IMPLICATIONS FOR HOMELESSNESS MEASUREMENT
PURPOSE OF ABS STATISTICAL DEFINITION OF HOMELESSNESS
It is clear from the engagement that when measuring homelessness, there needs to be a clear understanding and distinction between whether the concept of homelessness being explored is based on an objective measure which aims to be consistently applied across population groups, or a measure of self-perception and experience.
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. Given this purpose it is fundamental that the definition reflects an objective measure of homelessness that can be applied consistently across different situations and across different populations. This is particularly important for measuring and comparing outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people against the non-Indigenous population. However, these engagement findings are important when interpreting existing measures of homelessness in an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander context.
Implications for current homelessness measures from the Census
The different perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people emphasised in this paper can be used to help inform the interpretation of estimates of homelessness from the Census. They can also be used to assist the ABS to train staff who might interview Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people during the Census to understand conceptual differences.
An overarching issue impacting the estimates of homelessness derived from the Census, is the under-enumeration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Because of this, the estimates of homelessness based on Census data for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is likely to be an underestimation. In the 2011 Census, the under-enumeration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was 17.2%. Some of those who were not counted in the Census may have been homeless at the time of the Census.
While the current estimates of homelessness will reflect accurate measures of many of the homeless situations reported through engagement, an underestimation of homeless Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were enumerated in the Census may also occur because, for some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, reporting of 'usual residence' may mask their homelessness. The concept of usual residence used in the Census relates to the dwelling in which a person lives the majority of the time. In operational terms it is the dwelling at which a person spends six months or more in the Census year (Information Paper: Population Concepts, 2008, cat. no. 3107.0.55.006). This form of usual residence is concerned with a physical attachment to place, rather than a person's perception of 'home'.
Consultation has shown that this concept of usual residence does not necessarily align with perceptions of 'home' for many Aboriginal and some Torres Strait Islander people. Feedback from engagement highlighted that many Aboriginal people are connected to multiple communities and as such they have multiple 'usual residences' where they feel at home, and are potentially not attached to a single dwelling for more than six months in the year. Aboriginal people reported that their home is more associated with a place or area, rather than with a dwelling, and the perception of home is often tied to connection to country, and/or family and community. Torres Strait Islander people reported their home as being significantly associated with a dwelling although connections to family, community and country were an integral part of their perception of home.
Such concepts are difficult to explore in the Census given the need to produce comparable estimates across population groups. As such, for the Census, it is necessary to continue to employ a more objective measure of usual residence as being the dwelling in which a person lives the majority of the time, for six months or more in the Census year. The implication of this for homelessness estimates derived from the Census is that there is likely an under-reporting of persons with 'no usual address'. This will particularly impact the homeless operational group 'Persons staying temporarily with other households' which represents only 4% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are homeless, compared to 23% of non-Indigenous homeless people.
Conversely, there may be some level of over reporting of 'Persons living in 'severely' crowded dwellings' in cases where people state their usual address is the dwelling they are staying at on Census night when their 'usual address' is actually elsewhere. For example, some feedback suggested people visiting family for cultural reasons may report that they are at 'home' as they are staying with family. In such cases with multiple visitors, this may mean the dwelling is classified as 'severely crowded' as the estimates of severe crowding are derived using the number of usual residents in the dwelling. Potentially offsetting this were discussions that suggested there was some likelihood to under-report the number of people staying in a dwelling due to concerns by residents about breaching housing tenancy arrangements.
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 reported during the engagement included 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 would 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.
The findings of this engagement highlight a number of implications for measurement of homelessness among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including informing analysis of current measures of homelessness from the 2011 Census, and providing information which can inform development of future data collections and research. In particular, these findings provide insights which will be considered in the assessment of topics and data collection strategies for the 2016 Census.
However, while the Census is a key data source for collecting a range of data about all Australians, including data which allows the measurement of homelessness in a consistent, repeatable and transparent way, it is not the most appropriate vehicle for measuring some of the complex concepts which were raised during the engagement in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's perceptions of home and homelessness. Some of these concepts are more appropriately measured and understood through targeted qualitative research, or surveys of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people which can be designed and collected in a culturally appropriate way.
Findings from this engagement have been used to inform and refine the development of a culturally appropriate set of questions on past experiences of homelessness for inclusion in the 2014-15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS). The set of questions collects data on past experiences of homelessness and the reasons for most recent experience of homelessness, and whether assistance was sought. A similar set of questions was included in the 2014 General Social Survey, and this will allow for a comparison of results between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the non-Indigenous population.
The findings of this engagement will be used to inform future collections of housing and homelessness data in the ABS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statistical program, and informing other collections and research on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander homelessness conducted outside of the ABS.