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QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
WHAT IS THE ABS' DEFINITION OF HOMELESSNESS?
The ABS has developed a statistical definition of homelessness. Details of the definition is in Information Paper – A Statistical Definition of Homelessness (cat. no. 4922.0).
In brief, the ABS statistical definition is that:
When a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives they are considered homeless if their current living arrangement:
The ABS definition of homelessness is informed by an understanding of homelessness as 'home'lessness, not rooflessness. It emphasises the core elements of 'home' in Anglo American and European interpretations of the meaning of home as identified in research evidence (Mallett, 2004). These elements may include: a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety, and the ability to control living space. Homelessness is therefore a lack of one or more of the elements that represent 'home'.
The definition has been constructed from a conceptual framework centred around the following elements:
The ABS definition of homelessness will be used to produce statistics on homelessness from a range of ABS collections. This includes prevalence estimates of homelessness from the five-yearly Census of Population and Housing, and from household surveys such as the General Social Survey, Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers, Personal Safety Survey, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, and other surveys, as appropriate.
This definition can also be used by other organisations to collect and output their statistics in line with the ABS definition and ABS statistical outputs.
More information on the development of an ABS definition can be found in Factsheet: Homelessness - in concept and in some measurement contexts.
HOW DOES THE DEFINITION OF HOMELESSNESS RELATE TO THE METHODOLOGY FOR ESTIMATING HOMELESSNESS FROM THE CENSUS?
Comparable quality statistics over time and across data sources, require a clear conceptual framework and definition that underpins operationalisation of that definition in multiple collections, including fine tuning those datasets for that purpose.
The methodology for use in the Census can only partially operationalise the definition because although the Census is designed for many purposes, it is limited in the nature of the questions it can ask that will reflect on homelessness. While the information derivable from the Census for homelessness measurement will improve over time, nevertheless some proxies will always need to be developed for some elements of the definition for some of the different homeless operational groups that can be output from the Census. Details on how each of the homeless groups relate to the definition can be found in Appendix 1: Census of Population and Housing: Estimating Homelessness, 2011 (cat. no. 2049.0).
WHAT OTHER DATA CAN I USE TO HELP ME TO UNDERSTAND HOMELESSNESS?
The ABS will publish an Information Paper: Guide to Homelessness Statistics (cat. no. 4923.0) to assist users with analysing the multiple data sources available to obtain a more complete picture of homelessness. The guide will outline which parts of the homeless definition ABS collections can, or cannot capture.
In addition to prevalence estimates of homelessness from the five-yearly Census of Population and Housing, the ABS has collected previous experiences of homelessness from the 2010 General Social Survey (GSS), published in September 2011. In March 2012, the ABS released an article titled Life after homelessness in the publication Australian Social Trends (cat. no. 4102.0) drawing on those GSS results. The article examines a range of socio-economic indicators of those who had experienced at least one episode of homelessness in the 10 years prior to the survey, but were no longer homeless.
An improved homelessness module has also been included in the 2012 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers. The ABS expects to also include this module, further developed, in the 2014 General Social Survey. The ABS will consider developing a culturally appropriate module for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey. The ABS will also be collecting experiences of homelessness for people who leave a violent partner through the Personal Safety Survey.
The ABS will also investigate using the 5% Statistical Longitudinal Census Dataset (SLCD) to undertake longitudinal analysis of the circumstances of those who have been identified as likely to be homeless. The circumstances of people identified as likely to be homeless on the 2011 SLCD can then be compared with their circumstances in 2006, and into the future it should be possible to report on repeat periods of homelessness and long term outcomes as seen in the SLCD. It will also be possible to compare these results, for those likely to be homeless, with the rest of the population.
There are also non-ABS sources of information about homelessness, such as the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) Specialist Homeless Services collection, and the FaHCSIA funded Melbourne Institute Study: Journeys Home: Longitudinal Study of Factors Affecting Housing Stability.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ENUMERATION AND ESTIMATION AND HOW DO THESE EFFECT ESTIMATING HOMELESSNESS FROM THE CENSUS?
In summary, the main limitations with using Census data to estimate homelessness can be summarised as:
Observing homeless people in any data collection is a challenge, and their homeless circumstance may mean that these people are not captured at all in datasets used to count people generally. And not all homeless people will be enumerated in data sets of those homeless people accessing particular services for the homeless. The 2010 ABS General Social Survey 2010 found that of those who had had an experience of homelessness in the last ten years and who were no longer homeless at the time of interview, only 40% had sought assistance of formal services. While data on people who access services are very important data sources for understanding people who access services, they cannot provide an estimate of the total number of homeless people at one point in time. Only the Census offers the opportunity to estimate for most people who were likely to have been homeless at one point in time.
However, there is an inherent imprecision in estimating homelessness using the Census of Population and Housing because the Census is not designed to classify people according to whether or not they were homeless on Census night. Variables collected in the Census that were designed for other purposes must be interpreted as proxies for likely homelessness. The ABS methodology includes in its homelessness estimates groups of people who, on balance, were most likely to have been homeless on Census night.
While it may be tempting to overestimate homelessness in some groups to compensate for both under-enumeration and likely under-estimation for some other groups, such an approach would result in estimates of characteristics that did not reflect those of the homeless population, including but not limited to their geographic spread. This may result in the misdirection of policy, funds and services. And while a balance between unavoidable under-estimation and deliberate over-estimation may result, this is unlikely. It is also very likely to be very different with each Census, destroying the capacity to monitor change over time. Recognising which groups of homeless people are underestimated in the Census, and using supplementary data sources to understand these groups, will both better address the needs of homeless people, and allow for assessments of change over time in the level of homelessness.
ABS recognises that some groups of people are more likely to be under enumerated in the Census. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to be both under enumerated and over-represented in the homeless population. ABS has developed strategies for each Census aimed at maximising the enumeration of Indigenous persons.
So called rough sleepers and people staying in supported accommodation for the homeless are also at risk of being under enumerated in the Census. The ABS develops a homeless enumeration strategy for each Census, and works with homeless service providers to maximise the enumeration of these groups on Census night.
The ABS Post Enumeration Survey (PES) is used to estimate for the under enumeration of the Australian population in the Census. However it only covers people in private dwellings at the time of the PES, and therefore will not capture homeless people living in non-private dwellings but who were missed on Census night.
WHICH GROUPS ARE MOST LIKELY TO BE UNDERESTIMATED IN THE ESTIMATES OF HOMELESSNESS FROM THE CENSUS?
For some key groups, Census variables produce limited opportunity to estimate those likely to be homeless. The key population groups are homeless youth, homeless Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and people fleeing domestic and/or family violence.
To find out more information about these groups, see the following fact sheets:
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