Re-counting the homeless

Parliament house flag post

Re-counting the homeless

Posted 20/07/2011 by Matthew Thomas

Counting the Homeless reports provide the most comprehensive picture of homelessness in Australia today. However, recently the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released a discussion paper that calls into question the methodology underpinning Counting the Homeless figures. In the paper, the ABS proposes a new methodology for estimating the number of homeless Australians which, if it were implemented, would result in a statistically significant reduction in the estimate of homeless Australians.

For example, applying the ABS’s proposed methodology to 2006 census data reduces the number of homeless people by around 40 per cent, from 104 676 to 63 472 people. Using the methodology on 2001 census data reduces the homeless figure for that year by around 35 per cent, from 99 000 to 65 384. Application of the new methodology suggests that there has been a decrease in homelessness between 2001 and 2006 of 2.9 per cent, rather than an increase of 4.8 per cent, as is otherwise indicated by Counting the Homeless figures.

Not surprisingly, the outcome of the current discussion over how homeless Australians are counted will be of some consequence. For one thing, if the new methodology was adopted, it would mean that the Government’s goal of halving homelessness by 2020 would have been all but achieved. A new methodology could also have implications for the ways in which homelessness is tackled, as the Australian Government relies on Counting the Homeless data in developing homelessness policy and programs and allocating resources.

So, how do we currently count the homeless? Every five years the ABS conducts a census in Australia. As a part of the census process, the ABS uses particular methods and specially trained collectors to arrive at the most accurate count of the homeless population possible. Supplementary information on homeless school students and people staying in Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP) emergency or transitional accommodation is then used by Counting the Homeless researchers to adjust the raw census figures.

There are a number of issues associated with deriving homelessness figures from census data. Homeless people are inherently difficult to count in a census which relies on dwelling-based enumeration. This situation is exacerbated by the transient nature of the homeless population, with homeless people frequently moving from one form of temporary accommodation to another. The ABS attempts to deal with these problems in a number of ways. It undertakes its census count over three or four days, rather than on census night alone, works closely with providers of homeless services and uses people who have experience working with homeless Australians, in order to count rough sleepers.

While methodological issues such as the above are clearly important, it is, arguably, more important to agree on precisely who should be counted as homeless before undertaking a census of Australia’s homeless population. What is required, then, is an operational and generally agreed-upon definition of homelessness, one that enables the collection of meaningful data that can be used to inform policy responses to homelessness.

The ABS employs the definition of homelessness that has been developed by homelessness researchers, Professors Chris Chamberlain and David MacKenzie. This cultural definition of homelessness is based on ‘shared community standards about the minimum housing that people have the right to expect, in order to live according to the conventions and expectations of a particular culture’. The minimum community standard is, in their view, ‘a small rental flat—with a bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom and an element of security of tenure’.

Thus, the cultural definition of homelessness encompasses not only those people who are literally homeless (those who do not have a roof over their heads), but also those who are living in circumstances that fall beneath the minimum community standard.

Some commentators have criticised the Chamberlain and McKenzie definition of homelessness on the grounds that it is too broad and thus potentially overstates the number of homeless Australians. That said, it is important to bear in mind that Australia is one of the few developed nations that has a workable definition of homelessness. This definition has been used for some years, and the ABS has indicated in its discussion paper that it has no intention of changing it.

Nevertheless, through its proposed revisions to the Counting the Homeless methodology, it could be argued that the ABS is challenging aspects of the cultural definition of homelessness. The ABS proposes to revise Counting the Homeless assumptions in relation to: people reporting no usual address but counted in private dwellings on census night; young people staying in a place that was not their usual address, but citing a usual address; and, people counted in improvised dwellings. It has also more strictly applied the Counting the Homeless methodology with regard to people in boarding houses and staying in SAAP accommodation. Applying each of these revisions results in reduced numbers of homeless people being recorded.

It should be noted that the ABS review is still underway, and that many researchers and workers in the homelessness sector have raised concerns around some of the assumptions underpinning the ABS’ proposed new methodology. For example, the national peak homelessness body, Homelessness Australia has taken issue with many of the above proposed revisions. Based on the views of those who work in the homelessness sector, it has argued that the Counting the Homeless reports are more likely to under-estimate rather than over-estimate the number of Australians who are homeless on any given night. Similarly, George Seymour, the president of a youth homelessness shelter in Queensland, has pointed out that some of the assessments of young people’s experiences ‘are sharply at odds with the experiences and views of the sector and researchers’.

Without discounting the importance of developing a methodology for counting the homeless that is rigorous and consistent, it is unlikely that universal agreement will be reached on technical issues such as definitions and census methodologies. In any case, arguably what is most important is that we have enough of a grasp of the scale and nature of homelessness in Australia to develop and implement effective policy responses. As Seymour puts it:

Whatever the outcome of the ABS review, whether it is deemed that we have 105,000, 63,000 or some other number of people homeless on any one night, the moral imperative remains. We should never turn our backs on the most disadvantaged members of our society. A society is only as good as the circumstances it allows its most unfortunate and dispossessed members to find themselves in. We may not have the ability to count the homeless with full accuracy, to precisely quantify the problem, but as a people we have the resources, the compassion and the ingenuity to fix it.

Thank you for your comment. If it does not require moderation, it will appear shortly.

Add your comment

[Click to expand]

We welcome your comments, or additional information which is relevant to a post. These can be added by clicking on the ‘Add your comment’ option above. Please note that the Parliamentary Library will moderate comments, and reserves the right not to publish comments that are inconsistent with the objectives of FlagPost. This includes comments that are not relevant to the article, factually incorrect or politically partisan, as well as spam, profanity and personal abuse. We will close comments after three months.

