4736.0 - Information Paper: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Perspectives on Homelessness, 2014  
Latest ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 17/04/2014  First Issue
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Whilst findings of this engagement process are valuable to inform discussions on meanings of home and homelessness to improve homelessness estimates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the views and information presented should not be interpreted as being representative of any one group.

Engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, outreach workers and service provider organisations across Australia revealed that there were several concepts of home and homelessness to be considered within a cultural framework, which addresses factors contributing to homelessness within an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander context.

In conceptualising and operationalising homelessness among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, stakeholders noted the importance of acknowledging differences between the subjective experience of homelessness and the objective statistical measurement required to inform policy development. It was widely reported that some people classified as homeless under the ABS statistical definition may in fact report being satisfied with their housing circumstances. Conversely, some people who have adequate shelter, secure tenure and control of, and access to space may feel homeless if living 'off country' due to being disconnected from family and/or their community.

Many stakeholders noted the importance of understanding connection to country, and family and kinship responsibilities in considering the concept of homelessness within an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander context. These issues may also impact on the operationalisation of the homelessness definition through their influence on the measurement of key inputs such as the identification of 'usual residents' and 'visitors', determining reasons for staying in a dwelling and the ability of households to accommodate visitors.

Connection to country

Connection to country is fundamental to the culture and identity of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The connection an individual or group has to country and their ties to the spirituality of the land largely reflect the connection a person has with their ancestry, and their identification as an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person. For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, disconnection from country is considered a form of homelessness.

In discussions, it was noted that Aboriginal people, particularly from regional and remote Australia, were less likely to perceive themselves as homeless if living on country, irrespective of dwelling adequacy.

Similarly, people from the Torres Strait Islands reported connection to land and identified the family home located on ancestral land as central in their perception of home and homelessness.

Family and kinship responsibilities

The importance of family and kinship connectedness to feelings of home were repeatedly emphasised through discussions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including the view that family disconnection could be seen as a form of homelessness.

Refusing visitors was considered culturally inappropriate due to cultural expectations to provide shelter for family members needing a place to stay, irrespective of the ability to accommodate visitors, with some stakeholders acknowledging the pressures that accommodating 'visitors' can place on some households. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people travelling for cultural or family reasons between communities or across states and territories can contribute to people living in conditions where there is limited access to space, which under the ABS definition, may be considered homeless in instances where people had no accommodation alternatives.

Mobility and usual address

Through the engagement process, it was reported that Aboriginal people are often highly mobile and can be connected to multiple communities (mother and/or father's country; or adopted into other communities, if residing elsewhere), and can have multiple 'usual residences' where they feel at home. Some participants reported that the concept of 'usual address' in the Census was problematic in such cases and impacted on the usefulness of Census data in understanding mobility patterns of Aboriginal people.

In contrast, Torres Strait Islander people reported that they tended to be less mobile and the concept of usual address was understood as the home or residence where they lived for the majority of the time. For most Torres Strait Islander people, their island home (house) was fundamental to their understanding of home, and this incorporated the elements of land and sea, and a place where any extended family members are welcome to stay.


The ABS statistical definition of homelessness was developed to underpin the collection of comparable statistics, over time and across data sources. These statistics support informed decision making to enable the effective targeting of policies and services, monitoring of progress and understanding of outcomes for those who are or have been homeless.

The ABS statistical definition has been constructed from a conceptual framework centred on the following elements:

  • Adequacy of the dwelling;
  • Security of tenure in the dwelling; and
  • Control of, and access to space for social relations.

If a person lacks any of these elements of 'home' and does not have access to suitable alternative accommodation they are considered homeless for statistical purposes.

Many of the perspectives on homelessness presented during the engagement process aligned with the ABS' statistical definition of homelessness. There was little disagreement that a person who lacked an adequate house with secure tenure and with lack of control of, and access to space was homeless if they had no suitable accommodation alternatives. However, some different views were presented on how each of these elements within the statistical definition could be interpreted from the perspective of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The following sections describe each of the elements that make up the ABS statistical definition of homelessness and how feedback from the engagement aligns with each concept. An important finding from the engagement is that there were a variety of views on this topic amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. For example, different perspectives were sometimes evident for people from regional Australia when compared against more urban perspectives, and there were also some subtle differences reported across different communities.

Accommodation alternatives

The elements of the statistical definition of homelessness are applied in the context of an overarching consideration of accommodation alternatives. While homelessness is not a choice, some people may choose to live in situations that parallel the living situations of people who are homeless, for example living in a shed while building a home on their own property, or on holiday travelling and staying with friends. These people have a choice because they have the capacity to access other accommodation alternatives that are adequate, secure and provide for social relations. A person's exercise of choice in accessing accommodation alternatives is contingent on them having each of the financial, physical, psychological and personal means necessary to access these alternatives (Information Paper - A Statistical Definition of Homelessness, 2012, cat. no. 4922.0).

During the engagement process people mostly agreed with this interpretation of accommodation alternatives, often stating that they would only consider a person homeless when they had nowhere else to go. Some feedback suggested that because of a sense of family responsibility and cultural shared practices, people would always have somewhere to stay. This view was contrasted by examples given of people sleeping rough because of family disconnection, for example due to a family disagreement and not being able to return home.

Although the discussion of family and cultural norms highlighted that shelter should be provided for family members, the differing feedback from engagement highlighted that in some cases this is not always seen as a suitable or accessible accommodation alternative for a person living in an otherwise homeless situation.

