There is no single cause of homelessness. Instead there are a diverse range of causes and risk factors which impact people in different ways, and individual and social circumstances that make some groups of Australians particularly vulnerable to the risk of homelessness. Understanding these causes and risks, and addressing vulnerabilities within the community, are important elements in addressing the problem of homelessness in Australia.
This chapter briefly outlines the wide array of causes and risk factors linked to homelessness before focusing on two significant causes identified in evidence to the inquiry: limited means, and a lack of affordable and social housing. The chapter then discusses the experiences and perspectives of various groups identified as vulnerable to homelessness in the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA) and in evidence received by the Committee.
Some broader measures proposed to respond to homelessness, taking into account these causes and vulnerabilities, are further discussed in Chapter 4.
Causes of homelessness
Participants in the inquiry identified both current and historical causes of homelessness as well as ongoing structural issues which can contribute to homelessness.
The Department of Social Services advised that:
Several factors can contribute to a person experiencing homelessness, including long-term unemployment, mental health issues, substance abuse, family and relationship breakdown and shortages of affordable housing. In addition, natural disasters and unprecedented events, such as the global coronavirus pandemic can also contribute. As a result, treatments to address homelessness will differ depending on the form of homelessness.
In its submission the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) catalogued risk factors associated with homelessness. AHURI stated that family violence, housing crisis and financial reasons were the three most significant factors associated with housing stress and poverty.
AHURI’s submission listed a number of structural and societal risk factors associated with housing stress and homelessness. These included:
Housing markets: areas with rising rates of homelessness feature shortages of affordable private rental housing. In this respect, AHURI noted that the impact of housing markets varies and interacts in complex ways with individual factors and behaviours, such as alcohol or drug abuse.
Weak labour markets: more people experiencing homelessness are located in areas with weaker labour markets.
Uneven distribution of homelessness services: unavailable or inaccessible homelessness services contribute to homelessness. AHURI noted that the Northern Territory, New South Wales and Queensland had a lack of homelessness services relative to demand.
Poverty: not only is poverty a pathway to homelessness in adults, but also a common experience for people after they have been homeless, which can undermine their capacity to re-enter and sustain housing.
AHURI also listed individual risk factors. These were defined as events or behaviour associated with a higher risk of entering homelessness or facing difficulties in exiting from homelessness.
These individual risk factors included:
Gender and age: men, older people (over 45) and young people (15-24) were listed as demographic groups at elevated risk of entry into homelessness.
Cultural risk factors: Indigenous peoples and those from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds were included as two cohorts at increased risk of homelessness.
Human capital risk factors: unemployment and not being in the labour force, casual and fixed-term contract employment and low educational attainment were all human capital risk factors.
Relationship risk factors: family and domestic violence was identified by AHURI as a significant risk factor and the main reason women presented for assistance at homelessness agencies. Sexual, physical and emotional abuse was also another important factor. Losing a partner through relationship breakdown or death was another relationship risk factor.
Health related risk factors: AHURI noted a wide range of health related risk factors that could influence entry into homelessness. These included mental ill-health, disability, traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and problematic drug and/or alcohol use.
Exiting institutions risk factors: people transitioning between or to and from institutions are points of risk where gaps in the service system can mean people are discharged into homelessness. Particularly high risk groups include ex-prisoners, people leaving care (hospital, rehabilitation, foster care, etc.) and veterans from the military.
Previous or intergenerational homelessness risk factors: some groups may have high levels of persistent homelessness. These include people with previous experience of homelessness, people with experience of child homelessness and those in families with intergenerational homelessness.
AHURI emphasised that the causes and risks of homelessness are multifaceted and interrelated:
Risk of homelessness might be associated with the prevalence of the factor in the wider community (e.g. prevalence of domestic and family violence), or risks associated with an individual experiencing homelessness (e.g. drug and alcohol use). Some people will face multiple risks, and some of the risks in one area (e.g. discrimination due to Indigenous status) can often coincide with other risks (poverty).
AHURI’s submission also noted that alongside risk factors, there are protective factors that can reduce the risk of homelessness, such as financial resources and relational support, which people draw upon when required.
National Shelter also listed a number of causes of homelessness in Australia in its submission:
There are many contributing factors to [the] rise in homelessness across Australia… including but not limited to: domestic and family violence, alcohol and drug use, mental health issues, release from correctional facilities, juvenile justice, education and other systemic failure.
However, it noted that:
While these factors are acknowledged as the sources of supply to homelessness, the major problem is how we respond to the issue of homelessness itself, beyond simply addressing each factor individually.
Others, such as South Port Community Housing Group, highlighted the complexity of homelessness:
The causes of homelessness are multifaceted and complex. The factors leading to someone being homeless is often a combination of both market failure and individual circumstance. No one, however, chooses to be homeless.
Poverty and limited income
Consistent with AHURI’s assessment, many submitters identified poverty and limited income as significant contributors towards homelessness.
The Salvation Army Australia submitted that poverty is the ‘underlying cause’ of homelessness:
The circumstances of poverty that can lead a person to become homeless include having little money, debt, a lack of education, poor mental and physical health, disability, reliance on public housing, living in sub-standard accommodation and social exclusion.
