2050.0.55.002 - Position Paper - ABS Review of Counting the Homeless Methodology, Aug 2011  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 02/08/2011  First Issue
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Contents >> Contents >> Overview



The ABS initiated the methodological review of Counting the Homeless (ABS cat. no. 2050.0) by engaging with a range of stakeholders, including researchers and the homelessness services sector, and with the advice of a Steering Committee comprising representatives from the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, and from three states (New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia) represented on the inter-jurisdictional Housing and Homelessness Information Management Group (reporting to the Housing Ministers' Advisory Committee).

Following an initiating review workshop on 21 October 2009, with Professors Chamberlain and MacKenzie, and representatives from Homelessness Australia, as well as from Commonwealth, state/territory and local government organisations, the nature of the ABS’s concerns with the Counting the Homeless 2006 methodology were outlined in Issues in estimating the number of homeless in Australia: A paper to inform a review of Counting the Homeless methodology. This was made available on the National Homelessness Information Clearinghouse website in October 2009, and submissions were sought. Submissions were received from government organisations, academics and eight homelessness services sector organisations. Workshops to progress the review, which involved Professors Chamberlain and MacKenzie, were held in May 2010 and October 2010.

The ABS's initial findings from the methodological review were published on 31 March 2011 in the Discussion Paper: Methodological Review of Counting the Homeless, 2006 (ABS cat. no. 2050.0.55.001). That Discussion Paper announced a public submissions process and a series of advertised public forums in each capital city. That paper noted the importance of the issue of homelessness for society and governments, and the need for quality data for decision making purposes, particularly for measuring change over time. In that context, the Discussion Paper described a methodology that had been previously used, and proposed a range of methodological changes that would be needed before consistent, transparent and repeatable official estimates could be made of the number of people enumerated in the Census who were likely to have been homeless on Census night.


To maximise exposure to the review findings, the advertised public forum details were also emailed directly to many stakeholders, and the forums were held in each capital city through April and May 2011. Over 150 people attended the public forums, and many more attended sector or jurisdictional specific discussions with the ABS. The ABS was also invited to participate in discussions about the review findings in a range of meetings. There were 35 written submissions in response to the Discussion paper.

Consultation on the review findings has confirmed the Discussion Paper's emphasis on the significance of the areas of likely underestimation of homelessness in relation to youth, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people escaping domestic violence. However, no alternative estimation methods have yet been developed to address the issues of underestimation for homelessness in these groups.

This ABS Position Paper:

  • summarises the range of key issues identified so far in consultation (from public and private consultation sessions and written submissions received);
  • addresses, as far as is currently possible, the issues raised in consultation;
  • reiterates and further articulates the concerns expressed in the Discussion Paper about underestimation of key groups of homeless people;
  • notes the establishment of a Homelessness Statistics Reference Group (HSRG); and
  • describes future developments in homelessness estimation, including but not limited to a proposed quality study about homeless school students.

This edition of the Position Paper includes additional analysis undertaken on the range of key issues identified in the Paper.


The submissions supported rigorous quality estimation of homelessness and highlighted the importance of consistent, repeatable and transparent estimates. Some submissions requested that a continuous quality assurance plan be implemented to continue to improve and maintain high quality estimates. It is expected that the new ABS Homelessness Statistics Reference Group will play a key role in guiding the direction of that plan and in advising on the quality aspects of developments that are underway or planned for the future. This includes a final methodology that will be used to report on homelessness from the 2011 Census.

No submissions put the view that the ABS should not produce homelessness estimates from the Census, and many commented that the Census was currently the best source on which to base a point-in-time estimate of homelessness in a comprehensive way.

Many submissions argued that the Review had been too focussed on identifying the possible overestimates in the former methodology, and the majority of submissions sought a clearer articulation and possible scaling of areas of greatest underestimation (for example for youth, people fleeing domestic and family violence, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people).

Other themes that were common were:
  • recognition of the limitations in every existing dataset for use in the estimation of homelessness;
  • that to better understand flows and the trends in repeat periods of homelessness, the duration of spells of homelessness etc, it was important to have more than just point-in-time (prevalence) measures, and the wider ABS work program on homelessness statistics, underway or planned, was noted;
  • general agreement that there needs to be some additional research into understanding the size of the homeless youth population, including any under-enumeration in the Census, in response to which ABS is proposing a quality study of homeless school students;
  • a wide range of measurement issues, many of which are discussed in this Position Paper, and mentioned briefly below.

Improved enumeration

Several initiatives are underway with the 2011 Census that will improve enumeration, and potentially also estimation, of the homeless population. While exact numbers are not available for the 2001 Census, the resources for specialist field staff dedicated to the homelessness count were increased in the 2006 Census to over 250 staff. For the 2011 Census, these resources have been increased to over 550 specialist field staff. In addition, the ABS has been working with homeless service providers in each state and territory to encourage accurate reporting of no usual address by all homeless people including those who are 'couch surfing'.

