Overview of homelessness in Australia (definition, numbers, risk factors), homelessness in young and old people, impact on young people, and suggested practice approach for social workers (prevent youth homelessness, intervene early, psychosocial assessment, provide support), child aware practice
This page has three sections:
Background Material that provides the context for the topic
A suggested Practice Approach
A list of Supporting Material / References
This section examines homelessness in general terms, youth homelessness and homelessness in older people (over 55 years).
Homelessness – An Overview
Overview of homelessness in Australia (Mission Australia, 2019)
The widely accepted definition of homelessness in Australia, used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, is:
“When a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives, 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.”
Persons are considered homeless when:
living in improvised dwellings or tents
living in short term supported accommodation for the homeless
staying temporarily with friends and relatives
staying temporarily in visitor only households
living in boarding houses
living temporarily in other lodgings
living in severely crowded dwellings
This definition does not include people who are at risk of homelessness. This means that it does not necessarily include people who are living in unsafe situations due to domestic and family violence.
How many people are homeless? (Mission Australia, 2019)
Australia is reliant on two primary evidence sources to record homelessness – the Australian National Census and Specialist Homelessness Services Collection (SHSC) data. Both probably underestimate the problem.
Census (Mission Australia, 2019)
On Census night 2016, there were 116,427 people counted as homeless in Australia, an increase of 13.7% from 102,439 in 2011. 42% were female and 58% were male. 14% were children aged under 12 and 24% were young people aged 12 to 24. Most (44%) lived in severely crowded dwellings.
Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) (from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/hou/322/specialist-homelessness-services-annual-report/contents/clients-services-and-outcomes)
The number of clients assisted by specialist homelessness agencies increased from 279,200 in 2015–16 to almost 290,500 in 2019–20; an average annual increase of 2.6% since 2011–12.
In 2019–20 42% were first time clients; 60% (174,700) were female; 29% (85,000) were under 18; 18% were aged 25-34, most of whom were female.
Upon first presentation, most clients seeking assistance were housed but at risk of homelessness (57% or 152,300); of these, most were living in private or other housing (61% or 92,900) or public or community housing at the time (24% or 36,000).
40% were experiencing homelessness on presentation to a SHS agency. Of these, agencies assisted about 37% into housing, most into private or other housing (almost 16,600) and a further 9,700 into public or community housing.
The average amount of financial assistance provided totalled $976 per client, up from $874 in 2018–19 (not adjusted for inflation)
Domestic and family violence is the main reason women and children leave their homes in Australia and is consistently one of the most common reasons clients seek SHS assistance. In 2019-20, 41% of all SHS clients had experienced DFV with females making up the majority (90%) of this 41%. Half of all younger SHS clients (aged under 18) had experienced DFV.
Surprising facts about the homeless population in Australia (Mission Australia, 2020a)
In Australia, the proportion of older women experiencing homelessness continues to increase. Currently, more than 6,800 women aged 55 and over are homeless, with many moving between family or friends or live in overcrowded dwellings.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (3.3% of the population) account for 20% of all people experiencing homelessness and have much higher rates of overcrowding than the general population.
Children and young people living with a single parent or fleeing domestic and family violence can be particularly vulnerable to homelessness.
Risk Factors / Causes
Homelessness is never a choice. It can be triggered by a range of factors outside of one’s control, both structural and individual, including (Homeless Hub; Mission Australia, 2019):
Inadequate or unstable or unsafe accommodation conditions or overcrowding issues, termination of accommodation situations.
Transitions in custodial and care arrangements, such as exits from out of home care, hospitals and correctional facilities.
Financial stress, gambling problems, housing affordability crises.
Educational disengagement, underemployment and unemployment.
Mental health issues and alcohol, drug and/or substance misuse.
Relationship or family breakdown, child abuse or neglect, sexual assault, and domestic and family violence.
Discrimination, particularly in the case of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; and
Lack of family and community support.
Long waiting lists for social housing and high rental costs can leave many at risk of homelessness (Mission Australia, 2020a).
