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COMPLEXITIES IN ESTIMATING HOMELESSNESS
While none or not all these reasons apply to each characteristic or assumption, overall they mean that the measurement of homelessness from the Census may overestimate or underestimate the number of people classified in the Census dataset as homeless on Census night.
Underestimation is likely to be greater for population groups, such as for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Australians, which have experienced relatively high rates of undercount in previous Censuses. In addition, Indigenous Australians may report a usual address that is culturally associated with a place rather than with an adequate shelter (see Chapter 7 of the Discussion Paper and the Key Issues section of this Position Paper). Undercount in the Census is also more likely for people (including Indigenous Australians) staying in dwellings, such as public housing, without any legal right to occupy the premises. The completed Census form for such dwellings may simply show the tenants, and not any of their friends or family who may be staying on Census night.
Youth are also likely to be underestimated in the homeless population. For youth, such as 'couch surfers', to be classified as homeless in the Census, reporting 'no usual address' on the Census form is critically important. For youth who are homeless and staying with another family, this question may be incorrectly completed because the member of the family they are staying with may report the youth's previous address on the Census form as their 'usual' address. This may be because they do not know that the youth can not return to this address. Alternatively some youth may not admit to having no usual address as they do not want the stigma attached to being 'homeless'.
Underestimation is also likely for victims of domestic violence who, at the time of the Census, may assume they still have, and therefore report, the usual address from which they have fled. For others, they may not report themselves on the Census form out of fear that their location will be identified. However, people who are escaping domestic and/or family violence will be identified as homeless if they are staying in crisis accommodation, or in boarding houses if they report that dwelling as their usual residence, while a significant proportion staying temporarily with another household or in boarding houses may not be classified as homeless because they report a usual address elsewhere.
Overall, estimating homelessness from the Census is through identifying those who are most likely to be homeless on Census night based on a number of characteristics. These estimates cannot include those people who were not enumerated in the Census, because, other than the PES, there is no estimate of the numbers who were not enumerated.
The ABS is focussed on improving enumeration in the 2011 Census for a number of key population groups including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, migrants, fly-in/fly-out workers, the homeless and those who will not be home on Census night. This is not only to ensure that the Census comprehensively covers the whole Australian population, but also to improve estimation of key population groups such as the homeless or Indigenous people. The ABS will achieve this through a range of special enumeration strategies. Seeking improved enumeration is the focus for new or improved methods for the future, and planned actions are noted and recommendations for further improvement are made in Future Directions section.
Several countries undertake rough sleeper census counts, crisis accommodation census counts and/or utilise administrative data to capture these aspects of homelessness on their Census night. However, no other country currently attempts a prevalence measure across all aspects of homelessness. Some countries only undertake a Census every 10 years, and/or do not ask a usual address question, therefore limiting the usefulness of the Census to undertake further homelessness analysis. Professors Chamberlain and MacKenzie were groundbreaking in researching whether the Australian Census could provide insight into estimating the broader homeless population on Census night.
Through the methodological review, the ABS has concluded that the Counting the Homeless estimates did not satisfy the requirements for measuring prevalence or trends over time, but that through testing and refining the estimation methods, the ABS has confidence the Census can provide trend analysis of the size and characteristics of the homeless population on Census night. It is not yet clear how close such Census based estimates are likely to be to the true measure of homelessness in the population at that point in time, and ABS will work further with stakeholders to refine the measures for that purpose. However, applying a consistent methodology helps to understand change over time in the numbers of those who are homeless, even if it cannot estimate the exact size of the population.
SAAP National Data Collection (until 30 June 2011)
Until the end of June 2011, the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program National Data Collection (SAAP NDC) was the main source of data on the provision of services through the SAAP program. Until recently, three components to this collection existed: the Client Collection, the Administrative Data Collection and the Demand for Accommodation Collection. SAAP funding covered both supported accommodation and related support services, so data from the collection covered the number of services provided to people experiencing homelessness or being at risk of experiencing homelessness, and these were presented as support periods and as accommodation support periods. Data from the Client collection can be used to generate estimates of the number of people experiencing at least one period of SAAP support for a given period of time (see the Key Issue section of this Position Paper for more information).
The collection provided further detail about the characteristics of clients (and accompanying children) who received SAAP services. The data enhanced understanding of the characteristics of people who sought homeless services and who gain access to these services. Some data items include the type of support received, reasons for clients seeking assistance, circumstances of clients before and after support and the collection can show changes in support provided over time (AIHW, 2011).