Adequacy of the dwelling

This element covers whether the structure of the dwelling renders it fit for human habitation (including, for renters, that the building is used for the purpose for which it is zoned), and the dwelling has access to basic facilities, such as kitchen facilities and bathroom (Information Paper - A Statistical Definition of Homelessness, 2012, cat. no. 4922.0).

During the consultation process some people described an adequate dwelling as a place that provides a physical structure, has a bed to sleep in, contains adequate facilities, and is safe. It was noted in some feedback that an adequate dwelling for one person may not be perceived as adequate by others.

It was generally agreed that living on traditional lands did not override the need for adequate housing. However, some people noted that an adequate dwelling, as defined in the ABS statistical definition, was not always essential when considered in the context of the ancestral connection an individual has to country and their ties to spirituality of the land. Examples were provided, such as situations where people were sleeping outside in the landscape, or in an improvised dwelling such as a tent or humpy, to feel at home through their connection to country. While the application of the ABS definition would generally result in a person sleeping outside or in an improvised dwelling being classified homeless, some stakeholders were uncomfortable with this classification in such cases.

Security of tenure in the dwelling

This element covers a person's legal right to occupy a dwelling, with stability and security of tenure such as owning (with or without a mortgage) the dwelling and/or land, or renting with a formal lease or similar right that could be enforced by the tenant. This also includes a familial reflected security of tenure, for example children living with their parents. The rights that could be enforced by the tenant include informal or verbal agreements ('contracts'), written agreements or evidentiary monetary exchange, which establishes a right to occupy that can be enforced through common law and provides the holder with the same residual security of tenure that they would enjoy with a formal lease. Also taken into account is the initial term of the lease agreement, or residual period remaining on a fixed term lease, or the notice period required to terminate a right to occupy (Information Paper - A Statistical Definition of Homelessness, 2012, cat. no. 4922.0).

Throughout the consultation process, the importance of being able to stay in a secure shelter for as long as needed was commonly reported. For people in precarious housing situations, the importance of having secure tenure to stay for as long as needed was highlighted as fundamental to them feeling at home. It was also noted that in some cases people were more likely to feel at home if they were contributing rent.

Many people reported that family and kinship responsibilities would mean there is an expectation to provide shelter for extended family members who required assistance, and that those people would have secure tenure when staying with family for as long as needed. Feedback from engagement suggested that in some cases where a person had no suitable accommodation alternatives and they were staying temporarily with family, they would not be considered homeless due to cultural norms and responsibilities to provide accommodation for family.

Conceptually, people in such circumstances would be considered homeless under the ABS statistical definition because even though they may feel at home, their initial tenure is short and not extendable and they ultimately lack access to stable and secure housing beyond the short term. Supporting this interpretation is other feedback noting that for some people, staying with family in the short term, would not feel like being at home.

Control of, and access to space for social relations

This element covers whether a person or household has control of, and access to space so they are able to pursue social relations, have personal (or household) living space, maintain privacy and the household has exclusive access to kitchen facilities and a bathroom (Information Paper - A Statistical Definition of Homelessness, 2012, cat. no. 4922.0). Under the ABS statistical definition of homelessness, people living in 'severely' crowded conditions are considered to be homeless as they lack control of, and access to space for social relations.

Feedback received during the engagement process largely aligned with this aspect of the definition. People agreed that a home should provide safety and comfort, allow freedom to make decisions and provide space when visitors were staying. The importance of home as a physical boundary to protect personal belongings was also noted. When people did not feel they had these freedoms they reported they would not feel at home. However, some people noted that although they may be living in crowded conditions and have a perceived lack of control and access to space, if they were staying with family they would not see themselves as homeless.

Understanding reasons for different types of mobility and visitor management was also noted as important in order to distinguish between people living in crowded conditions as a result of cultural and family responsibilities from those who have no other accommodation alternatives. Many people noted the importance of homelessness measures to provide accurate estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who:
  • Are 'house-less' and seek long term shelter with family in crowded conditions, because no other suitable accommodation alternatives are available; and
  • Seek short to long term shelter with extended family in crowded conditions as a result of becoming 'stuck in transit' whilst visiting family for cultural or other family business such as caring for relatives and then cannot afford to return to their alternative accommodation.


As noted above, a general finding of this research has been that for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people homelessness can be defined as disconnection from country and/or disconnection from family and community. During consultation it was highlighted that disconnection to country and/or family and community may place people at risk of homelessness, or indeed lead to people experiencing homelessness. During engagement, people reported that in order to avoid being disconnected from their family they may live in crowded conditions. Similarly, if no suitable housing was available on country, people may sleep either outside or in improvised dwellings rather than move to an adequate dwelling that is not on country.

In further understanding the implications of this feedback for homelessness research, stakeholders felt it was important to consider the following types of situations:
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people sleeping rough whilst living on country and who have no other suitable accommodation alternatives, yet may not perceive themselves as homeless;
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are sleeping rough, couch surfing or staying in crowded conditions on country, who have accommodation alternatives which may be culturally inappropriate, or inadequate for the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; and
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have a dwelling that may be located off country or away from community, for example people who are 'stuck in transit' having travelled to a major centre for medical or other reasons, which may result in people feeling homeless.
These types of nuanced situations are not easily captured in official statistics, particularly through broad measures such as those provided by Census. However it is recognised that there would be value in further considering these situations both in their own right, and also alongside current measures of homelessness.

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