Per Capita also cited poverty as a key factor driving family homelessness, particularly poverty within single parent families. Per Capita argued that:
Any plan, therefore, to prevent and reduce homelessness must include a strong focus on the prevention and reduction of poverty, given that income adequacy is a key determinant in ensuring access to appropriate housing.
Per Capita highlighted that the majority of housing evictions are driven by rental arrears, and many of these are evictions from public housing:
Tens of thousands of eviction applications are made by landlords every year, and the vast majority of these are not for damage, nuisance, or use for illegal purpose, but for simple rental arrears… Many of those evicted are people who will find it hardest to find homes again. Public housing authorities are two to four times more likely to try and evict their tenants than private landlords. Given that public housing tenants are likely to have high or complex needs and/or be permanently outside the workforce, evictions from social housing (whether public or community) are highly likely to be evictions into homelessness.
The Victorian Public Tenants Association drew the Committee’s attention to a 2019 survey it undertook examining the financial pressures on people who live in social housing. The survey identified that rent was by far the biggest weekly expense for most respondents, accounting for 72.7 per cent of their spending.
A number of witnesses focused on the relationship between social security and homelessness.
Mission Australia, for example, said that social security payments have been ‘far too low and increased the risk of homelessness’. While noting increased payments in response to COVID-19, Mission Australia stated:
Without access to adequate social security payments, people will continue to experience housing stress and increased risk of homelessness.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) also raised concerns about the adequacy of social security payments:
The JobSeeker payment (previously Newstart), which forms the core of our social security system together with related allowances, has not increased in real terms in 25 years. Leaving aside recent temporary increases as part of COVID-19 policy response, the JobSeeker payment level places its recipients well below the poverty line. …there is virtually no housing at all that is affordable for people on Newstart in any metropolitan area of Australia, within reach of employment opportunities and services.
Sacred Heart Mission submitted:
Climbing out of poverty is extremely difficult, in part due to historically punishing levels of income support in Australia that cannot sustain basic living standards. Poverty and deep disadvantage are severe risk factors for homelessness, and the traumas associated with these experiences. We expect an increased demand for homelessness services responses in the wake of COVID-19, especially if the JobSeeker Payment is reduced or eligibility is cut.
As noted in Chapter 2, in April 2021 the Australian Government permanently increased a range of social security payments including JobSeeker and Youth Allowance by $50 per fortnight.
It is important to recognise that those receiving JobSeeker and Youth Allowance among others also receive other forms of financial assistance from the Australian Government through such measures as Commonwealth Rent Assistance and the Health Care Card, which entitles them to free or discounted health care and significantly subsidised pharmaceuticals.
Lack of affordable and social housing
Many participants in the inquiry drew the Committee’s attention to a deficit of affordable and social housing as a significant cause of homelessness in Australia.
The Northern Sydney Housing & Homelessness Collaboration stated that:
Fundamental to the prevention of homelessness is an available and growing supply of social housing and affordable housing for people in need.
Housing All Australians stated that homelessness was increasing in areas where there was a shortage of affordable private rental housing and higher median rents. The increase is most significant in capital city areas including Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Hobart.
Per Capita agreed, observing that rising housing and rental prices driven in part by policies such as negative gearing, capital gains tax and by an increase in short-term letting have made finding affordable housing more difficult.
It argued that more expensive housing particularly affects Australians on middle and lower incomes, those on income support, older Australians (particularly older women), younger people and people already experiencing homelessness, at risk of homelessness or living in social housing.
PIAC noted high rent costs in its submission:
Private rent is unaffordable, insecure, and some face discrimination as an additional barrier to access. … Some households are able to deal with this by compromising on amenity and quality of their housing, at the cost of exacerbating tertiary homelessness, or being pushed out to the geographical and social fringes and excluded from opportunities. Others ‘fall through the cracks’ and become homeless.
The Northern Sydney Housing & Homelessness Collaboration drew the Committee’s attention to the historical factors that are increasing housing pressure:
Over the last 30 years the proportion of Australians who own their own home has declined. House prices have risen sharply while wages have remained stagnant. The ratio of average disposable household income to median house price has increased from just over 4 in 1991 to just over 7 in 2015. As a result, a growing number of households are now renting through the private market. At the same time, the total stock of social housing has declined from over 6 percent of the total stock of housing in 1996 to around 4 percent in 2016.
As a result of these structural drivers, there is a major shortage of housing that is affordable to those on lower incomes. This has contributed to the steady increase in homelessness of 30 percent between 2006 to 2016. Both the reduction in social housing and lack of affordable housing is a fundamental issue that needs to be tackled in order to successfully prevent homelessness.
The submission also highlighted the current social housing and affordable dwelling shortfall:
Estimates suggest there is a current shortfall of almost 440,000 social housing dwellings, which is projected to grow to 730,000 over the next 20 years. Similar estimates highlight a current shortage of 215,000 affordable housing dwellings, increasing to almost 300,000 over the next two decades.
