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Topics @ a Glance - Housing and Homelessness
Using Homelessness Statistics






    Researchers and policy makers have applied a range of definitions when considering homelessness in Australia. The ABS statistical definition of homelessness incorporates an understanding of homelessness as being marked by an absence of 'home', rather than the more restricted idea of 'rooflessness'. The ABS definition supports a broader consideration of homelessness, grounded in the core elements of 'home' as identified in research evidence (Mallet, 2004). This statistical definition provides a basis for more consistent, transparent and repeatable measurement and investigation of homelessness in Australia. Importantly, the definition also supports the investigation of discreet homelessness sub-populations (known as operational groups) to address specific statistical, research or policy needs.

    In brief, the ABS statistical definition of homelessness is that:

    When a person does not have suitable accommodation alternative they are considered homeless if their current living arrangement:
    • is in a dwelling that is inadequate; or
    • has no tenure, or if their initial tenure is short and not extendable; or
    • does not allow them to have control of, and access to, space for social relations.

    For more information see Information Paper - A Statistical Definition of Homelessness, 2012 (cat. no. 4922.0).

    Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Perspectives

    The ABS definition of homelessness has been developed for application to the general population in Australia, acknowledging that some of the definition's core elements may be more or less relevant for some cultural groups. The ABS recognised that such differences in understanding may exist amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. In recognition of the unique cultural circumstances of this group, the ABS is undertaking further research into the application of the ABS statistical definition of homelessness in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander context. This work will inform both enumeration and subsequent estimation of homelessness among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Census of Population and Housing. The ABS will also work to develop as culturally appropriate question module on previous experiences of homelessness suitable for inclusion in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS). It is anticipated that this module would also support comparison with results for the total population from the General Social Survey (GSS).

    There are a number of types of homelessness statistics which may be of interest for particular purposes, including (but not limited to):
    • prevalence - a point in time estimate of the total number of people experiencing homelessness;
    • incidence - the number of people experiencing homelessness within a particular time period (e.g. over 12 months); and
    • longitudinal - information collected for the same individuals or households at more than one point in time.


    A fundamental estimate of homelessness is prevalence. Prevalence is an estimate of how many people experienced homelessness at a particular point-in-time. A prevalence estimate should ensure that each person is included only once in the estimate. An accurate measure of the prevalence of homelessness allows society to judge the scale of the problem. If prevalence measures can be estimated on a consistent, comparable basis and at regular intervals, then trends and the direction of change can be determined. This allows monitoring of the numbers of those who were homeless, and can be used to identify if interventions or policies have been successful.

    Importantly, if policy and program action is to target preventing, or ameliorating the circumstances of homelessness, knowing the locations of the homeless, and their characteristics, is necessary for effective targeting. Such knowledge also allows monitoring of the outcomes of programs to identify what interventions are successful. Ideally, fine geographic level prevalence measures allow consideration of where homeless people are located for place based targeting of services and other interventions. The characteristics of the homeless population (e.g. sex, age, or Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin) by homelessness operational group are also valuable delineations of point-in-time measures.


    A second measure of homelessness is an estimate of the number of people experiencing at least one period of homelessness over a given period of time, for example, over a 12 month period. Incidence measures, sometimes referred to as flow measures, have value in informing service provision by showing the potential demand for services over a given period.

    Incidence measures show all experiences of homelessness over a period, and, in practice, may include multiple incidences of homelessness for some individuals. Unfortunately, it is also difficult to find a collection vehicle to provide information in 'real time.' Counts of those who access services is one option, however, these incidence measures are constrained to the services available, and to their population of service users. People's recall of their past experiences is another collection approach, but recall accuracy can be problematic especially for repeat periods of homelessness.


    A person's homelessness experience may be temporary, persistent or recurrent/relapsing. Data on the typical length of an experience of homelessness, along with the type of homelessness experienced and where the person stayed while homeless, is important. Information on the number of experiences of homelessness for an individual over a given period of time also increases understanding of movements into, and pathways out of, homelessness. Critical to the analysis of such experience data is the ability to identify sub-populations and the characteristics of persons with particular experiences. This enables services to be developed and targeted to certain types of homeless experiences.

    Obtaining extra information on the events that both trigger (directly or indirectly) how a person becomes homeless, how they 're-home' and circumstances that may lead to future periods of homelessness, are also important. This information helps in developing programs to identify people who are 'at risk' of homelessness and to intervene before they become homeless (or homeless again). It also provides critical information on factors that need to be considered in successfully supporting people out of homelessness.


    This section describes the main collections for homelessness statistics and outlines the information that is available. While different collections inform on different aspects of homelessness, care should be taken when comparing homelessness data from different sources due to the different collection methodologies and the different scope of the collections. Nevertheless, collectively, these sources provide useful empirical insights into homelessness in Australia.

    Summary of types of data, information provided and sources

    Types of data
    Information provided
    How many people affected at a point in time?
    What are their characteristics?
    Where are they located?
    Census of Population and Housing
    ABS surveys (e.g. GSS, SDAC, NATSISS).
    How many people are affected over a period?
    Specialist Homelessness Service Collection
    How do people become homeless?
    How does homelessness affect their lives?
    What helps them find homes again?
    Journeys Home
    Longitudinal Study of Reconnect Clients

    ABS Census of Population and Housing

    The Census of Population and Housing is the best source to obtain prevalence estimates of the number of homelessness people in Australia at a particular point in time and can be compared over time to track increases or decreases in homelessness. These estimates also report on, and allow analysis of, the characteristics and living arrangement of those who were most likely to have been homeless on Census night (see Census Fact Sheet on Homelessness for more information). In particular, the prevalence estimates from the Census can:

    1) identify the locations of the homeless to inform place based policies and programs concerned with prevention, early intervention or amelioration of homelessness;

    2) identify the characteristics of the homeless population (e.g. sex, age, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin, country of birth) by homelessness operational group to inform policies and programs targeted at particular population sub groups.