Definition and Prevalence
The eight situations that define homelessness above also apply to young people. In particular, “couch-surfing” and living in overcrowded dwellings are common experiences of homelessness for young people. As many as three to four per cent of young adults will experience homelessness in a given year. This data has been linked to rising levels of youth unemployment. Historically the rate of homelessness has been lower in urban areas when compared to rural and regional areas. However, in recent years there has been an increase in the rates of homelessness in urban areas. It is, however, important to note that these figures are probably underestimates. For example, census data does not often detect couch-surfing as young people engaged in this do not report an address. In addition, young people often do not utilise homelessness services meaning SHSC data is inaccurate (Boyle, 2020).
Structural causes of homelessness include poverty, housing and labour market conditions, household dissolution and de-institutionalisation. Individual factors that are commonly cited as causes of homelessness include alcohol and other drug use, mental ill-health, education or welfare dependency (Boyle, 2020).
Psychosocial health issues (mental ill-health) are estimated to be a contributing factor for 19 to 35 per cent of young people’s experiences of homelessness. Disorders among young people experiencing homelessness are as varied as major depression, psychosis, mania and hypomania, suicidal thoughts, post- traumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder. Mental ill-health can impact on an individual’s ability to independently manage housing tasks such as budgeting, paying rent or utility bills on time, opening mail or maintaining a property. Symptoms can also lead to unsociable behaviour, such as aggression, that can cause disturbances or conflicts with family, flatmates, neighbours, landlords and employers. These factors can operate in isolation or synchronously to destabilise a person’s living arrangements. People with mental ill-health also have an increased risk of experiencing financial hardship which can contribute to housing instability (Boyle, 2020).
Impact of Homelessness (Mission Australia, 2020b)
For children and young people, homelessness can be particularly devastating to their development and its effects are often long-lasting. Stable, affordable and suitable housing is essential for a young person’s economic, mental, physical and social wellbeing. It is also connected to a positive sense of self, good health, social cohesion and educational completion.
In the 2019 Youth Survey, one in six young people aged 15 - 19 (17%) reported having an experience of some type of homelessness. 6.6% have experienced either time without a fixed address or have lived in a refuge or transitional accommodation. 13% have spent time couch surfing. The impact of homelessness on young people includes
Withdrawal from study (including before completing Year 12)
Lack of confidence to achieve post school goals and future plans
Elevated stress level
Experience of family conflict and discord
Twice as likely to experience bullying—physical, verbal, social and/or cyber
Experiencing some form of psychological distress
Early Intervention and Prevention (Boyle, 2020, NSW Government, 2017)
Early intervention is important for individuals experiencing both homelessness and mental ill-health. The onset of mental ill-health generally occurs in young people with 50% of mental ill-health onset occurring before the age of 15 years, and 75% by the age of 24 years. Targeting preventive measures and effective early interventions for young people presents the best opportunity to reduce the economic burden of mental ill-health over the lifespan. Sohn & Gaetz (2020) emphasise early intervention using a school based program (called “Upstream”) can be effective.
It has been estimated that almost 75% of young people who experience homelessness in adolescence will experience homelessness in later life. Targeted intervention for risk factors to homelessness is critical because, in addition to preventing homelessness, it may also prevent trauma, mental ill-health and alcohol and other drug use problems. Conversely, the younger a person is during their experience of homelessness, the greater the chance that they will exit homelessness if provided with the necessary supports.
Overcoming lower utilisation rates is an implementation challenge for young people experiencing both mental ill-health and homelessness. One of the keyways to help improve utilisation of services is to ensure that young people are involved in the development of preventative and early intervention services and programs to address both homelessness and mental ill-health.
There are measures that can assist young people to achieve housing stability: supported housing, ‘Housing First’ approaches and tenancy support.
Supported housing programs integrate access to housing, tenancy, or psychosocial support services and mental health services under the one umbrella. Supported housing programs have been trialled, or are being trialled, across most Australian states and territories. An evaluation found approximately 90% successfully maintain their tenancy. There was also an improvement in life skills, an increase in community participation and a reduction in behavioural issues among program participants. The key limitation on these programs is the shortfall of social and affordable housing in Australia.
Not all young people transitioning from homelessness meet the requirements or need for supported housing. For this group, ‘Housing First’ emphasises the provision of housing without young people first meeting certain readiness requirements. It provides housing (social, tenancy or temporary) alongside ongoing support to treat health needs.