The Grattan Institute advised that Australia has a current lack of social housing with extensive wait lists:
Social housing in Australia is currently rationed: more than 400 000 households are eligible for, but cannot access, social housing. Over 150 000 are on waiting lists.
National Shelter observed:
The shortage of social housing and its reduction relative to all housing has been occurring since 1991. Social housing as a proportion of all housing has declined from 6-7% in 1991 to 4.2% at the 2016 census and will have fallen further due to a lack of investment by all governments. The fall in social housing mirrors the rise in homelessness.
Dr Michael Fotheringham, Chief Executive of AHURI, explained that:
There have been new public housing dwellings built, but their development has not kept pace with the broader housing market. So the share of the housing market that is public and social housing has declined and is significantly lower than in most countries that we would compare ourselves to. For example, the UK would have roughly five times the proportion of social and public housing.
If we want to house the homeless, they need to be housed in dwellings. They need somewhere to be housed.
The City of Whittlesea highlighted a lack of crisis and transitional housing:
Underinvestment across all levels of government has resulted in a lack of crisis and transitional housing for people entering the homelessness service system. Short term housing is being used long term by people who cannot access long term affordable housing due to lack of provision, creating a housing bottleneck which prevents people experiencing homelessness from securing appropriate housing.
The impact of housing shortages is heightened in relation to certain areas and groups. The Central Australian Aboriginal Congress pointed to a housing stock deficiency as a primary cause of homelessness in the Northern Territory:
The primary cause of homelessness in the Northern Territory is the lack of remote and public housing stock to meet the population needs. At the current slow rate of improvement it would take more than seventy years to build the required houses to address Aboriginal homelessness in the Northern Territory.
Women’s Safety Services of Central Australia (WoSSCA) provided stark information on housing availability in Alice Springs:
The current Alice Springs housing wait list times, as of Feb 4th, 2020 are 4-6 year[s] for a 1, 2- or 3-bedroom house. These times are increased to 6-8 years in the Tenant Creek region 500km north of Alice Springs.
YWCA Australia highlighted a gendered analysis of affordable housing in Australia:
A gendered analysis tells us that Australia’s affordable housing stock needs to be significantly expanded and diversified to meet the needs of all women, particularly young women, low income women, women with disability, women with caring responsibilities and women over 55.
The Department of Social Services advised that state and territory governments are responsible for public and social housing, and that the Commonwealth Government was providing funding through the NHHA to improve housing outcomes. The NHHA and funding issues are discussed in Chapter 2, while proposed policy responses including the provision of more social housing are examined in Chapter 4.
The terms of reference for the inquiry, and evidence given to it, included a focus on certain vulnerable groups: cohorts of people who may be at greater risk of homelessness and housing stress than the general population, or groups who may face unique housing challenges requiring targeted solutions.
The NHHA identifies six ‘priority cohorts’ for homelessness:
women and children affected by family and domestic violence;
children and young people;
people experiencing repeat homelessness;
people exiting institutions and care into homelessness; and
The NHHA also provides that states and territories may identify other priority cohorts in their bilateral arrangements with the Commonwealth.
A submission from 18 organisations working on youth homelessness observed that ‘there is no guidance on what “priority” means in practical terms’ in the NHHA, adding that the articulation of priority cohorts does not lead to any guidance ‘on what a strategic approach might look like’ in responding to their needs.
Evidence received by the Committee also highlighted additional groups to those specified in the NHHA as being particularly vulnerable to homelessness:
people living with disability;
people living with mental illness;
migrants, those on temporary visas and people seeking asylum;
people living in rural and remote areas.
It was frequently observed that many people may be members of two or more of these groups and that can lead to additional intersectional challenges.
Women and children affected by family and domestic violence
Family and domestic violence was highlighted strongly in evidence to the inquiry, as both a cause of homelessness, and as creating a particularly vulnerable group of people at risk of or experiencing homelessness. Family and domestic violence was identified by numerous organisations as the most common driver of housing instability and homelessness amongst women and children, and the dominant reason women and children sought housing services assistance.
The Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA) submitted that:
Domestic and sexual violence is the leading cause of homelessness and housing instability in Australia, and is consistently one of the most common reasons clients seek assistance from specialist homelessness services.
Dr Gabrielle Phillips, Head of the Housing and Specialised Services Group at the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), highlighted how pervasive family and domestic violence was among clients of specialist homelessness service (SHS) agencies:
In the 2018-19 collection, over 116,000 SHS clients had experienced family and domestic violence, which equated to about 40 per cent of all clients. Women made up around 90 per cent of all adult clients experiencing family and domestic violence. We are seeing an increase on average of about 3.9 per cent each year since the collection began in 2011-12. However, in very recent times, we have seen a slight decrease.
Domestic Violence Victoria stated that family violence ‘is the most common reason that women and children become homeless’, advising that almost half of people accessing specialist homelessness services in Victoria in 2017-18 listed family violence as their primary reason for seeking support. The vast majority of these were female.
