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QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
WHAT IS THE ABS' NEW DEFINITION OF HOMELESSNESS?
The ABS has never before had a definition of homelessness.
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:
WHY DID THE ABS DEVELOP A DEFINITION OF HOMELESSNESS?
The ABS has never before had a definition of homelessness. However, ABS did recognise the importance of homelessness for Australian governments and society more generally, and in 2009 commenced development of modules for the collection of past periods of homelessness in its household surveys. This development, coupled with the potential to develop official estimates of homelessness using data from the Census of Population and Housing, required a conceptual definition of homelessness to underpin operationalisation of the measurement of homelessness on a broadly consistent basis across these emerging datasets. Not only do comparable quality statistics, over time and across data sources, require a clear conceptual framework and definition to underpin their operationalisation in multiple collections, but the conceptual clarity guides ongoing fine tuning of those datasets to better serve that measurement purpose.
The ABS definition of homelessness was developed in consultation with the ABS' Homelessness Statistics Reference Group. Future ABS surveys will adopt this definition.
WHY DIDN'T THE ABS USE CHAMBERLAIN AND MACKENZIE'S 'CULTURAL' DEFINITION OF HOMELESSNESS?
Key international and national definitions of homelessness (including Chamberlain and MacKenzie's 'cultural' definition) must demonstrate that a rigorous, evidence informed, process had been undertaken to develop the conceptual framework /definition with core elements underpinning it. The purpose of the definition is to advise on the conceptual elements of a definition that could be operationalised across a range of datasets, and not just be a summary method of developing a view of homelessness from the data currently collected currently in the Census of Population and Housing. There has been no empirical validation of the 'cultural definition' in terms of its assumptions about a minimum shared community standard. Moreover, views have evolved over the past 20 years or so, suggesting that this standard is historically contingent.
The new ABS definition of homelessness was tested against the categorisation of a large list of living situations and addresses much of the ambiguity in the operationalisation of Chamberlain and MacKenzie's 'cultural' definition.
WHAT PROCESS DID THE ABS GO THROUGH TO DEVELOP THEIR DEFINITION OF HOMELESSNESS?
The ABS established the Homelessness Statistics Reference Group (HSRG) to advise the ABS on the development, collection, compilation, production and dissemination of robust statistics for use in analysing, understanding and reporting on homelessness in Australia. HSRG is made up of key stakeholders from state and federal governments, peak bodies, service providers and researchers. The ABS convened a HSRG sub-group to advise HSRG and ABS on the key elements of a conceptual framework that could underpin the ABS definition of homelessness for use in compiling official statistics in Australia. The work of the definition sub-group was framed by tight timelines linked to specified ABS release dates for ABS official estimates of homelessness from the 2001, 2006 and 2011 Censuses of Population and Housing. Because of the tight timelines the work of the sub-group was divided into two phases. The first phase, covered in the Information Paper: A Statistical Definition of Homelessness (cat. no. 4922.0), does not address any specific cultural definition issues relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples understandings of homelessness. The second phase, relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander homelessness, commenced in August 2012.
The Definition subgroup first met in December 2011. To complete its first phase work it met on eight occasions, including three all day face to face meetings and five teleconferences between December 2011 and June 2012.
The subgroup developed its thinking about the key elements of the definition through both a top down and a bottom up approach including:
At key points in this process subgroup members were invited to seek broader stakeholder feedback about the various living situations under review and the implications for key elements of a homelessness definition.
Following critical analysis of the definitions and living situations ABS articulated a range of possible elements to support a definition of homelessness. Members discussed the pros and cons of these elements, and refined the elements over time. While consensus was not reached in the sub-group, the ABS definition largely reflects a majority view of members of the sub-group.
HOW WILL THE ABS USE THIS NEW DEFINITION OF HOMELESSNESS?
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.
The ABS will be publishing final official homeless estimates from the 2006 and 2001 Censuses on Tuesday 11 September 2012 in the publication: Census of Population and Housing: Estimating Homelessness, 2006 (cat. no. 2049.0). Estimates from the 2011 Census will be published in November under the same catalogue number.
WHEN WILL THE 2011 ESTIMATES OF HOMELESSNESS FROM THE CENSUS BE PUBLISHED?
The ABS will be publishing estimates from the 2011 Census on Monday 12 November 2012 in the publication: Census of Population and Housing: Estimating Homelessness, 2006 (cat. no. 2049.0). The methodology uses Census second release variables, which will be published on 30 October 2012.
The same ABS methodology will be used for the 2011 as the 2006 estimates, aside from any changes required due to the changes in estimation cut offs applied when considering income, mortgage and rent (see Key differences between methodology employed for estimating homelessness for different Census years - Income, mortgage and rent cut offs to be published in Information Paper - Methodology for Estimating Homelessness from the Census of Population and Housing (cat. no. 2049.0.55.001) for more details) and any changes that result from changes in the field procedures carried out in 2011. Any such changes will be outlined in the 2011 publication.
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) in November 2012 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.
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