2049.0 - Census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness, 2016 Quality Declaration 
Latest ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 14/03/2018   
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The Census of Population and Housing aims to count everyone in Australia on Census night. This requires a method of enumeration that is efficient and effective, while ensuring the information collected is of the highest quality. A "digital first" approach was adopted for 2016 Census, where key changes included the use of the Address Register and the move towards a predominantly mail-out census enumeration model. The 2011 Census conversely relied extensively on a large workforce in the field who provided updates on the characteristic of a dwelling, and delivered and collected forms.

As in previous Censuses, in 2016 there were a range of approaches used for collecting information from specific population groups. These approaches were designed in consultation and collaboration with relevant communities and/or service providers to ensure the coverage of all people in Australia (including these specific populations) was as complete as possible. The enumeration strategies relevant to the homelessness estimation are the Homelessness Enumeration Strategy and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Strategy.


In the 2011 Census, households who preferred not to return a paper form were given the option to report online, in which about 34% of private dwellings responded in this manner. For more information about the method for collecting 2011 Census data, please refer to How Australia Takes a Census, 2011 (cat. no. 2903.0).

For 2016 the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) adopted a 'digital first' approach anticipating an increased preference for online reporting. In fact, about 59% of private dwellings responded online. This new method addressed the difficulties in recruiting Census field staff as well as investing in the advantages and efficiencies of new technologies. The three main changes from that used in earlier Censuses were:

  • the development of a national Address Register to support mailing out of materials to households across Australia. The Address Register was formed using the Geocoded National Address File (GNAF) as its base and then built on using information gained through visiting every address through a large canvassing exercise, in addition to analysing other available data. This register formed the basis of addresses to which information was mailed out;
  • the postal delivery of an instruction letter detailing how to complete the Census online or how to request a paper form. Paper forms were then despatched and mailed back via Australia Post so that Census Field Officers only visited a minority of homes, where the use of the mail service was not considered viable or where a Census form had not been returned; and
  • the use of a smarter online form. Many enhancements were made to the online form to improve quality and make it easier for respondents to complete.

This method has sometimes been referred to as a ‘mail-out’ model, and it significantly reduced the number of Census Field Officers and the hours of Census Field Officer effort required to undertake Census enumeration. Approximately 80% of dwellings across Australia were, in the first instance, mailed a Census instruction letter which included a unique login number for the online form. Some adaptations to the standard mail-out model were deployed to encourage timely response from people in areas where the standard approach may not have been as effective.

In the remaining areas of Australia, a more traditional delivery approach (the 'drop off' approach) was used with Census Field Officers delivering materials to each dwelling, enabling householders to either complete their form online or mail back a paper form. In these areas, the Census Field Officers attempted to make contact with householders when dropping off the form, only making further visits to dwellings that have not participated.

The collection methodology is described in more detail in Census of Population and Housing: Nature and Content, Australia, 2016. (cat. no. 2008.0).


The Homelessness Enumeration Strategy was designed to complement the mainstream Census and other special strategies to maximise the overall enumeration of the homeless population. It targets the enumeration of 'rough sleepers', 'couch surfers' and persons in supported accommodation for the homeless.

Rough sleepers

The approach for counting 'rough sleepers' was to focus on 'hot spots', using information received from service providers. ABS then worked closely with service and accommodation providers in awareness raising and local engagement in those areas, and recruited specialist field staff to help count people sleeping rough.

As in previous censuses, a collection period of one week spanning Census night was used to cover the various 'hot spot' locations. The use of Special Census Collectors, and particularly staff recruited from homelessness services, was designed to not only use their expertise to locate people sleeping rough, but also to ensure that the information collected relates only to those people sleeping rough on Census night (with no likelihood that they were enumerated elsewhere) and that they are not enumerated more than once in the 'hot spot' locations. The absence of mainstream Census collectors in the mail-out areas close to Census night diminished the ability of the ABS to identify the presence of homeless individuals/groups in unexpected areas, so increased engagement with service providers was essential to mitigate this change.