Others, including the Tasmanian Government and the City of Whittlesea, also pointed out the significance of family violence as a cause of homelessness in their jurisdictions. The City of Whittlesea submitted that ‘[t]he homelessness rates would be reduced significantly, if we could end violence against women’.
AHURI explained that for women escaping family or domestic violence, ‘homelessness often starts with short periods away from home before a more permanent break. The presence of children is a complicating factor in the decision to either stay in the family home, or leave, risking homelessness.’
In its submission, the Council of Single Mothers and their Children referred to testimony from the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, which explained the importance of accommodation for women and children escaping domestic and family violence:
The first pillar of recovery is housing. Safe and affordable housing is central to stabilising a victim’s life. Without the certainty of knowing where they will live, a victim cannot plan for the future: if they are not returning home, they need to know where their children will go to school, how they themselves will get to work, or even where they might seek work. With stable accommodation they can turn their mind to rebuilding their own and their children’s lives and (re)connecting with the community.
Domestic Violence Victoria highlighted structural drivers linked to homelessness resulting from family and domestic violence:
Homelessness among victim-survivors occurs as a direct result of experiencing family violence – for example, having to leave the home to be safe from a perpetrator’s use of violence. However it is also underpinned by structural drivers such as gender-based economic inequality and a systemic lack of affordable housing that prevent victim-survivors from being able to find an affordable, safe place to live where they can recover from the violence they have experienced.
The National Council of Women Australia focused on women’s economic inequality:
Homelessness caused by domestic and family violence is closely tied to a victim's financial independence. In Australia, women are usually economically worse off than men.
Women’s Legal Service Queensland stated that ‘poverty and housing affordability are significant barriers to women leaving domestic violence’. Lacking affordable housing options, women may choose to delay separation from their partner, even if this poses risks of further violence to themselves or children.
Women’s Legal Service Queensland submitted that many women fleeing family violence, despite facing significant financial hardship, were not eligible for social housing and could not afford private rental, especially if they are financially dependent on their partner and have caring responsibilities for children. Home ownership is one ground for ineligibility, despite a woman’s inability to access equity in that home.
Women’s Legal Service Queensland also noted that due to hurried departure, many survivors of family or domestic violence may be unable to take furniture and other possessions with them. Lack of financial ability to establish a new home may in turn lead to ‘failed tenancies’.
The Council of Single Mothers and their Children added that although emergency relief money may be available for emergency accommodation, this may mean that women and their children are ‘sitting in motels without kitchen facilities for months at a time’. This may leave women feeling shame and unable to feed their children well; housed in unsafe or unlockable accommodation near male occupants; or living in sub-standard or mouldy places that impair their health.
AWAVA discussed some further issues that women separating from a violent partner might experience with regards to housing:
Where women post separation are moving into private rentals, as AHURI reports, they may be facing discrimination from landlords or be ‘unable to effectively compete with childless, working couples in tight markets where landlords can choose from a large number of prospective tenants.’ They may also have a poor renting record due to behaviours and property damage by their violent ex-partners or other family members inflicting violence.
Other compounding factors that disadvantage women include the intersection with child protection, where a lack of housing may be the ground for child removal as well as Family Court orders mandating the places where women must residence. AHURI reports that ‘Family Court decisions can trap some women in unaffordable housing markets in order to enable their violent ex-partner to continue to have access to children.’
Mr Benjamin Cronshaw outlined how a threat of homelessness may keep some victim-survivors within abusive relationships:
Family violence can… present women and their children with a Catch-22. They either endure an abusive relationship, or attempt to leave and potentially face homelessness or retributive violence. Some women may have no secure accommodation to go to, leaving themselves homeless and vulnerable to further abuse and hardship.
The link between family and domestic violence and homelessness in remote and Indigenous communities was highlighted to the Committee.
The Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) submitted that:
Family violence is one of the main reasons for homelessness within Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal children, women and families are disproportionately over-represented in rates of family violence, with Aboriginal women 15 times more likely to access homelessness and crisis housing than non-Aboriginal women.
National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) stated that a lack of crisis accommodation and accessible housing ‘traps our women in a revolving door between crisis accommodation and homelessness, which in turn forces them to return to unsafe homes.’
The Committee was told that in Central Australia, domestic, family and sexual violence is a major driver of homelessness. WoSSCA explained how women and children fleeing domestic violence in remote communities seek support services in Alice Springs. As transport costs for a woman with three children can be around $400, once there, the family may have to remain homeless there for weeks before they can afford to return.
According to the Central Australian Aboriginal Family Legal Unit (CAAFLU):
The Alice Springs Women’s Shelter has 30 beds to provide short-term emergency accommodation for women and children escaping domestic violence. This can be for a few days or weeks. It was estimated that over 2,000 women and children are turned away each year.
AWAVA pointed out that while family, domestic and sexual violence is a key contributor to homelessness, the inverse can also be true:
Homelessness also increases risk of gender-based violence in particular sexual violence. In addition, when intertwined with poverty and lack of social security support, many women are forced to engage in survival sex to obtain any accommodation, ‘pay the rent’ or to obtain general ‘protection’.
