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ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER PEOPLES PERSPECTIVES ON HOMELESSNESS
If a person lacks any of these elements of 'home' and does not have access to suitable alternative accommodation they are considered homeless for statistical purposes.
Many of the perspectives on homelessness presented during the engagement process aligned with the ABS' statistical definition of homelessness. There was little disagreement that a person who lacked an adequate house with secure tenure and with lack of control of, and access to space was homeless if they had no suitable accommodation alternatives. However, some different views were presented on how each of these elements within the statistical definition could be interpreted from the perspective of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The following sections describe each of the elements that make up the ABS statistical definition of homelessness and how feedback from the engagement aligns with each concept. An important finding from the engagement is that there were a variety of views on this topic amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. For example, different perspectives were sometimes evident for people from regional Australia when compared against more urban perspectives, and there were also some subtle differences reported across different communities.
The elements of the statistical definition of homelessness are applied in the context of an overarching consideration of accommodation alternatives. While homelessness is not a choice, some people may choose to live in situations that parallel the living situations of people who are homeless, for example living in a shed while building a home on their own property, or on holiday travelling and staying with friends. These people have a choice because they have the capacity to access other accommodation alternatives that are adequate, secure and provide for social relations. A person's exercise of choice in accessing accommodation alternatives is contingent on them having each of the financial, physical, psychological and personal means necessary to access these alternatives (Information Paper - A Statistical Definition of Homelessness, 2012, cat. no. 4922.0).
During the engagement process people mostly agreed with this interpretation of accommodation alternatives, often stating that they would only consider a person homeless when they had nowhere else to go. Some feedback suggested that because of a sense of family responsibility and cultural shared practices, people would always have somewhere to stay. This view was contrasted by examples given of people sleeping rough because of family disconnection, for example due to a family disagreement and not being able to return home.
Although the discussion of family and cultural norms highlighted that shelter should be provided for family members, the differing feedback from engagement highlighted that in some cases this is not always seen as a suitable or accessible accommodation alternative for a person living in an otherwise homeless situation.
Adequacy of the dwelling
This element covers whether the structure of the dwelling renders it fit for human habitation (including, for renters, that the building is used for the purpose for which it is zoned), and the dwelling has access to basic facilities, such as kitchen facilities and bathroom (Information Paper - A Statistical Definition of Homelessness, 2012, cat. no. 4922.0).
During the consultation process some people described an adequate dwelling as a place that provides a physical structure, has a bed to sleep in, contains adequate facilities, and is safe. It was noted in some feedback that an adequate dwelling for one person may not be perceived as adequate by others.
It was generally agreed that living on traditional lands did not override the need for adequate housing. However, some people noted that an adequate dwelling, as defined in the ABS statistical definition, was not always essential when considered in the context of the ancestral connection an individual has to country and their ties to spirituality of the land. Examples were provided, such as situations where people were sleeping outside in the landscape, or in an improvised dwelling such as a tent or humpy, to feel at home through their connection to country. While the application of the ABS definition would generally result in a person sleeping outside or in an improvised dwelling being classified homeless, some stakeholders were uncomfortable with this classification in such cases.
Security of tenure in the dwelling
This element covers a person's legal right to occupy a dwelling, with stability and security of tenure such as owning (with or without a mortgage) the dwelling and/or land, or renting with a formal lease or similar right that could be enforced by the tenant. This also includes a familial reflected security of tenure, for example children living with their parents. The rights that could be enforced by the tenant include informal or verbal agreements ('contracts'), written agreements or evidentiary monetary exchange, which establishes a right to occupy that can be enforced through common law and provides the holder with the same residual security of tenure that they would enjoy with a formal lease. Also taken into account is the initial term of the lease agreement, or residual period remaining on a fixed term lease, or the notice period required to terminate a right to occupy (Information Paper - A Statistical Definition of Homelessness, 2012, cat. no. 4922.0).
Throughout the consultation process, the importance of being able to stay in a secure shelter for as long as needed was commonly reported. For people in precarious housing situations, the importance of having secure tenure to stay for as long as needed was highlighted as fundamental to them feeling at home. It was also noted that in some cases people were more likely to feel at home if they were contributing rent.
Many people reported that family and kinship responsibilities would mean there is an expectation to provide shelter for extended family members who required assistance, and that those people would have secure tenure when staying with family for as long as needed. Feedback from engagement suggested that in some cases where a person had no suitable accommodation alternatives and they were staying temporarily with family, they would not be considered homeless due to cultural norms and responsibilities to provide accommodation for family.
Conceptually, people in such circumstances would be considered homeless under the ABS statistical definition because even though they may feel at home, their initial tenure is short and not extendable and they ultimately lack access to stable and secure housing beyond the short term. Supporting this interpretation is other feedback noting that for some people, staying with family in the short term, would not feel like being at home.
Control of, and access to space for social relations
This element covers whether a person or household has control of, and access to space so they are able to pursue social relations, have personal (or household) living space, maintain privacy and the household has exclusive access to kitchen facilities and a bathroom (Information Paper - A Statistical Definition of Homelessness, 2012, cat. no. 4922.0). Under the ABS statistical definition of homelessness, people living in 'severely' crowded conditions are considered to be homeless as they lack control of, and access to space for social relations.
Feedback received during the engagement process largely aligned with this aspect of the definition. People agreed that a home should provide safety and comfort, allow freedom to make decisions and provide space when visitors were staying. The importance of home as a physical boundary to protect personal belongings was also noted. When people did not feel they had these freedoms they reported they would not feel at home. However, some people noted that although they may be living in crowded conditions and have a perceived lack of control and access to space, if they were staying with family they would not see themselves as homeless.
Understanding reasons for different types of mobility and visitor management was also noted as important in order to distinguish between people living in crowded conditions as a result of cultural and family responsibilities from those who have no other accommodation alternatives. Many people noted the importance of homelessness measures to provide accurate estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who:
CONCEPTS OF HOMELESSNESS OUTSIDE THE ABS STATISTICAL DEFINITION
As noted above, a general finding of this research has been that for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people homelessness can be defined as disconnection from country and/or disconnection from family and community. During consultation it was highlighted that disconnection to country and/or family and community may place people at risk of homelessness, or indeed lead to people experiencing homelessness. During engagement, people reported that in order to avoid being disconnected from their family they may live in crowded conditions. Similarly, if no suitable housing was available on country, people may sleep either outside or in improvised dwellings rather than move to an adequate dwelling that is not on country.
In further understanding the implications of this feedback for homelessness research, stakeholders felt it was important to consider the following types of situations:
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