'There's no home-like place' - Homelessness in Australia

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'There's no home-like place' - Homelessness in Australia

E-Brief: Online Only issued 9 November 2000

Greg McIntosh, Analysis and Policy
Janet Phillips, Information/E-links
Social Policy Group

Defining Homelessness

In an Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Occasional Paper, Counting the Homeless; Implications for Policy Development, it was estimated that on census night 1996 there were 20,579 people in improvised dwellings, or sleeping out in Australia. When these figures were added to the figures for those in boarding houses (23,299), those in Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP) accommodation (12,926) and those staying with friends and relatives (48,500), a total of 105,304 people were estimated to be 'homeless' in Australia on that one night.

When the ABS study was released in December 1999, the Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Jocelyn Newman, noted in a media release that the study 'has taken a broad and inclusive definition of homelessness which has resulted in a much higher figure than some other estimates.'

The difficulty of obtaining agreement on a set of figures to indicate the number of homeless people in Australia is attributable, in part, to the problem of how to define homelessness or, to put it another way, who to include as 'homeless'.

Chris Chamberlain, author of the ABS Occasional Paper referred to above, says that '[t]here can be no meaningful public debate about the best policy responses to assist homeless people, unless there is reliable information on the number of homeless people in the community'.

The Supported Accommodation Assistance Program Act 1994 defines a 'homeless' person as follows:

For the purposes of this Act, a person is homeless if, and only if, he or she has inadequate access to safe and secure housing. (Section 4)

The Act goes on to define 'inadequate access to safe and secure housing'.

For the purposes of this Act, a person is taken to have inadequate access to safe and secure housing if the only housing to which the person has access:

  1. damages, or is likely to damage, the person's health; or
  2. threatens the person's safety; or
  3. marginalises the person through failing to provide access to:
  1. adequate personal amenities; or
  2. the economic and social supports that a home normally affords; or
  1. places the person in circumstances which threaten or adversely affect the adequacy, safety, security and affordability of that housing.

In its publication, Australia's Welfare 1999, Services and Assistance, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) pointed to five situations on which definitions of homelessness tend to focus. These are:

  • currently living on the street;
  • living in crisis or refuge accommodation;
  • living in temporary arrangements without security of tenure-for example, moving between the residences of friends or relatives, living in squats, caravans or improvised dwellings, or living in boarding houses;
  • living in unsafe family circumstances-for example, families in which child abuse or domestic violence is a threat or has occurred;
  • living on very low incomes and facing extraordinary expenses or personal crisis.

Most definitions, including that in the SAAP Act, allow for considerations of 'safety' and 'security' as well as the need for basic shelter.

Chamberlain suggests that different definitions arise for different purposes. These fall into two main forms. There are, he says, 'service delivery definitions', such as that included in the SAAP Act, and 'advocacy definitions', such as the one used by the Council for Homeless Persons in 1995:

A homeless person is without a conventional home and lacks most of the economic and social supports that a home normally affords. She/he is often cut off from the support of relatives and friends, she/he has few independent resources and often has no immediate means and in some cases little prospect of self support. She/he is in danger of falling below the poverty line, at least from time to time.

It may be helpful to think of 'degrees' of homelessness, from the seemingly destitute 'rough sleeper' to those who have a shelter but who are unsafe in that shelter or who lack security of tenure and are therefore at risk of homelessness. It is worth bearing in mind too that a count or an estimate taken at a point in time cannot represent the episodes of homelessness that individuals or families may experience over time and which may involve a range of temporary solutions or responses.

According to Chamberlain, there is an 'emerging consensus' around a three tiered idea of 'primary', 'secondary' and 'tertiary' homelessness. The three tiered model is a cultural definition based on 'minimum community standards' of housing. Thus, anyone living below what is accepted as a minimum standard can be classified as 'homeless'.