The Special Short Form was again generally used to enumerate 'rough sleepers'. However, to account for the different context of people sleeping rough in Northern Australia (including the Northern Territory and northern parts of Western Australia and Queensland) the mainstream household form was also used which captures more comprehensive information for groups of people sleeping rough.

Couch surfers

The identification of 'couch surfers' on mainstream forms was again given greater emphasis where the ABS ran targeted promotion campaign, through homelessness agencies, to encourage people who were experiencing homelessness to write 'None' in response to the usual address question on the Census form to indicate clearly that they had no usual address.

Other temporary lodgings

A new initiative was introduce for the 2016 Census, where persons being brokered to stay temporarily at a hotel, motel, or other accommodation were asked to write 'None - crisis' in response to the usual address question. Brokerage is typically arranged when accommodation is full at a homelessness service. The aim of this initiative is to further distinguish occupants staying in these other temporary lodgings who are there due to the person experiencing homelessness.

Supported accommodation for the homeless

As in previous Censuses, the ABS again used a 'list' strategy to support ABS classification of dwellings that were supported accommodation for the homeless. ABS obtained lists of addresses of supported accommodation from government bodies, individual Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) providers and umbrella homelessness services organisations. In 2016 ABS also sought information about whether the type of supported accommodation was short-term, long-term or mixed.

The Green Sticker Strategy used in 2011 was discontinued in 2016. The Green Sticker Strategy was used to enumerate homeless persons in supported accommodation where respondents were instructed to attach a Green Sticker to their completed Census form, to enable this return to be associated with the homeless strategy. The change of method in 2016 meant there was an increased reliance on the collection of supported accommodation lists to enable the correct classification of sensitive supported accommodation establishments and their occupants.

Boarding houses

New lists of boarding houses (both registered and illegal boarding house operations) were sought from jurisdictions and homelessness service providers in 2016 and were received from New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, and Northern Territory. Western Australia does not have a state-based register yet information is available at the local council level. Tasmania has no requirement to maintain a register while legal boarding houses do not operate in the Australian Capital Territory.


Since 1976, measures have been adopted to maximise coverage of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. These include specific Census awareness activities, greater use of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, greater involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, and better coordination of the related field operations.

The 2016 Census campaign’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander strategy targeted people living in urban and regional areas, as well as those living in town camps and discrete communities. It used multiple channels of communication, specific messaging, mainstream and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander media, and culturally-specific design, music and talent to reach this audience group. Engagement with community groups, intermediaries, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, elders and Census supporters was also an important part of the communication strategy.

The 2016 Discrete Communities and Remote Areas Strategy incorporated improvements to enumeration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. At a broad level, the improvements for the 2016 Census included:
  • earlier and ongoing engagement;
  • a reduction in the overall enumeration period for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities;
  • an increase in the number of field staff recruited; and
  • a greater level of support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people requiring assistance in completing their form (in both urban and remote areas).

In nominated discrete communities the procedures included interviewing each Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander household using a tailored Interviewer Household Form (IHF) - and employing local people, where possible, to conduct the interview.

For the 2016 Census the ABS also incorporated improvements to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living in urban communities to participate in the Census. As part of this strategy in pre-identified urban areas increased support and assistance was provided to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including the option of collecting Census information through an interview.


For the first time, people in Norfolk Island on Census Night were included in the Australian Census, following passage of the Norfolk Island Legislation Amendment Act 2015.

The practice of collecting Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander status via observation was discontinued in the 2016 Census. For enumeration via observation, a response to this question was recorded only if the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander status of the person was confirmed by a service provider to whom the person is known, otherwise the question was left blank and coded to ‘Not Stated’ in the Census dataset.

Targeting of overcrowded dwellings was dropped for 2016 due to being deemed ineffective in past Censuses. Ensuring a full response within a dwelling proved challenging, as it relied on the awareness and compliance of all residents. Some households may have intentionally omitted residents from the household form for fear or repercussions from landlords or housing authorities. Further to this, the paper household form could only accommodate six present persons (and households needed to request a second paper form to report more people), while the online Census can accommodate a maximum of ten.