2049.0.55.001 - Information Paper - Methodology for Estimating Homelessness from the Census of Population and Housing, 2012  
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Contents >> Introduction >> INTRODUCTION


Homelessness is not just the result of too few houses - its causes are many and varied. Domestic violence, a shortage of affordable housing, unemployment, mental illness, family breakdown and drug and alcohol abuse all contribute to the level of homelessness in Australia (FaHCSIA, 2008a). Homelessness is not a choice.

For some people, homelessness is an isolated event - it happens once and for a short time. For others, a small minority, homelessness is part of a chaotic and uncertain life of poverty and disadvantage. These people tend to cycle in and out of homelessness and when they do find housing, it tends to be short term (FaHCSIA, 2008a).

People who are homeless are among the most marginalised people in Australia. Homelessness is one of the most potent examples of disadvantage in the community, and one of the most important markers of social exclusion (Department of Human Services Victoria, 2002). To have a socially inclusive Australia, all Australians need to have the capabilities, opportunities, responsibilities and resources to learn, work, engage and have a say (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2012). Homelessness freezes people out of opportunities that most Australians enjoy (FaHCSIA, 2008b).

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) General Social Survey 2010 identified that those people who had experienced homelessness at some time in the previous 10 years were much more likely to be socially excluded than those people who had never been homeless. Overall, people who had experienced homelessness were:

  • more likely to have lower levels of educational attainment;
  • more likely to have a disability or long-term health condition;
  • more than four times as likely to report that they had a disability type or restriction which was psychological;
  • nearly three times as likely to report having been a victim of violence in the previous 12 months;
  • more likely to live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods;
  • nearly five times as likely to report multiple types of cash flow problems such as being unable to pay bills on time, and ten times as likely to have gone without meals because they could not afford them;
  • much more likely to be unemployed; and
  • twice as likely to be supported by government pensions or allowances

(Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012a)

Homelessness may be the cause of, or the result of disadvantage and social exclusion. And disadvantage and social exclusion may persist even after a person is no longer homeless.

Effectively targeting policies and services, monitoring progress and understanding outcomes for those who are or have been homeless, requires transparent, consistent and relatable statistics. However, people who are homeless are among the hardest population to collect statistics from. The ABS has developed a program of social statistics on homelessness that includes, but is not limited to, the development of prevalence measures from the five yearly Census of Population and Housing and through longitudinal linkage to report on outcomes of and pathways into homelessness; reporting previous experiences of homelessness through household surveys such as the General Social Survey, and the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers; and experiences of homelessness for people who leave a violent partner through the Personal Safety Survey.

Comparable quality statistics, over time and across data sources, require a clear conceptual framework and definition to underpin the operationalisation of that definition in multiple collections, including fine tuning those datasets for that purpose.

The ABS Information Paper: A Statistical Definition of Homelessness (cat. no. 4922.0) outlines the ABS' statistical definition of homelessness which will underpin all ABS statistics on homelessness.

This methodology Information Paper presents the ABS methodology for estimating the prevalence of homelessness using data from the ABS Census of Population and Housing, based on the ABS statistical definition. A summary of the definition is provided in Chapter 3 of this methodology publication.

Not all dimensions of the ABS definition of homelessness can be operationalised in all data collections. This publication therefore also reports on the limitations of using Census data to estimate the prevalence of homelessness for some populations such as youth, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and persons fleeing domestic or family violence.

Notwithstanding the limitations of any methodology that might be applied to estimate homelessness from the Census, the ABS methodology does provide estimates of people enumerated in the Census who were most likely to have been homeless on Census night that can be compared over time to track increases or decreases in homelessness. These estimates also report on the characteristics and living arrangements of those who were most likely to have been homeless on Census night.

The ABS will publish an Information Paper: Guide to Homelessness Statistics (cat. no. 4923.0) in November 2012 to assist users with analysing not just estimates compiled from the Census but also from other available data sources to obtain a more complete picture of homelessness. The guide will outline which parts of the homeless definition ABS collections can, or cannot capture.

The ABS methodology for producing official estimates of homelessness using Census data was developed in consultation with the ABS' Homelessness Statistics Reference Group (HSRG) and builds on the ABS review of the methodology developed by Professors Chamberlain and MacKenzie for their estimates of homelessness that used both Census and other data sources. The review findings, and the consultation process including discussion forums in all capital cities and submissions from a wide range of interested parties, are described in the ABS' publications: Discussion Paper: Methodological Review of Counting the Homeless, 2006, (cat. no. 2050.0.55.001) and Position Paper - ABS Review of Counting the Homeless Methodology, August 2011 (cat. no. 2050.0.55.002).

The ABS will publish final official homeless estimates from the 2006 and 2001 Censuses on 12 September 2012 in the publication: Census of Population and Housing: Estimating Homelessness, 2006 (cat. no. 2049.0). Estimates from the 2011 Census will be published in November under the same catalogue number.

Because of both the complexity of homelessness and the degree of uncertainty when using Census data to estimate homelessness, there are a wide range of views on the best practical approximations of homelessness that can be compiled from Census data. While the ABS has benefited 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 most appropriate methodology needs to be to deliver both transparency and consistency for measuring change over time. The ABS acknowledges that there will continue to be differences of views on methodology, and in producing official statistics on homelessness from the Census, so the data are presented in detail to allow users to see the components that have been included in the estimates. The ABS intends to present the information in such a way that alternative methodologies may be applied.

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