Tenancy support services are available to
help maintaining a tenancy — such as help with budgeting, support to access existing financial assistance, welfare benefits, tenancy advice, debt counselling, financial management and resolving rent arrears
provide assistance to improve a tenant’s economic participation, such as help to find employment; and
link tenants with broader support services, such as mental health services.
Young people experiencing homelessness commonly experience social isolation both during homelessness and following a transition back into housing. Having social support, particularly family support, can help enable a young person in transitioning back into housing stability. But family may not always be the appropriate support. There is a need to consider the specific circumstances of the young person’s social relationships.
Older People (Mission Australia, 2020c)
One in six people experiencing homelessness are over 55 years (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016). Three things can lead to homelessness among older people:
1. Financial instability For roughly 57% of Australia’s retired population, pension or government allowances are their main source of income (ABS). Multiple factors, out of a person’s control, can contribute to an individual’s financial instability:
Unexpected life events such as the death of a family member, a marriage breakdown or a pandemic
Generations of disadvantage, dispossession from land and impact of stolen generation on older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
Older migrants from culturally and linguistically diverse communities may have less superannuation savings and lack of access and awareness to financial services.
2. Elder abuse Elder abuse can involve physical, financial, emotional or sexual abuse and neglect. Older people can be coerced into making poor decisions about property ownership, wealth, health and wellbeing, which put them at increased risk of homelessness.
3. Disability or illness Disabilities, mental illnesses and the physical and cognitive challenges are experienced more frequently with older age.
Recently the New South Wales Parliament Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues (2022) released a report on homelessness amongst old people aged over 55 in NSW. Their findings included:
The true extent of homelessness amongst older people is unknown.
The primary drivers are financial difficulty, housing crisis and housing affordability stress. Other factors include family and domestic violence, illness and caring responsibilities. Elder abuse is becoming more common and contributing to the increasing rates of homelessness.
There is a direct relationship between insecure housing and poor health outcomes, particularly amongst older people. There is considerable stigma associated with admitting one is struggling with homelessness, contributing to the low rates of self-reporting, particularly older women.
The system of homelessness services is considered complex and difficult for older people to navigate. There is no sense of knowing ‘where to begin’. Moreover, people at risk of homelessness have varied and complex needs.
'Housing-First' and 'Home at Last' models of homelessness service provision are best-placed to assist in addressing the increased prevalence of homelessness among older people. ‘Housing-First’ prescribes safe and permanent housing as the first priority followed by a wraparound service of multidisciplinary supports to ensure people maintain access to their accommodation. Housing and wraparound services are provided as quickly as possible for people experiencing chronic homelessness, with no prerequisites needed. ‘Home At Last’ has an early intervention focus and engages with the community, including local GPs, aged care providers and hospital social workers to identify individuals at risk of homelessness. It is a free service available to all older people on a low income. Social benefits of ‘Home At Last’ are reported to include increased community connections, reduced reliance on multiple community services and increased reliance on government services, and increased contribution of clients to their community via volunteering.
The shortfall in both social and affordable housing is the single greatest challenge for people who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness in New South Wales.
Some groups of older people, in particular women, are disproportionately affected by homelessness and face particular challenges in accessing housing and other support services. These include women, First Nations people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, people with disability and chronic health conditions, carers, LGBTQ+ people, and people in rural, regional and remote areas. Older women are the fastest growing cohort to experience homelessness in Australia because of the shortfall in social and community housing that is appropriate for older women.
Specialist Homelessness Services do not receive adequate funding despite playing a critical role in supporting people who are experiencing homelessness. This funding shortfall makes it particularly difficult for Specialist Homelessness Services to recruit and retain adequate staff. Low wages, challenging work conditions, vicarious trauma and burnout all contribute to the workforce issues faced by homelessness service providers delivering essential services and support to people experiencing homelessness. More funding from emergency and temporary accommodation and transitional housing targeting older people is necessary.
Place-based homelessness and support services play a vital role in assisting older people who are experiencing homelessness through identifying and referring people to appropriate accommodation and housing services.