Domestic Violence Victoria raised the issue of homelessness and housing stress among perpetrators of family violence:
The [Victorian] Royal Commission identified housing for perpetrators of family violence as a significant gap in the system that undermines victim-survivors’ safety. If a perpetrator is removed from the family home and becomes homeless as a result, it makes them more likely to try to return home or harass victim-survivors to take them back. It is also harder to engage perpetrators in services when they are homeless. It is much safer for victim-survivors to have perpetrators monitored and engaged in programs than being displaced into dangerous rooming houses or sleeping in their cars. It is also common for perpetrators who are excluded from the home to stay with relatives, most frequently elderly parents. This can place other family members at risk of other forms of family violence, such as elder abuse.
The Salvation Army Australia stated that housing for survivors of domestic violence is critical and that shortages of crisis accommodation for women facing family violence and at risk of homelessness must be addressed.
On this topic the Committee was also cognisant of evidence provided to its recent inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence, in which many participants also emphasised the links between family violence and homelessness, and the importance of appropriate short- and long-term housing solutions for victim-survivors.
Children and young people
The Committee received extensive evidence on homelessness amongst children and young people.
Per Capita spoke of complex problems that homeless mothers and their dependent children can face, stating that ‘Homeless children are more likely to experience hunger, developmental issues, and poor physical and mental health outcomes’.
The Council of Single Mothers and their Children pointed out the toll on children from homelessness or insecure housing forces them to change schools, leave personal possessions, friends and significant family members.
Brisbane Youth Service noted the prevalence of adolescents and young adults within this cohort, submitting that ‘in 2018-2019, young people aged 15-24 presenting alone and homeless constituted over half (51%) of young people seeking assistance from homelessness agencies in Australia’. It added that this may be an underestimation due to inaccurate calculations of couch surfing and over-crowding.
Brisbane Youth Service elaborated on drivers of youth homelessness, which include:
Mental health, drug and alcohol, gender and sexuality, cultural isolation, transitioning and language barriers of youth entering Australia, domestic and family violence, parental mental health and drug and alcohol use and family breakdown. Young people who are exiting care, or youth justice systems and who are transitioning to independence are particularly vulnerable to homelessness.
Mission Australia drew attention to a lack of housing options for youth, advising that ‘young people account for only 2.9% of principal tenants in social and public housing in Australia and young people are less likely to qualify for priority access’. SYC pointed out factors that discriminate against young people in the rental market and perpetuate youth homelessness, including lack of stable income, lack of prior rental references, and lack of credit rating history.
On the detrimental impacts of child and youth homelessness, Melbourne City Mission submitted that:
Young people who become homeless at an early age are forced into situations where they are required to take on a range of adult responsibilities, without having been given the time and support to develop the knowledge and skills required.
According to Brisbane Youth Services, homeless young people face increased risks of:
exposure to violence, abuse and domestic and family violence;
intersection with the law and justice systems;
disengagement from school, education and training;
difficult access to employment;
stress, depression, anxiety disorders and suicide; and
Homeless young people also face a disproportionate range of health issues compared to the general population, with higher risks for infectious diseases (such as influenza, hepatitis, and sexually transmitted diseases), diabetes, asthma and pneumonia.
Several submitters emphasised that children living in families that are homeless or at risk of homelessness are also at an increased risk of mental health difficulties. Emerging Minds stated that:
Housing stress impacts housing stability and parenting capacity which has an impact on children’s social and emotional wellbeing and development. Frequent moves impact on social connection (educational and community) which impacts on the support network of the family and can have cascading impacts on children’s mental health as they grow and develop.
The Youth Affairs Council of South Australia (YACSA), a peak body representing youth-focused organisations in South Australia, advised that:
The Costs of Youth Homelessness in Australia project report found that over half (53%) of the homeless young people surveyed described being diagnosed with at least one mental health condition. In addition, the incidence of self-injury and suicidality in homeless young people is not only higher than the rest of the population but is also higher than any other group of disadvantaged young people. Alarmingly, 20% of homeless young women and 12% of homeless young men had attempted suicide in the six months prior to the survey and over half (55%) of those young people had not received any counselling or professional support.
Hope Street Family and Youth Services commented on the flow-on economic effects of homelessness among young people, advising that the estimated costs of youth homelessness in additional health and justice services are $18,000 per youth annually, or $747 million per year excluding ‘lifetime impact’ on education and employment.
SYC drew attention to the connection between youth homelessness and unemployment, advising that the unemployment rate for young homeless people was 84 per cent, and that:
There is often a cyclical relationship between youth homelessness and unemployment. Losing their job may place the young person at risk of homelessness and their homelessness then makes it more difficult for the young person to find work and maintain work routines.
Emerging Minds expressed concern about the limited visibility of children in homelessness data, particularly in situations of overcrowding.
Data collection which does not adequately capture the experience of children in homeless families means the services delivered are less likely to consider the needs of children as individuals when providing services to families or to take into account to their context when providing services directly to children.
Hope Street Youth and Family Services stressed the need for specialist ‘youth-specific responses’ and services to be provided not only in central city areas but in urban and rural communities, to maintain social connections and mitigate negative impacts of relocation.