As Chamberlain suggests, the formation of policy and the targeting of resources depend on the availability of reliable information on the different categories of homelessness. It may be that there is a greater willingness in the community to direct resources at young homeless people, or at those who appear to be living on the street or 'sleeping rough' on a permanent basis. On the other hand, there may be a perception of 'choice' associated with those sleeping rough and a greater willingness therefore to target those individuals or families living in temporary accommodation, or those at risk or without security of tenure. In October 2000, Mission Australia stated that, '[f]amilies with children are the fastest growing group among Australia's homeless'. (Fact Sheet - Family Homelessness in Australia)

An approach that acknowledges degrees of homelessness may allow for more carefully categorised numbers and minimise the controversy stemming from the use of disputed statistics.

Commonwealth Programs and Support for the Homeless


There are numerous programs (Commonwealth, State and Local) that governments in Australia run and/or fund with a view to alleviating or preventing homelessness. The community sector, and to a lesser extent the private sector, also provide resources and support to those suffering or in danger of suffering homelessness. The emphasis here is on programs and support for the homeless that are funded by the Commonwealth. As well as the programs outlined below the Commonwealth also provides a range of social security benefits (for example, the youth allowance and aged, disability and unemployment benefits) and health and other welfare type benefits/support which may be accessed by homeless people or by people who are in danger of being homeless. Initiatives with regard to reducing drug abuse, improving family relationships and various crime prevention measures can also be viewed as measures that will have an impact on the level of homeless. Because of this it is difficult to get an accurate overall picture of the total Commonwealth effort being directed at alleviating homelessness. What follows is a brief overview of the main programs and initiatives in the homeless area.

The Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP)

The Commonwealth’s main homeless specific program is the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP). SAAP, which commenced in 1985, replaced a host of programs that had been directed to homeless people prior to that time. SAAP is a joint Commonwealth-State program that essentially provides recurrent funding to in excess of 1200 agencies that provide services and assistance to people who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless. On average the Commonwealth provides approximately 55% of total SAAP funding with the remaining 45% coming from the States and Territories. In 1997-98 a total of $224m ($125m Commonwealth/$99m State-Territory) was provided for the SAAP (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australia's Welfare 1999, Oct.1999, p.304). The Commonwealth's contribution in 1999-2000 was $156.9m (FACS Annual Report 1999-2000, p.88).

The main groups that the SAAP targets are women escaping domestic violence, young people and single men and women, with the first two of these groups being the areas where most SAAP resources are directed.

A detailed review and evaluation of SAAP was undertaken in 1998 and the report from this evaluation (released in 1999), whilst acknowledging the many achievements of the Program, did highlight the problem of unmet demand with respect to the homeless problem. With this in mind the evaluation recommended that the Commonwealth should increase its recurrent funding in the first year of the new SAAP Agreement (2000) by approximately 25%. The federal government has only partly taken up this recommendation. In terms of forward commitments…

the Commonwealth has allocated over $650 million over the five years to 2003-04 for the continuation of the Program, and the 1999-2000 Federal Budget provided an additional $45 million over six years ($8 million recurrently) to meet wage-related costs in some States and Territories. A further $60 million over four years, beginning in 2000-2001 was announced in the context of the tax reform negotiations.' (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australia's Welfare 1999, Oct.1999, p.305).

The Commonwealth State Housing Agreement (CSHA) and the Crisis Accommodation Program (CAP)

The Commonwealth State Housing Agreement (CSHA) is also a long running Commonwealth-State arrangement which aims to assist both renters and purchasers obtain appropriate accommodation. It is mainly concerned with the provision of public housing and in recent years housing from the CSHA has become increasingly the preserve of people on low incomes or who are disadvantaged in some way.

Included under the ambit of the CSHA is the Crisis Accommodation Program (CAP). The CAP is a Commonwealth program that provides capital funding to allow the purchase of housing for people who are homeless or in crisis. CAP funding allows the purchase of dwellings to accommodate clients of the SAAP program. Funding for the CAP has remained constant at $40m per year since 1996-97 and is projected to stay at this level through to 2002-2003. (Data supplied by the Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services.) Thus, in real terms, funding for the CAP is declining.

