Referral and conduct of the inquiry
On 11 February 2020, the Committee adopted the inquiry into homelessness in Australia, following a referral from the Minister for Families and Social Services, Senator the Hon Anne Ruston and the (then) Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services, the Hon Luke Howarth MP.
The terms of reference (provided in full in the front pages) included reference to the causes of and contributing factors to homelessness; opportunities for early intervention to prevent homelessness; support services for Australians experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness, including cohorts of people especially vulnerable to homelessness; and governance and funding arrangements.
After opening the inquiry for submissions in February 2020, with an original deadline of 9 April, the Committee suspended evidence gathering between 31 March and 12 May, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the inquiry resumed, the Committee extended the closing date for submissions to 12 June 2020 (later extended further to 31 July for those who requested more time). The Committee also invited additional evidence addressing the impact of COVID-19 on homelessness in Australia.
In total, the Committee received 201 submissions and 25 supplementary submissions to the inquiry, including 4 confidential submissions, from a range of government agencies, community groups and individuals. The submissions received are listed at Appendix A and published on the Committee’s website.
The Committee held five public hearings, in July and August 2020. Due to the pandemic the public hearings were all conducted from Canberra, with witnesses (and most Committee members) participating via teleconference. Details of the public hearings held are at Appendix B.
On 7 October 2020, the Committee presented an interim report entitled Shelter in the Storm, which discussed the evidence the Committee had received about the impact of COVID-19 on homelessness in Australia. The interim report foreshadowed that broader issues would be discussed, and recommendations made, in this final report.
The Committee thanks all of those who contributed to this inquiry.
Previous inquiries and reports
The Committee’s inquiry took note of previous reviews and inquiries into homelessness undertaken at the state and federal level in recent years.
A key document setting the context for recent national action on homelessness was the Australian Government’s 2008 White Paper on homelessness, The Road Home. The White Paper sought to set a strategic agenda for reducing homelessness in Australia, with the headline goals of halving overall homelessness by 2020, and offering accommodation to all rough sleepers who need it by 2020. The strategy was backed by commitments to increased funding through a National Affordable Housing Agreement and a series of National Partnership Agreements with the states and territories.
It was drawn to the Committee’s attention that the 2020 goals of The Road Home were not achieved, but also that the incidence and nature of homelessness has changed significantly since the time of the White Paper. Proposals made to the Committee for a new national housing and/or homelessness strategy are discussed further in Chapter 4.
Since that time, several other parliamentary inquiries have examined homelessness and related issues. A predecessor to this Committee, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family, Community, Housing and Youth, inquired into homelessness legislation and presented a report, Housing the Homeless, in November 2009. Between 2013 and 2015 the Senate Economics Committee conducted an inquiry into affordable housing, presenting its final report with 40 recommendations in May 2015. Other committees’ inquiries between 2017 and 2019 have examined new housing and homelessness legislation, or touched on the problems of homelessness and housing affordability when inquiring into related issues.
In June 2019 the Legislative Council of the Victorian Parliament referred an inquiry into homelessness in Victoria to its Legal and Social Issues Committee. The Committee’s inquiry was comprehensive, and its final report presented on 4 March 2021 contained 51 recommendations for addressing homelessness in Victoria.
Certain government agencies report regularly on homelessness in Australia and related issues, and are cited as relevant in this report. These include annual reports of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, and the Productivity Commission’s reports on government services.
Defining and describing homelessness in Australia
As cited in the Committee’s interim report, the Department of Social Services described the Government’s definition of homelessness in its submission to the inquiry:
The [Australian Bureau of Statistics] definition of homelessness is based on core elements of ‘home’ in Anglo-American and European interpretations of ‘home’. These elements include a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety and the ability to control the living space. Homelessness relates to a lack of one or more elements representing a ‘home’ as opposed to purely ‘roof–lessness’.
The definition of homelessness, however, has changed in recent years and remains the subject of some debate. Issues raised during the inquiry in relation to how homelessness is defined and quantified in Australia are examined in detail in Chapter 2.
Nevertheless, it is without doubt that homelessness is a problem in Australia: one that causes great damage to individuals and families, to Australia’s society and economy, and one that intersects in complex ways with a range of other social ills. The prevalence of homelessness in Australia, its geographic distribution and trends over time are further explored in Chapter 2.
The Department of Social Services, recognising that ‘homelessness is an important issue affecting many Australians’, observed that:
Homelessness is rarely the result of a single event, action or issue. Even a short period of homelessness can have a profound impact on the lifetime wellbeing of an individual. As factors leading to homelessness vary, people experience homelessness and are affected by homelessness in different ways. The homeless population is diverse because anyone can experience homelessness…
Many participants in the inquiry also pointed out that the experience of homelessness has complex and serious flow-on effects for affected people’s broader rights and wellbeing, including their security, health and education. These issues are discussed further throughout this report.
Structure of this report
This report consists of four chapters.
Chapter 2 examines issues relating to the definition of homelessness, the prevalence of homelessness in Australia and proposed improvements to data analysis and collection. It also outlines the roles and responsibilities of the three levels of government and considers evidence received on the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement, funding arrangements, and other relevant policies and programs.
Chapter 3 examines the causes and risk factors related to homelessness and housing stress in Australia. It then discusses vulnerable groups who may be at increased risk of homelessness, or face unique challenges in relation to housing and homelessness that require targeted responses.
Chapter 4 examines evidence received on options for better addressing homelessness in Australia, focusing on four proposed solutions in particular: increased focus on early intervention and prevention; a ‘Housing First’ approach, provision of more social housing, and developing a national strategy.
In each chapter, evidence received by the Committee is presented and discussed, followed by a concluding section setting out the Committee’s views and recommendations on the matters covered in the chapter.