The 2016 Census revealed that ‘despite representing less than 3% of the total Australian population, Indigenous Australians account for 20% of the homeless population (down from 26% in 2011)’.
The high prevalence of homelessness among Indigenous Australians was a concern raised in much evidence to the Committee. VACCA, for example, submitted that Victoria has the highest and fastest rising rates of Aboriginal people accessing homeless services in Australia, at 17 per cent, commenting that ‘[t]his scale of homelessness would not be accepted in the mainstream’.
Contributors to the inquiry explained the particular understandings and circumstances of homelessness as experienced in Indigenous communities.
Chapter 2 discussed the issue of severe overcrowding as a form of homelessness, and noted that this was particularly prevalent in Indigenous families and communities. AHURI explained that
Aboriginal households tend to be larger and more complex, often including a number of family sub-groups, but all of whom are inter-related by descent. Household sizes of six to 12 people are common, and much larger multi-generational ones of up to 20 members can be regularly encountered.
Housing for the Aged Action Group (HAAG) submitted that ‘Indigenous Australians are six more times likely to live in overcrowded conditions [than] non-indigenous Australians’.
Some of the risks associated with severely overcrowded housing raised with the committee included communicable disease, poorer early childhood development, and stress to mental health and social and emotional wellbeing.
VACCA submitted that ‘one in five Aboriginal people live in social housing compared to one in 50 of the mainstream community’, noting the low rate of home ownership among Indigenous Australians:
Since 1971, homeownership has significantly decreased for people aged 25-35 and the Aboriginal community is disproportionately impacted by this as their median age is much younger compared to that of the mainstream community.
The latest census data estimates that 38 per cent of Aboriginal households own their own home compared to 69 per cent for the mainstream population.
VACCA submitted that ‘Aboriginal households face additional challenges such as systemic discrimination when attempting to enter the private rental market’.
The correlation of poverty with Indigenous homelessness was raised by the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress:
Aboriginal people are disproportionately dependent on citizenship entitlements such as the Newstart Allowance, the Parenting Payment and the Youth Allowance. These are inadequate to meet the needs of families and their children, especially in remote areas where the cost of living is much higher, especially for food.
On employment, HAAG submitted that:
The 2016 census indicated that the employment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is 46%. In comparison, the employment rate for non-Indigenous is around 72%.
Dominant concepts of permanency and mobility in housing were queried by the Mental Health Association of Central Australia:
Indigenous people are highly mobile due to a range of social, cultural, economic and seasonal factors which drive their mobility. They often attribute residency to a region rather than a specific place or structure. The notion that a successful tenancy is one that is permanent is not necessarily relevant to many of our clients in central Australia.
Further, the concepts of ‘home’ and ‘spiritual homelessness’ were addressed by the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress:
For tens of thousands of years, the concept of ‘home’ for Aboriginal people – of where a person is from and their relationship to Country – literally, their ‘homeland’ – has been central to our wellbeing…
However, for many Aboriginal people and families colonisation has led to ‘spiritual homelessness’, a state of disconnection from homeland, family, kin, and culture which has profound effects on the health and wellbeing of individuals, families and communities.
On the other hand, the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress also spoke of the ‘protective effect’ of Aboriginal culture:
Aboriginal culture is founded on sharing through extended networks of family and kin. Many Aboriginal people without a home of their own will therefore be able to stay in other dwellings within those family networks.
In responding to homelessness among Indigenous Australians, VACCA submitted that ‘Aboriginal population projections show that a further 27,000 households will require housing by 2036 with an average annual household population growth rate of 4 per cent’.
Many contributors emphasised the need for culturally appropriate housing policies and programs. The City of Sydney, for example, observed that:
There is currently no federal program specifically supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Services for homeless Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are overwhelmingly ‘mainstreamed’…
Culturally appropriate crisis and early intervention services must recognise issues that disproportionately affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including domestic violence, health care, mental health and alcohol and substance use.
Homelessness NSW similarly submitted that despite a substantially higher rate of Aboriginal people accessing homelessness services than other Australians, few culturally specific organisations were sufficiently funded.
The Mental Health Association of Central Australia stated that rather than explaining Indigenous homelessness in terms of ‘culturally inappropriate housing’, the housing system as a whole:
… needs to be understood in the context of how the services and opportunities that a house can afford are realised and managed. For example, in central Australia we expect transience and movement of tenancies within the housing system. A successful tenancy is one that supports recovery and stability and is not measured by the length of stay in a building.
Chapter 4 discusses further evidence received about Indigenous community housing and the role of community-controlled organisations.
People experiencing repeat homelessness
As recognised in the NHHA, the cyclical and even intergenerational nature of some homelessness was raised as an important matter for consideration during the inquiry.
Unison Housing Research Lab, a partnership between the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) and Unison Housing, stressed that homelessness can often be cyclical. The Lab noted the problem of ‘tenancy breakdown’ and people cycling between social housing and homelessness:
The flow of people out of social housing and into homelessness is a serious issue simply because high turnover has significant social and economic costs. For households and individuals, the costs of tenancy breakdown can include poor health and well-being, as well as poor educational and employment outcomes, more so if they subsequently experience chronic residential instability or homelessness.