It may be difficult to extrapolate service provider data such as that from the SAAP NDC to make statements about the underlying homeless population. For example, if a service reported a doubling of accommodation services provided within a time period, this may mean that the actual homeless population had doubled or that the population accessing accommodation has doubled through increased accommodation being provided, or through an increased knowledge of the services available. Instead, the value of service provider data is in reporting about service usage and about the characteristics of those accessing the services. It is important to remember that the characteristics of those seeking and/or accessing services may differ from the characteristics of those who did not.
SAAP NDC data provided support period data, or flow data, not point-in-time data so it is not useful to match or augment the Census point-in-time prevalence estimates. Separate SAAP data were collected and compiled in relation to accommodation provided on Census night for use is assessing the quality of Census data on people enumerated in SAAP dwellings on Census night.
The SAAP client collection provides data about the number of active accommodation support periods at a point-in-time (eg. on Census night), as well as the characteristics of those accessing the services. The data were usually collected in May and September. However, this collection was moved to August in Census years to provide a point-in-time estimate of the number of active accommodation support periods and has been used to verify Census SAAP estimates as mentioned in the previous paragraph and as discussed in Discussion Paper: Methodological Review of Counting the Homeless, 2006 (ABS cat. no. 2050.0.55.001). These data are useful alongside the Census point in time estimates for providing a richer picture of homelessness for these service users.
Specialist Homeless Services (SHS)
The SAAP collection has been replaced by a new collection - Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) collection that commenced on 1 July 2011. AIHW will compile the data, the first of which will become available in 2012. This Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) data collection will provide data about the pathways people take in and out of homelessness and the kinds of work homelessness agencies do. It will be able to identify individual clients as well as support periods and children will be counted as individual clients. In addition, family information will be more accurate. Information about previous episodes of homelessness and people turned away from homelessness agencies will also be available. The data will be able to provide snapshots of homelessness at a given point in time, which was not previously available with the past datasets (AIHW 2011).
Centrelink 'vulnerability to homelessness flag'
Centrelink have included homelessness 'flags' in their system which help customer service officers provide appropriate services to people experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of homelessness. Data produced using these indicators may provide useful information about those who are identified by Centrelink as homeless. It may be possible to analyse this population against other data items held by Centrelink to provide a picture of the characteristics of the homeless population in receipt of Centrelink benefits (FaHCSIA 2010).
The flags have been implemented to inform Centrelink staff that the client needs active follow up to ensure that they are receiving the support they need and are able to meet any obligations arising from their income support payment. It will also be used by Centrelink to change business practices to better meet the needs of such vulnerable clients. The flag is not designed to be a measure of all people on the Centrelink database who are either experiencing or are at risk of homelessness, but rather it shows those who have been identified as being in this group through client/service interaction. Data extracted using this indicator may be biased towards areas where Centrelink staff have been better trained or are more proactive in identifying and using the indicator. In addition, the indicator will not cover the entire homeless population as there will be some homeless people who will not be on the Centrelink database and some Centrelink customers who are not in enough contact with Centrelink to be identified as relevant for the flag to be applied.
While the flag may not provide an estimate of the absolute number of people who might be homeless, it may be able to provide an indication of movement in homelessness, as well as the characteristics of those people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
ABS 2010 General Social Survey
The ABS 2010 General Social Survey included a new homelessness module. The survey interviews one randomly selected adult per household and collects information about the respondent's socio-demographics including income, wealth, social participation measures, employment, education, problems accessing services etc. The new homelessness module will be able to identify previous experiences of homelessness and provide insight into the homelessness experience of the population. This module included whether the person had a period of time without a permanent place to live, and if so, whether they had been accommodated in a range of circumstances (eg. night shelter, with friends or relatives, slept rough etc). The survey also collects data on what led to the homeless circumstance, and the frequency with which thay have experienced homelessness. For the most recent experience of homelessness, data are collected on when that homeless experience occurred, for how long, and whether services were approached for assistance, what assistance was provided (if applicable) or why services were not approached.
The GSS only collects information from people who are in private dwellings. The survey does not approach people who live in non-private dwellings such as boarding houses, or those who are not in dwellings at all. Therefore it cannot inform on current homeless experiences.