Social work assistance will vary according to the practice setting and presenting issues. Assistance may involve addressing the individual’s immediate care needs, accessing crisis accommodation and/or linking to agencies that can provide longer term support. Alternatively, assistance may be provided to help clients to access and maintain a stable home.Undertaking a psycho-social assessment is important, an assessment that includes an understanding of what led to homelessness and any available accommodation options, and barriers to returning to previous accommodation or family (AASW, 2019).
In general the literature supports a prevention and early intervention approach to managing homelessness (e.g. NSW Government, 2017). Therefore it is important to be aware of the transition points and risk factors for homelessness and endeavour to support people as they encounter these. Early intervention when a person becomes homeless is paramount because the longer a person remains homeless the more difficult it is to bring homelessness to an end.
Chamberlain and MacKenzie (2006) identify three “homeless careers”—youth career, housing crisis career, and family breakdown career. They describe the stages that can occur in each, transition points between stages and the type of early intervention that may be appropriate.
Grace and Gill (2016) suggest that an individualised case management approach has the potential to reduce homelessness. They found people, generally under 25, who had between 21 and 40 contacts with a case manager over two years ultimately stayed in employment and moved out of homelessness. The study reinforced the need to consider and accommodate individual differences when designing interventions.
Case Management is consistent with the approach suggested by Mission Australia. In its Homelessness Policy (Mission Australia, 2015), suggests people exiting homelessness must be provided with integrated wraparound services across a range of life domains. These should focus on strengths and work with them to further develop their sense they have the power to change their life trajectory. They need to address support needs across a range of areas including health and mental health, education, employment and connection to family and community. Services need to be culturally appropriate and integrated so that health and mental health is supported in conjunction with accommodation and employment.
Borato et al., (2020) support this case management approach in their Family and Natural Supports approach to youth homelessness. They suggest Service delivery of FNS programs and practices must be individualized and client-driven, meeting the needs of young people and their family or natural supports. The program and service delivery should be structured and designed in a way that empowers youth to build resilience and strength to achieve their own goals as they relate to improved relationships. Because the main objective of FNS programs is to enhance a young person’s natural supports, it is imperative that staff work alongside young people to determine the best path forward. Borato et al. provide a detailed service delivery outline in their report. Gaetz et al. (2020) have a similar approach in their Youth Reconnect Program Guide.
Rapid rehousing is the preferred option if it is available and feasible. This reduces the length of time support services may be needed. For example women suffering DFV whose housing was sustained received half the length of support from services (24 days on average) as those who became homeless and then had to be supported (54 days on average). Thus active support to avoid homelessness is not only effective in preventing homelessness but is also a cost-effective measure (Mission Australia, 2019; NSW Government, 2017).
However, due to the shortage of social and affordable accommodation overall, rehousing may not be possible. In this case, non-housing support is necessary, e.g. advice and information, advocacy and liaison, material aid and brokerage (Mission Australia, 2019).
Mission Australia (2019) suggest the following when supporting people made homeless by DFV:
MacKenzie et al. (2020) suggest that active support for young people is the best way to prevent homelessness. Young people often become homeless because of family conflict, violence or abuse at home. Therefore, strategies to help prevent youth homelessness include:
Helping young people reconnect with their families Available evidence indicates this can help improve relationships with family members, improve housing and material circumstances, and assist to identify mental health issues. This program is outlined in more detail by Gaetz et al. (2020).
Helping young people connect to community and education Boyle (2020) makes a number of suggestions in this area.
(i) Raise awareness of available services with the newly homeless, e.g. outreach programs, drop-in centres, mental health services.
(ii) Tailor services to better fit the needs of young people by involving young people in design and delivery. In particular housing programs for young people should emphasise skills and knowledge development, engagement with education and/or work, and social interaction.
(iii) Be alert to the needs of at-risk young people, e.g. Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander young people, young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and young people who identify as LGBTIQ.
(iv) Ensure there is integration of services who work with young people.
(v) Include trauma-informed care in supports available to young people.
Providing young people with youth-specific and appropriate housing Available evidence suggests providing youth-specific and appropriate housing can help support young people to rapidly exit homelessness and establish stable housing and has significant cost offsets. See the section on supported housing, “housing first” and tenancy support in the background material section above.