Definition of homelessness

On balance, the submission process has surfaced significant interest in a review of the definition of homelessness used in Australia, whether or not that review would confirm the continued use of a cultural definition (with or without adjustments to its current application), or lead to the development of a new definition. ABS will include this review in its work program and progress the issues through the new HSRG.

New category - 'Persons staying in other temporary lodgings'

There was wide-spread support for the creation of the new category in the reviewed estimates of 'Persons staying in other temporary lodgings' which reclassified these people from the boarding house category. These people were reported in the Census without a usual address and were staying in public hospitals, private hospitals, hostels for the disabled etc. The use of this new category will be further explored by ABS and the findings taken to the HSRG for advice.

Boarding houses

There were several different views on measuring homelessness in boarding houses, ranging from the conceptual through to identification in enumeration through to estimation methodology. The ABS will pursue quality lists of boarding houses for use when enumerating future Censuses. ABS will look closely at the classification of boarding houses during enumeration to assess in real time the quality of enumeration to support adjustments in presenting results for this group. Any new lists that become available during processing will be reviewed. ABS will also continue its analysis of derivation rules for this complex aspect of estimation and take its findings for refining the rules for identifying boarding houses to the HSRG.

Natural disaster areas

The ABS is developing a strategy to analyse and report on homelessness in areas affected by recent disaster events which it will take to the HSRG.


Many submissions recognised both the challenges in the estimation of homelessness among youth for whom a usual address is reported in the Census, and the imperative of solving measurement for a significant group of young homeless people. The ABS is therefore developing a small and targeted quality study of homeless school students just after the Census to help understand the possible level of homelessness, and in particular, inform on how this is manifested in Census reporting. If successful, the study will also scope a possible methodology for a more frequent nationally representative survey of homeless school students. Again, ABS's work in this area will be guided by the HSRG.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians

The Discussion Paper described a range of issues associated with estimating homeless Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. A range of work program activities, including community focus group work on concepts and measurement, are planned. It is expected that the increased effort in the 2011 Census to improve the enumeration of Indigenous Australians will be a very good first step, but being able to differentiate between those who may be homeless and/or living in overcrowded circumstances remains a challenge.

Other key issues

Also raised in consultation and discussed briefly in this Position Paper, are conceptual and /or measurement issues associated with:
  • new migrants and culturally and linguistically diverse populations;
  • domestic and family violence and women's experience of homelessness, with complex conceptual issues as well as difficult measurement issues for people who may be seeking to remain hidden;
  • marginal residents of caravan parks and overcrowding, which have some common conceptual issues as well as complex measurement difficulties;
  • the identification of travellers, including 'grey nomads' separate from those older people who may be homeless, and older homeless people more generally;
  • a better future articulation of the different people and their circumstances when enumerated in improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out, which will be better supported through real time analysis during Census processing; and
  • options for finding and using other data sources to help both scale measurement gaps in estimation from the Census, and hopefully assist in recalibrating those estimates.
These are discussed in more detail in the key issues chapters of this Position Paper.


The Future directions section of this Position Paper brings together the future steps for each issue discussed throughout the paper, as well as highlighting directions in the wider ABS homelessness statistics work program, including:
  • options for improving both enumeration and estimation in future Censuses, including the possible inclusion of new content around, for example, health status, so that the homeless population can be compared with the rest of the population. Homelessness in the Census may therefore be able to be studied in terms of its cause arising from other factors, or its consequence for other outcomes in life;
  • the potential use of several ABS household surveys to report on past periods of homelessness, from which a picture of the incidence of homeless can be derived, as well as trends in homelessness over time, at least for those who transition out of a period of homelessness. The ABS homeless module has been run in the 2010 General Social Survey, is being tested for the 2012 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers, and is under development for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey. Specific aspects of homeless, such as in the context of domestic violence, are being trialled for ABS surveys;
  • the ABS will 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.


ABS will work with the HSRG to finalise, for publication in May 2012, a methodology for producing official estimates of the number of people enumerated in the Census that were likely to have been homeless on Census night. There are many aspects of the methodology that need to be finalised, as noted in this Position Paper. Methodological aspects that require analysis of Census data during input processing will need to be resolved by the end of 2011, while methodological aspects that analyse output variables can be resolved shortly thereafter, and will be published in May 2012, along with recompiled estimates for both 2001 and 2006. Official estimates of homelessness from the 2011 Census will be published after second release Census variables are published in October 2012.


The ABS acknowledges the effort and contribution of the wide range of stakeholders who participated in the consultation on the Discussion Paper. The ABS particularly acknowledges the contributions from homelessness services organisations and their staff.

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