On reasons for leaving social housing tenancies, it submitted that:
Residents left their housing for both positive reasons (pull factors) and negative reasons (push factors). Most exits (59 per cent) were due to negative reasons, such as rent arrears or conflict with neighbours. However, reasons for leaving vary according to the duration of the tenancy, with positive exits increasing with longer tenures.
Mission Australia added that social housing tenants who have been evicted face a precarious position as ‘these individuals often have no access to secure housing or a history of tenancy in the private rental market to support their private rental applications’, emphasising the importance of tenancy support programs.
Unison Housing Research Lab argued that a focus on the repeat homelessness in allocation of social housing is key:
Reducing the number of formerly homeless people re-entering homelessness is the area where direct government intervention has the greatest capacity to deliver strong results. Our view is that, coupled with structural reform in the housing market, a policy focus on reducing to zero re-entries into homelessness by targeting formerly homeless households in social housing makes sense. It makes sense because the target population is easy to identify. It makes sense because the economic and social benefits are substantial. And, it makes sense because the impact of any intervention designed to reduce re-entries would be relatively easy to measure, and hence contribute to a more accountable sector.
It stated that ‘housing homeless people is often a costly and complex process yet relatively little is spent ensuring they maintain their housing’. It urged that ‘flows’ of people in and out of homelessness be viewed through a ‘systems’ perspective to capture ‘behaviours of systems over time’ rather than ‘snapshots’ of individuals.
The Committee was told that for more than a decade programs have existed to address the flows of high risk tenancies, such as Green Light and Tenancy Plus, but that:
They are insufficiently scaled to reduce the flow in any meaningful way. Further, they are poorly integrated with social housing providers and often only work with specific, narrowly defined subpopulations.
Further measures were proposed to support formerly homeless people to maintain social housing tenancies, including:
better coordination between support providers and landlords to identify and target signs of tenancy breakdown;
encouraging a housing focused culture in support agencies, including clinical and health agencies; and
incentivising social housing providers to work with high risk tenancies.
The City of Sydney identified the importance of social support and geographic considerations:
Most people who are homeless in Sydney are from Inner Sydney and the greater Sydney metropolitan area and spend an average of more than five years on the streets. Once housed, people who have experienced chronic or repeat homelessness can struggle to adapt to living in an apartment, and meeting the obligations and expectations of landlords and neighbours.
The City is also aware of numerous people who have experienced chronic homelessness, that have been housed in social housing, often in locations far away from where they have been living. Without connection to their social networks, some have returned to sleeping rough because of social isolation and loneliness.
Social support needs and connection to community should be considered as key factors that assist people sustain tenancies.
People exiting institutions and other care arrangements
The risk of homelessness can be high for people exiting institutional and care settings such as prisons, detention centres, health facilities or youth out-of-home care:
It is still common practice for people experiencing homelessness to be discharged from mental health facilities, public hospitals and the justice system into homelessness. There is a lack of suitable housing options, waitlists for crisis accommodation and complexity of issues such as substance use.
NATSILS stated that ‘homelessness is more common among those with a history of contact with the criminal legal system, it lasts for longer, and is more likely to reoccur than for other homeless people’.
Statistics were presented by the Community Restorative Centre (CRC) on people exiting correctional centres in NSW:
Over the last 12 months close to 20,000 people were released from NSW Correctional Centres.
41% of this population will re-offend within a year.
AIHW data notes that more than 50% of people leaving prison in Australia expect to be homeless.
More than 70% of people locked up in NSW prisons have been there before.
NSW Health data shows us that 9.6% of people in prison were in primary homelessness six months prior to incarceration and 24.6% of people in prison either have no fixed address or had moved twice or more in the six months prior to incarceration.
Imprisonment increases the likelihood of homelessness.
It is a conservative estimate to observe that there are at least 4000 people released each year from prison in NSW each year with nowhere stable to live.
At last count, in the community sector in NSW there were only 38 specialist beds across the sector for people leaving prison. Most of these are short term (less than 12 weeks) crisis beds.
The City of Sydney submitted that 28 per cent of Sydney’s homeless population have been in prison:
There are proven links between homelessness, offending and reoffending. People who find suitable, supported and stable housing are more likely to stay out of prison, particularly those with complex needs.
Flat Out advised that prisoner exits into homelessness in Victoria have increased by 188 per cent over the last five years:
The limited housing that is available often replicates the punitive and coercive dynamics that have already impacted criminalised women, either or both as a result of imprisonment, and of family violence.
CRC told the Committee that many accommodation service organisations will not accept people released from custody, which presents serious challenges for people who wish to change their lives:
Thousands of people leave NSW prisons each year with no support services engaged to work with them, no information about how to survive on the outside, no money, no identification, no clothing, no family or friends, and nowhere at all to live.
Civil Liberties Australia (CLA) quoted a personal perspective:
A bloke’s suddenly let out of jail, no money, nowhere to go. He had no idea what to do. He had no home, no clothing, no accommodation, no family support ... What do they do? They commit a crime and go back to jail because at least they get four walls and a roof and a meal.