    The Census of Population and Housing is conducted every five years and collects a range of demographic, social and economic information from all people and dwellings (excluding diplomatic personnel and dwellings) in Australia on Census night. It measures the number of people in Australia on Census night, their key characteristics, and the dwellings in which they live.

    However, 'homelessness' itself is not a characteristic that is directly measured in the Census. Instead, estimates of the homeless population may be derived from the Census using analytical techniques, based on both the characteristics observed in the Census and assumptions about the way people may respond to Census questions. Variables collected in the Census that were designed for other purposes are interpreted as proxies for likely homelessness. The ABS methodology includes in its homelessness estimates groups of people who were enumerated in the Census and, on balance, were most likely to have been homeless on Census night.

    The ABS has developed six homeless operational groups for presenting estimates of people enumerated in the Census who were likely to have been homeless on Census night. These six groups are:

    • Persons in improvised dwellings, tents, sleepers out;
    • persons in supported accommodation for the homeless;
    • persons staying temporarily with other households;
    • persons in boarding houses;
    • persons in other temporary lodgings; and
    • persons living in severely crowded dwellings.
    More information on how these groups satisfy the definition of homelessness can be found in Information Paper - Methodology for Estimating Homelessness from the Census of Population and Housing, 2012 (cat. no. 2049.0.55.001).

    The ABS methodology for producing official estimates of homelessness using Census data was developed in consultation with ABS' Homelessness Statistics Reference Group and builds on the ABS review of the methodology developed by Professors Chamberlain and MacKenzie for their estimates of homelessness using both the 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).

    ABS General Social Survey

    The General Social Survey is a multidimensional social survey providing information on a wide range of key areas of concern for Australians, including for the first time in 2010, information on people who have been homeless in the past. The GSS provides information on a range of other characteristics of persons experiencing previous episodes of homelessness. This includes their income, wealth, feelings of safety, experience of violence, contact with friends and relatives, housing mobility and problems accessing services, etc. This type of information can be used to compare the life outcomes and circumstances of those who have and have not been homeless in the past.

    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 properties, if the adult staying there at the time of the survey considered that it was their usual residence at that time.

    For more information on how to use GSS survey data see the General Social Survey: User Guide, Australia, 2010 (cat. no. 4159.0.55.002).

    Other ABS Collections

    The homelessness module used in the GSS has also added to other ABS social surveys to support additional analysis of the circumstances of persons who experience homelessness. Most recently, this module was repeated in the 2012 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers. A culturally appropriate module on the previous experiences of homelessness is expected to be included in the 2014 NATSISS. The 2012 Personal Safety Survey collected information about housing arrangements following separation from a violent partner. The 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing also collected information on previous experiences of homelessness.

    In addition, The ABS is also investigating the potential use of the 5% Statistical Longitudinal Census Dataset to undertake longitudinal analysis of the circumstances of those who have been identified as likely to be homeless.
    Specialist Homelessness Service Collection

    The Specialist Homelessness Services Collection provides incidence measures for those people who access specialist homelessness services. Such measures can show the potential demand for services over a given period.

    The Specialist Homelessness Service Collection is conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). This collection is compiled from data on the clients of specialist homelessness agencies, the assistance they sought and were provided, and the outcomes achieved for clients. The data collection identifies support periods, including previous periods of homelessness and the people turned away from homelessness agencies.

    For results from this collection and other related homelessness material see the AIHW Homelessness publications page.

    Journeys Home: A Longitudinal Study of the Factors Affecting Housing Stability

    The Journeys Home helps inform on the economic, social and personal factors that can lead to homelessness and the reasons why some people fall into homelessness while others in the same circumstances do not.

    Journeys Home is funded by the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) and managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne. It is the first large scale longitudinal study of its kind in Australia, following the lives of around 1,600 income support recipients who are homeless or have high levels of housing insecurity. The study is of four waves over two years with the last wave finishing in May 2013.

    Research reports from Wave 1 and Wave 2 can be accessed from the Australian Homelessness Clearinghouse website. The Wave 3 report is due in mid-2013 and the Wave 4 report in late 2013.

    Longitudinal Study of Reconnect Clients

    Reconnect is an early intervention program aimed at reducing youth homelessness that is run by the FaHCSIA. It seeks to reconnect young people (aged 12 to 18 years) who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness, with their families, education, employment and the community. As part of the Reconnect Program evaluation, FaHCSIA conducted a two-year longitudinal study of the Reconnect services' role in building community capacity for early intervention into youth homelessness. A report on the conclusions of Longitudinal study of the Reconnect Program entitled Building Community Capacity for Early Intervention can be found on the FaHCSIA website.

    A statistical report on the longitudinal study, Longitudinal survey of Reconnect clients, can also be found on the FaHCSIA website. This report provides a detailed profile of the Reconnect client population stressing the complexity of problems this group of young people face. It assesses the impact that Reconnect has had on its clients, particularly in relation to their engagement with family and social supports. This survey also examines the impact that Reconnect has had on the general well-being of its clients and on their ability to engage with education and the community.


    Homelessness - in concept and in some measurement contexts

    Youth Homelessness

    Transitional Housing


    Domestic and Family Violence

    Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Homelessness

    Commonwealth of Australia 2008

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