Rent Assistance (RA)

Rent Assistance (provided by the Commonwealth) provides rental assistance to low income households and individuals in the private housing market. Assistance is in the form of a non-taxable income supplement paid to people who receive income support payments or more than minimum family payment in recognition of housing costs in the private market. Expenditure on RA has been steadily increasing in recent years – from $1468 m in 1997-98 to $1538m in 1999-2000. (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australia's Welfare 1999 Oct.1999, p.341, Department of Family and Community Services, Annual Report 1999-2000, p.92.)

The Emergency Relief Program (ERP)

The Emergency Relief Program (ERP) provides funding to community and welfare organisations in order that they can assist families and individuals in short term financial crisis. Assistance is provided in the form of income support and/or other support. The Commonwealth provided approximately $24.5m for the Emergency Relief Program in 1999-2000. (FACS, Annual Report 1999-2000, p.102)

Group Specific Programs


As well as targeted support for youth homelessness under the ambit of SAAP, and the provision of income support measures such as the Youth Allowance, there are other initiatives funded by the Commonwealth aimed at alleviating homelessness amongst young people. In 1996 a Prime Ministerial Youth Taskforce was established and arising out of the deliberations of that Taskforce a Youth Homelessness Pilot Program was trialed. The trial involved 26 pilot programs across Australia that aimed at encouraging young people to reconcile their differences with their families and improve their educational and training skills. Approximately $11m of funding for the plot program was provided by the Commonwealth over the period 1996-97 to 1998-99. (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australia's Welfare 1999 Oct.1999, p.306)

The pilot program ceased in 1999 but was replaced by the Reconnect Program, a new Youth Homelessness Early Intervention Program. As announced in the context of the 1999-2000 Federal Budget, the Commonwealth plans to allocate a total of $60m over a period of four years to the new early intervention program. (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australia's Welfare 1999 Oct.1999, p.306)

For more information on youth homelessness see the Department of Family and Community Services youth homelessness website.


The Commonwealth also provides funding for a range of other initiatives/strategies that are aimed at preventing homelessness, for example…

  • the Family Relationships Services Program which provides counselling and mediation support for families via 83 community organisations. $37m is provided annually for this program. See Senator Newman, Minister for Family and Community Services, (speech to National Homelessness Conference, 19 May 1999).
  • the Partnerships Against Domestic Violence Strategy ($25m in 1998-99) which provides funding to help prevent domestic violence, one of the key reasons causing homelessness amongst women and children
  • the National Crime Prevention Program (approximately $15m per annum) that involves a range of projects aimed at reducing the incidence of crime in Australia
  • a host of initiatives and projects that come under the general banner of the fight against drugs.

The National Homelessness Strategy

In May 2000, the Government launched a National Homelessness Strategy which is aimed at providing a holistic and strategic approach to the issue of homelessness. The four main themes of the Strategy are:

  • Working Together in a Social Coalition;
  • Prevention;
  • Early Intervention; and
  • Crisis Transition and Support.

As part of the initial stages of the Strategy, the Government released a Discussion Paper. This is aimed at engaging the various stakeholders concerned and allowing consultation with the broader community to occur. Additional background on the Strategy can be obtained from the Australian Federation of Homelessness Organisations website.

Housing and Homelessness Links

The following sites provide further information on homelessness. Links to overseas homelessness sites are also listed.



Department of Family and Community Services National Homelessness Strategy

Australian Federation of Homelessness Organisations

Supported Accommodation Assistance Program

Interest groups / welfare organisations

Shelter NSW

National Community Housing Forum

Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute

Council for Homeless Persons

Mission Australia

National Youth Affairs Research Scheme (NYARS), Homelessness among young people in Australia: Early intervention and prevention

NSW Federation of Housing Associations


European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless

Habitat International Coalition

International Union of Tenants

World Homeless Union

New Zealand - Ministry of Housing

Canada - Youth Without Shelter

UK – Shelter

UK - Office of the Deputy Prime Minister - About Rough Sleeping

US - Department of Health and Human Services - Homelessness

US - National Alliance to End Homelessness

US - National Coalition for the Homeless

US - Coalition on Human Needs

US - National Center for Homeless Education


For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to Members of Parliament.

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