For older people, preventing homelessness should be a priority by being aware and addressing the three life issues that can lead to homelessness (financial instability, elder abuse and disability or illness mentioned above). If homelessness occurs, then the strategies outlined above may offer some avenues for providing support.
Child Aware Practice
Parents with mental health, addiction, homelessness and family violence issues can cause major difficulties for children. These can have life-long consequences, e.g. suicide, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, high-risk sexual behaviour, violence and criminal offending, homelessness and abuse and neglect of one’s own children.
Therefore, it is important that those supporting adults also assess the impact of adults’ issues on children and take steps to support adults in their parenting role.
This is what Child Aware Practice is about. You will find this topic covered in more detail on the website at https://www.thesocialworkgraduate.com/post/child-aware-practice
(available on request)
AASW: Australian Association of Social Workers. (2019). Scope of social work practice: Homelessness. Retrieved from https://www.aasw.asn.au/document/item/12225
Borato, M., Gaetz, S., & McMillan, L. (2020). Family and natural supports: A framework to enhance young people’s network of support.Toronto, ON: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.Retrieved from https://www.homelesshub.ca/resource/family-and-natural-supports-framework-enhance-young-peoples-network-support
Boyle C. A. (2020). A welcome home: Youth homelessness and mental health. Melbourne: Orygen.
Chamberlain, C. & MacKenzie, D. (2006). Homeless careers: A framework for intervention. Australian Social Work, 59(2), 198-212. doi: 10.1080/03124070600651903
Gaetz, S., Morton, E., Borato, M., & Story, C. (2020). Youth Reconnect Program Guide: An Early Intervention Approach to Preventing Youth Homelessness. Toronto, ON: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press and A Way Home Canada. Retrieved from https://www.homelesshub.ca/youthreconnect
Grace, M. & Gill, P. R. (2016). Client-centred case management: How much makes a difference to outcomes for homeless jobseekers?, Australian Social Work, 69:1, 11-26, doi: 10.1080/0312407X.2015.1016445
Homeless Hub. (2021). Causes of homelessness. Retrieved from https://www.homelesshub.ca/about-homelessness/homelessness-101/causes-homelessness
MacKenzie, D., Hand, T., & Dean, A. (2020). Early intervention strategies to prevent youth homelessness. CFCA. Retrieved from https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/2020/10/15/early-intervention-strategies-prevent-youth-homelessness
Mission Australia. (2015). Mission Australia’s action plan to reduce and prevent homelessness. Retrieved from https://www.missionaustralia.com.au/publications/position-statements/mission-australia-s-review-of-homelessness-2015
Mission Australia. (2017). Ageing and homelessness: Solutions to a growing problem. https://www.missionaustralia.com.au/publications/position-statements/ageing-and-homelessness-solutions-to-a-growing-problem
Mission Australia. (2019). Out of the shadows: Domestic and family violence – a leading cause of homelessness in Australia. Retrieved from https://www.missionaustralia.com.au/domestic-and-family-violence
Mission Australia. (2020a). Australia’s hidden homelessness crisis. Retrieved from https://www.missionaustralia.com.au/homelessness-crisis-ebook-thank-you
Mission Australia. (2020b). Staying home: A youth survey report on young people’s experience of homelessness. Retrieved from https://www.missionaustralia.com.au/publications/youth-survey
Mission Australia. (2020c). What causes homelessness in older people? Retrieved from https://www.missionaustralia.com.au/news-blog/news-media/what-causes-homelessness-in-older-people
NSW Government: Communities and Justice. (2017). NSW homelessness strategy 2018 - 2023. Retrieved from https://www.facs.nsw.gov.au/about/reforms/homelessness
New South Wales Parliament Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues (2022). Report 61: Homelessness amongst older people aged over 55 in New South Wales. https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/lcdocs/inquiries/2865/Report%20No.%2061%20-%20Homelessness%20amongst%20older%20people%20aged%20over%2055%20in%20New%20South%20Wales%20-%20October%202022.pdf
Sohn, J., & Gaetz, S. (2020). The Upstream Project Canada: An Early Intervention Strategy to Prevent Youth Homelessness & School Disengagement. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press. Retrieved from https://www.homelesshub.ca/UpstreamCanada