Generate a new image
Type characters from the image:

Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Add | Email Print


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

Parliamentary Library Logo showing Information Analysis & Advice




refugees asylum immigration climate change Australian foreign policy Parliament social security elections welfare reform welfare policy school education Australian Defence Force health financing indigenous Australians women Private health insurance higher education emissions trading people trafficking Middle East taxation Employment illicit drugs gambling health reform federal election 2010 Medicare disability Sport Australian Bureau of Statistics statistics United Nations Asia criminal law Afghanistan income management health forced labour Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency World Anti-Doping Agency United States federal budget Industrial Relations Carbon Pricing Mechanism politics dental health Australian Public Service constitution Australian Electoral Commission WADA transport aid child protection environment poker machines Australia in the Asian Century steroids National Disability Insurance Scheme detention aged care 43rd Parliament slavery health system OECD ASADA Law Enforcement Australian Federal Police Fair Work Act governance labour force people smuggling debt international relations New Zealand food Australian Crime Commission pharmaceutical benefits scheme banking International Women's Day corruption pensions public service reform children's health Aviation federal election 2013 foreign debt gross debt net debt defence capability parliamentary procedure Senate Senators and Members ALP Newstart Parenting Payment multiculturalism Youth Allowance sea farers High Court skilled migration UK Parliament election results voting mental health Federal Court terrorist groups science social media Higher Education Loan Program HECS federal state relations accountability Papua New Guinea youth paid parental leave same sex relationships coal seam gas customs planning doping crime health risks Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling sex slavery Special Rapporteur Northern Territory Emergency Response social policy firearms public policy Census Population violence against women domestic violence China ADRV terrorism transparency research and development welfare ASIO intelligence community Australian Security Intelligence Organisation carbon tax mining military history electoral reform employer employee renewable energy regional unemployment fishing by-election European Union family assistance United Nations Security Council Australian economy forestry food labelling vocational education and training Drugs welfare systems Indonesia children Constitutional reform local government codes of conduct terrorist financing homelessness Parliamentary remuneration money laundering Trafficking in Persons Report energy social inclusion human rights paternalism early childhood education Canada Financial sector national security fuel disability employment Tasmania integrity standards NATO Australian Secret Intelligence Service sexual abuse World Trade Organization Australia public health housing affordability bulk billing political parties water productivity health policy Governor-General US economy trade unions export liquefied natural gas foreign bribery question time speaker superannuation public housing expertise climate Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change leadership Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry regulation Pacific Islands reserved seats new psychoactive substances synthetic drugs UNODC carbon markets animal health middle class welfare Indigenous constitutional recognition of local government referendum consumer laws PISA competition policy royal commission US politics language education baby bonus Leaders of the Opposition citizen engagement policymaking Australia Greens servitude Trafficking Protocol forced marriage rural and regional alcohol entitlements ministries Hung Parliament social citizenship maritime Iran ANZUS regional students school chaplains federal budget 2011-12 salary Medicare Locals primary care Building the Education Revolution procurement Indigenous health e-voting internet voting nsw state elections 44th Parliament 2015 ABS Age Pension Death penalty capital punishment execution Bali nine Bali bombings Trade EU China soft power education Fiji India Disability Support Pension Antarctica Diplomacy by-elections state and territories Bills anti-corruption fraud bribery corporate ownership whistleblower G20 economic reform innovation Members of Parliament Scottish referendum Middle East; national security; terrorism social services Criminal Code Amendment (Misrepresentation of Age to a Minor) Bill 2013 online grooming sexual assault of minors ACT Assembly smoking plain packaging tobacco cigarettes Asia; Japan; international relations Work Health and Safety Migration; asylum seekers; regional processing China; United States; international relations fiscal policy Racial Discrimination Act; social policy; human rights; indigenous Australians Foreign policy Southeast Asia Israel Palestine asylum refugees immigration political finance donations foreign aid Economics efficiency human rights; Racial Discrimination Act employment law bullying asylum seekers Animal law; food copyright Australian Law Reform Commission industry peace keeping contracts workplace policies same-sex marriage disorderly conduct retirement Parliament House standing orders prime ministers election timetable sitting days First speech defence budget submarines workers Somalia United Kingdom GDP world heritage political engagement leave loading Trade; tariffs; safeguards; Anti-dumping public interest disclosure whistleblowing Productivity Commission limitation period universities Ireland cancer gene patents genetic testing suspension of standing and sessional orders live exports infant mortality honorary citizen railways disciplinary tribunals standard of proof World Health Organisation arts international students skilled graduate visas temporary employment visas apologies roads Italy national heritage NHMRC nutrition anti-dumping Rent Assistance obesity evidence law sacrament of confession US presidential election international days DFAT UN General Assembly deregulation Regulation Impact Statements administrative law small business Breaker Morant regional engagement social determinants of health abortion Members suspension workplace health and safety marine reserves hearing TAFE Victoria astronomy resources sector YMCA youth parliament Korea rebate Australian Greens presidential nomination Racial Discrimination Act political parties preselection solar hot water Financial Action Taskforce Horn of Africa peacekeeping piracy Great Barrier Reef Stronger futures political financing political education Social Inclusion Board early childhood National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care Murray-Darling Basin sanctions Norway hospitals republic President Barack Obama Presidential visits qantas counselling Korean peninsula Work Choices biosecurity hendra environmental law federalism federation preselection therapeutic goods Therapeutic Goods Administration plebiscites computer games pests suicide nuclear COAG Ministerial Councils floods ADHD stimulant medication advertising electricity extradition conscience votes poverty preventative health rural health coastal erosion Parliamentary Budget Office work-life balance

Show all
Show less
Back to top