ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER HOMELESSNESS
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) definition of homelessness has been developed for application to the general population in Australia. While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are over-represented in the measures of homelessness developed with this definition, there are likely to be additional aspects to homelessness from a Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' perspective that the definition does not currently adequately capture.
In recognition of the differences in understanding of the concepts of home and homelessness in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples context, the ABS continues to undertake further research regarding how the ABS statistical definition of homelessness may be understood in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples context. ABS undertook community engagement activities to identify different perspectives of home and homelessness, and findings were published in the Discussion Paper: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Perspectives on Homelessness, 2013 (cat. no. 4735.0). These were then mapped to the ABS statistical definition for the purpose of informing the interpretation of current measures of homelessness in Information Paper: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Perspectives on Homelessness, 2014 (cat. no. 4736.0).
Additionally, the ABS developed a culturally appropriate module on previous experiences of homelessness suitable for inclusion in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 2014–15 (NATSISS) (cat. no. 4714.0) which can be compared to estimates from the total population from the General Social Survey: Summary Results, Australia, 2014 (cat. no. 4159.0).
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been underenumerated in the Census and therefore, estimates of homelessness based on Census data will be an underestimation. In the 2016 Census, the underenumeration of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population was 17.5%. Some of those who were underenumerated may have been homeless at the time of the Census. Underestimation of homelessness among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population enumerated in the Census may occur as 'incorrect' information regarding 'usual residence' may have been provided which masks their homelessness.
Perceptions of homelessness from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people indicate that some people who would not consider their current living circumstances as homeless, would be classified as homeless under a statistical measure, although this is also likely to be the case for some non-Indigenous people. Examples of this include people sleeping on the land or in an improvised dwelling in order to be connected to country and/or connected to family or community. Whilst these people have no alternative accommodation, they may not perceive themselves to be homeless and would not seek out homelessness services, yet will be included in Census homelessness estimates. In contrast, there were situations where a person would see themselves as homeless but would not be classified as such under the definition, such as a person who felt disconnected from their country and/or family or community but was living in an otherwise adequate dwelling. These issues should be considered when interpreting existing measures of homelessness from the Census.
Additionally, it is debated in the literature whether the concept of 'no usual address' is appropriate for some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Morphy (2007) discusses the problems in defining a 'usual resident' and 'visitor' in an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples context, as the distinction between 'my country / not my country' is more salient than the distinction between 'resident / visitor'. This issue becomes particularly problematic for people who are highly mobile. Chamberlain and MacKenzie (2008) also discuss the relevance of 'no usual address' to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, as the 'usual address' question is approached with a different cultural frame of reference. They note that it is not culturally appropriate to record 'no usual address' on Census night because 'home' is understood in a different way, particularly when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are staying with their extended family. Due to the different cultural frame of reference for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it is widely assumed that the Western concept of 'no usual address' is under-reported by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. This issue will impact on Census based estimates of homelessness among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people enumerated in the Census who are classified as being in the categories for 'improvised dwellings, tents, or sleepers out' or 'persons staying temporarily with other households' while homeless.
As part of the development for Census 2021, the ABS will consider how they can improve the identification of homeless Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Census but recognise the need to use other data sources to gain a more complete picture of homelessness.
For more information on the variable 'Indigenous Status (INGP)' see the section 'Understanding the data' in the publication Census of Population and Housing: Understanding the Census and Census Data, Australia, 2016 (cat. no. 2900.0)
For more information on the definition of homelessness or the methodology for estimating homelessness from the Census see the Information Paper - A Statistical Definition of Homelessness, 2012 (cat. no. 4922.0) and the Information Paper: Methodology for Estimating Homelessness from the Census of Population and Housing, 2012 (cat. no. 2049.0.55.001).
Morphy, F (ed.) (2007) Agency, Contingency and Census Process: Observations of the 2006 Indigenous Enumeration Strategy in remote Aboriginal Australia, Research Monograph, no. 28, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research ANU, Canberra
Chamberlain, C and MacKenzie, D (2008) Australian Census Analytic Program: Counting the Homeless 2006 (cat. no. 2050.0) Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics