness is an issue in rural and regional areas as well as in cities. Resources are limited and, as 2016 Census data director Sue Taylor has noted: "we have to know they are there to be able to go and count them."

So what is being done about this?

Efforts are already being made to obtain quantitative data on homelessness, particularly in the major capital cities.

Unlike the census, which occurs every five years, Registry Week takes place annually and uses the methodology developed by Common Ground in the US. Using a specific survey tool called the Vulnerability Index, trained volunteers work in teams to conduct early morning surveys of people who are sleeping rough.

The methodology promotes a targeted approach with a view to moving the vulnerable homeless people into long-term housing. The strategy is effective in raising awareness of homelessness issues and informing agencies of trends.

It is, however, difficult to target everybody. For a start, some people simply do not want to be found or participate. Although this approach provides valuable information about city areas, there are not enough volunteers in rural and regional areas to assess the issue adequately.

The ABS will adopt a similar approach to the census by employing field officers to seek out homeless people. They will take direction from homelessness service providers.

These providers will help to identify likely locations occupied by people experiencing homelessness and to locate boarding houses, refuges and hostels. Obviously, the field officers have received training or are already experienced in dealing with vulnerable people.

The census form includes a question: “Where does the person usually live?” People who have no usual address are encouraged to enter “None” for the suburb part of the question, regardless of where they are staying on census night, even if they are couch-surfing or staying in other temporary accommodation.

Those using supported accommodation vouchers or brokerage services to stay in caravan parks and motels should record “None – crisis” on the census form.

On the verge of homelessness

On a related note, the census is expected to glean information about people experiencing housing stress.

On Monday, Homelessness Australia chair Jenny Smith noted that one in ten Australian households are in housing stress and at risk of homelessness. That is 850,000 people on the lowest 40% of incomes. This inescapable link must be factored into any analysis of the homelessness statistics.

Although the ABS is trying to identify as many people experiencing homelessness as possible, the figures are likely to underestimate the true extent of the issue. Unfortunately, a gap will remain between what providers know is happening “on the ground” and the statistics garnered through the census and channelled through to government.

Until a more expansive approach can be developed – and adequate resources provided for analysis of the results – the census’ pursuit of the homeless demographic will be akin to ghost-hunting.

Eileen Webb is associate professor, Curtin Law School, Curtin University and author for The Conversation. She can be contacted here.

Homeless Census

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