Homelessness is significant for both the individuals who either experience homelessness or are directly affected by it, and for society more widely. Homelessness is strongly associated with reduced opportunities for people who are, or have experienced being, homeless to engage with others or to participate in activities such as employment or education. These reduced opportunities may be only temporary, or they may continue to affect people even after the period of homelessness has ended.
There are many complex issues in measuring homeless, as outlined in the recently released ABS Discussion Paper: Methodological Review of Counting the Homeless 2006 (cat. no. 2050.0.55.001) and the ABS Position Paper - ABS Review of Counting the Homeless Methodology, Aug 2011(cat. no. 2050.0.55.002). The GSS provides information on people who have been homeless in the past but who are now usual residents of private dwellings. As the GSS only enumerates usual residents of private dwellings, it will not include: people currently living in shelters; people sleeping rough; people 'couch surfing' (staying temporarily with other households); nor people staying in boarding houses. It may include some people staying in Transitional Housing Management (THM) properties, if the adult staying there at the time of the survey considered that it was their usual residence at that time (THMs have been included in researcher estimates of the homeless).
The GSS asked people about episodes in their lives where they had been without a permanent place to live, about the reasons for those circumstances and about their use of services in relation to periods of homelessness. In 2010, 4.6 million (27%) of adults (aged 18 years or over) reported that they had been without a permanent place to live at some time in their lives. Some of the reasons for not having a permanent place to live were not included in the derived homelessness estimates. These included not having a permanent place to live because the person was: saving money (3%); moving for work-related reasons (3%); building or renovating their home (3%); travelling (4%); house sitting (1%); or having recently moved to a new town or city (9%) (table 39). The remaining 2.1 million adults (13%) who had experienced a period without a permanent place to live were classified as having experienced homelessness at some time in their lives. Common reasons for homelessness included: family, friend or relationship problems (50%); tight housing or rental markets (23%); and financial problems (22%).
According to the 2010 GSS, just over 1.1 million people had experienced at least one episode of homelessness in the previous 10 years. Of these people, 40% sought assistance from a service provider while they were homeless. Of the people who sought assistance when they were homeless, most had approached housing service providers (graph 9.1). Of the 60% who did not seek assistance from service organisations, most (81%) did not seek assistance because they did not feel they needed it.
9.1 Selected types of services used,
Proportion of homeless seeking assistance from service organsiations (a)
For the most recent period of homelessness in the past 10 years, 13% were homeless for less than a week. A further 6% were homeless for less than 2 weeks, and another 12% were homeless for less than 4 weeks. However, 22% had spent 6 months or more without a permanent place to live.
9.2 Length of time without a permanent place to live,
Proportion of people homeless in last 10 years
While the GSS cannot be used to directly derive a prevalence measure of homelessness (i.e., the number of people experiencing homelessness at a point in time), it can inform analysis of homelessness prevalence. In 2010, according to the GSS, 251,000 people aged 18 years or over were estimated to have experienced homelessness in the previous 12 months. This estimate excludes people who were homeless at the time of the survey, which, if they could be included, may increase the total number of people experiencing homelessness in that twelve month period by many tens of thousands. The ABS discussion paper noted above (cat. no. 2050.0.55.001) included an estimate of about 50,000 homeless people aged 18 years or over on a single (Census) night in 2006 (including several thousand homeless people in very remote areas of Australia). If that prevalence estimate were to hold for 2010, then these two sources, taken together, would suggest that there could have been over 300,000 adults experiencing homelessness in the 12 moths prior to the 2010 GSS. This would suggest a ratio of about 6 to one between a prevalence measure of homelessness and the numbers of adults experiencing homelessness in a 12 month period. However, the ABS discussion paper noted that its prevalence measure was an underestimate. If the prevalence estimate should have been much higher, say at 70,000 homeless adults at any one time, the estimated number of people experiencing homelessness over the 12 month period would rise from about 300,000 to 320,000.
Understanding the estimates of the numbers of people experiencing homelessness in a year can be further refined when combined with the length of time for which the most recent period of reported homelessness lasted. The 31% of people experiencing homelessness periods of less than a month (and 13% for less than a week) suggests a relatively high ratio between a point in time prevalence measures and the total number of adults experiencing homelessness.