The data about previous experiences of homelessness can be cross-classified with all of the other social capital variables collected in the GSS. This includes their income, wealth, feelings of safety, experiences of violence, contact with friends and relatives, problems accessing services etc.
GSS data are expected to inform on the flows through homeless periods in the 12 months prior to the survey, in the two years prior and in the five years prior. ABS will be publishing data from the 2010 General Social Survey in late September 2011.
The next General Social Survey, to be run in 2014, will also include an enhanced homelessness module to enable comparisons with 2010 of previous experiences of homelessness.
Other ABS Surveys
The ABS proposes to consider the inclusion of a GSS-like homelessness module in other future ABS surveys, as appropriate, such as the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers, the Survey of Income and Housing and/or the Household Expenditure Survey.
The ABS will also investigate the development of a culturally appropriate module on the previous experiences of homelessness for the 2014 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey.
Personal Safety Survey 2012
The ABS is testing questions for potential inclusion in the Personal Safety Survey (PSS) 2012. These could cover information about a person's housing arrangements the last time they separated from a violent current partner and their housing arrangements at the end of their last violent previous partner relationship. The ABS is proposing to seek information from respondents who have experienced current partner violence to establish, whether they have ever separated from their violent current partner and had to leave their home, and if so, where they went the last time they separated. The ABS is also seeking to establish from respondents who experienced violence from a previous partner, when they left their last violent previous partner, whether they had to leave their home, and if so, where they went when the relationship finally ended. For example whether they stayed with a friend or relative, slept rough, stayed in a refuge or shelter, stayed in temporary accommodation eg. motel etc or elsewhere. If they went to multiple places, we ask them for the place in which they spent the most time.
While not a complete picture of where people went every time they separated during all relationships, if the testing is successful, this will provide an indication of what accommodation was used by people the last time they separated from their violent partner/s.
Journeys home: Longitudinal Study of Factors Affecting Housing Stability
As part of the National Homelessness Research Agenda, FaHCSIA is funding Journeys Home: Longitudinal Study of Factors Affecting Housing Stability, the first large-scale longitudinal study following the lives of 1,550 Australians who are homeless or who may be vulnerable to homelessness. Participants will be interviewed every six months over two years and the results of the study will assist in understanding the various factors associated with homelessness and housing stability.
A 5% Statistical Longitudinal Census Dataset (SLCD)
The ABS is planning to create a Statistical Longitudinal Census Dataset (SLCD) by bringing together data from the 2006 Census with data from the 2011 Census and future Censuses to build a picture of how society moves through various changes: which groups are affected by different types of change and in what way. The 2006 SLCD dataset and the 2011 Census dataset will be brought together using a statistical method referred to as 'probabilistic record linkage'. This involves bringing together data from the two datasets without using names and addresses but by using a number of characteristics common to both datasets such as age, sex, geographic region and country of birth (for more information see Census Data Enhancement Project: An Update, Oct 2010, ABS cat. no. 2062.0).
The ABS will investigate using the 5% 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. As outlined in the Census Data Enhancement Project paper referenced above, the ABS may enhance the 5% SLCD further by bringing it together with other non-ABS datasets (without using name and address) which would provide additional information for analysis (such as housing or health data).
DATA SOURCES AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF A METHODOLOGY FOR ESTIMATING HOMELESSNESS
The ABS will use any data sources that are, or will become, available to check and/or refine the prevalence measure derived from the Census, or to help to understand and quantify mis-estimation of any sub-populations. This includes validation against the estimates generated from the current rules as well as to validate any new estimates generated from either a refinement of the derivation rules or an augmentation using new data. The additional datasets, as outlined earlier, will be examined over time to aid testing the decision rules applied to the Census. These datasets include the new specialist homelessness collection, the Journeys Home longitudinal survey, the General Social Survey (and future surveys using the homelessness module), the Centrelink homelessness/at risk of homelessness flag, the data generated by confronting the Census/Centrelink data sets, as well as sector derived datasets or other research that is relevant and emerges through responses to the Discussion Paper or through the ongoing work of the new Homelessness Statistical Reference Group.
The Position Paper explores a number of issues with measuring homelessness. There is a particular focus on issues with the use of Census data to create a prevalence measure of homelessness, and on the complexity that is homelessness that impinges on the use of Census data to report on homelessness in many circumstances. Some of the issues covered include:
This edition of this Position Paper covers other key issues with measuring homelessness. Some of the issues covered include: