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FACTSHEET: Homelessness - in concept and in some measurement contexts
Definitions of homelessness are culturally and historically contingent. They range from limited objective measures which conflate homelessness with rooflessness to more equivocal subjective definitions founded on culturally and historically determined ideas of 'home'. The ABS definition of homelessness is informed by an understanding of homelessness as 'home'lessness, not rooflessness. It emphasises the core elements of 'home' in Anglo American and European interpretations of the meaning of home as identified in research evidence (Mallett, 2004). These elements include: a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety, and the ability to control living space. Homelessness is therefore a lack of one or more of the elements that represent 'home'.
Over the last decade there has been increasing international attention on the need for a consistent definition of homelessness, particularly in Europe. Governments, researchers, statisticians, policy makers and service providers alike have recognised that the development of an agreed definition for statistical purposes that allows for consistent measurement of the scope and scale of homeless both within countries but also across countries. In Europe this has led to the development of the European Typology of Homelessness and Housing Exclusion (ETHOS) definition (European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless, 2011). Closer to Australia, the ETHOS definition informed the development of the Statistics New Zealand definition of homelessness (Statistics New Zealand, 2009).
In Australia, while debate about definitions has occurred among academics, policy makers and service providers over the last decade or so, a loose consensus was achieved around the tri-partite cultural definition proposed by Professors Chamberlain and MacKenzie (2008) that spans from rooflessness to insecure and inadequate housing. This definition has informed the estimation undertaken by Chamberlain and MacKenzie of homelessness using Census and other data sources.
In 2008, following widespread discussion in Australia about the meaning and measurement of social inclusion and exclusion, the ABS recognised the need to develop robust and transparent homelessness statistics across a range of ABS datasets. This decision coincided with the release of the Federal Government White Paper on Homelessness (The Road Home) (FaHCSIA, 2008), which highlighted homelessness as an important social issue in Australia and identified the need to "turn off the tap", "break the cycle" and arrest chronic homelessness.
Up until 2008, ABS had neither developed its own definition of homelessness nor adopted any other definition, and it did not provide official estimates of homelessness. However, ABS did support research undertaken by academics Professors Chamberlain and MacKenzie who estimated the numbers of homeless people in Australia using the 1996, 2001 and 2006 Censuses of Population and Housing (Chamberlain, 1999; Chamberlain and MacKenzie 2003, 2008). Their estimation work was underpinned by the cultural definition of homelessness developed by Chamberlain and MacKenzie (2008). The ABS would like to make special acknowledgement of Professor Chris Chamberlain and Associate Professor David MacKenzie for their ground breaking work in establishing a world first approach to the use of Census data in estimation of the homelessness population.
Following the decision to develop official ABS homelessness statistics, the ABS began developmental work in this area by first reviewing the methodology employed by Chamberlain and MacKenzie to estimate homelessness through the Census of Population and Housing. During this review (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2009, 2011a and 2011b) the ABS identified the need to develop a robust, defensible and evidence informed definition of homelessness for statistical purposes. The ABS began this work by reviewing key national (SAAP and Cultural) and international (ETHOS and NZ statistics) definitions.
A key outcome of the ABS review into the methodology for estimating homelessness from the Census, including the homelessness sector consultation that followed, was the establishment of the ABS Homelessness Statistics Reference Group (HSRG). The HSRG was established to provide advice to the ABS about the development of homelessness statistics. A definition sub-group of the HSRG was established to inform the work on the homelessness definition and a methodology sub-group of the HSRG was established to inform on the work on the methodology used to estimate homelessness from the Census of Population and Housing.
This move to producing official ABS statistics on homelessness represents an important development for the ABS and reflects commitment to improve the measurement of housing and homelessness in Australia. The ABS is working to improve the measurement across a range of ABS data sets. To date, the ABS has published information about people who have had a previous experience of homelessness from its 2010 General Social Survey, and will collect similar information in its 2012 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers. The ABS proposes to continue to collect this information in its 2014 General Social Survey in addition to other surveys, as appropriate.
Because of the complexity of homelessness from a social policy and service delivery perspective, there are a wide range of views on what constitutes homelessness. While the ABS has benefitted from expert advice, there are areas where it was not possible to obtain agreement among all experts. In these circumstances, the ABS has balanced the views of different experts and decided, from a statistical perspective, what the appropriate treatment of these circumstances should be. It acknowledges that there will continue to be differences of view, and in producing statistics on homelessness, the ABS will be intending to present the information in a way that alternative views of homelessness can be constructed to suit particular purposes.
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