CLA also submitted that the major but ‘questionable’ housing option for people exiting prison appeared to be boarding houses.
NATSILS submitted that Indigenous Australians are more likely to become homeless upon release from prison:
The social exclusion and isolation faced by our people in prison also leads to a loss of connectedness to country and culture. Many of our people require repatriation back into their communities for successful reintegration, with those unable to return to their communities being at greater risk of homelessness, and consequently at greater risk of reoffending.
The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) observed that Indigenous women are particularly affected by the cycle of homelessness and imprisonment:
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are the least likely of any group within the corrections system to be able to find appropriate accommodation on release—particularly if they have dependent children. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women released from prison find it difficult to find stable accommodation and often remain homeless or return to prison after nine months.
In relation to exit from healthcare facilities, Bolton Clarke Homeless Persons Program (Bolton Clarke) submitted that there are limited options for respite or ‘step-down’ facilities for discharged patients. Although Supported Residential Services and other services may be used, there can be difficulties if service staff lack the skills needed to address complex health and social issues. There is no legislation prescribing appropriate skills levels for homelessness services, unlike aged care.
For youth exiting out-of-home care, particularly for youth with low school attainment and employment levels, Mission Australia submitted that:
Care leavers often struggle with finding housing due to lack of family supports or supportive social networks, limited financial resources and high rates of mental illness and/or issues related to past trauma.
According to Anglicare Australia, ‘63% of homeless youth [come] from the out-of-home care system’.
Responses were proposed to the Committee in respect of each of these groups. In relation to released prisoners, Bolton Clarke stated that there is a need for discharge plans that can conduct early identification of homelessness, provide access to housing and link with community support organisations.
For those leaving health care facilities, Bolton Clarke recommended that:
Step down units, sometimes known as ‘medical respite’, are an evidence-based strategy for better outcomes for people experiencing homelessness and reducing readmission to acute hospital beds.
AHURI submitted that increased care for youth leaving out-of-home care is needed until 21 years of age.
People aged 55 or older
Numerous submissions referred to people over 55 as the fastest growing cohort experiencing homelessness.
HAAG submitted that from 2006 to 2016, there was a 55 per cent increase in homeless people over 55 years old and predicts that this will ‘more than double from 2010 to 2050’.
HAAG identified four major drivers for increasing aged homelessness:
decreasing levels of home ownership and increasing retiree mortgage debt;
50% reduction in public housing expenditure since 1990;
a rapid increase in the numbers of older people living in insecure and expensive private rental market that is ill equipped for ageing in place.
AHURI linked homelessness among older people to the breakdown of intergenerational family housing due to rental stress, overcrowding, carer stress or elder abuse, noting that conversely, family ties acted as a protective factor.
Per Capita submitted that ‘older people experience home as a social relationship’ and that homelessness can be described as a ‘distinctive form of social exclusion’ with far-reaching health and wellbeing impacts.
HammondCare also commented on the additional needs of aged homeless people, many of whom face significant health care challenges caused by exploitative relationships, chronic abuse, institutionalisation, long-term substance abuse, loneliness and a general lack of social supports.
Wintringham, a provider of care and accommodation to older persons who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, submitted that:
Many clients arrive at Wintringham in very poor health, undernourished and frequently frightened or so 'battle hardened' that they are difficult to communicate with. In addition, it is quite common for our clients to have no contact with family members and no support system to advocate or care for them.
Per Capita cited the shift away from home ownership amongst retirees as a key driver of increased homelessness among older Australians:
Although an assumption of zero housing costs in retirement continues to underpin our retirement income system, only 73.4% of older Australians own their own homes fully. With average mortgage debt a staggering 600 per cent higher than 30 years ago, this trend is likely to continue.
HAAG submitted that two consequences flow from the assumption of retiree home ownership. First, the aged pension does not adequately cover ongoing mortgage or rent costs. Second, the aged care system presumes that services will be provided in secure housing.
Without their own homes, submitters pointed out that there are limited affordable housing options for the aged cohort:
Australia’s mainstream ‘aged housing’ market is fragmented, with the main model of retirement villages expensive to both enter and to exit. Affordable options such as independent living units have strict eligibility criteria: unless you are over 60 and receiving the full age pension you are unlikely to be housed.
Wintringham submitted that more than 96 per cent of its clients survive on Centrelink incomes. The majority receive the age pension, followed by clients on disability support. Less than one per cent of their clients are employed:
With this reliance upon statutory incomes, we see that many people who are living alone, especially older women, are pushed out of the rental market solely due to their low income. Homelessness services such as ours are inundated with people who live on a pension, and can no longer afford their rent.
HammondCare submitted that it is ‘simply not viable’ for many providers to offer accommodation for the aged homeless. Falling occupancy rates, rising care costs, and insufficient funding has placed severe financial stress on the residential aged care sector:
In this fiscal environment where the viability of providing mainstream residential aged care services is being challenged, providing homeless-specific residential aged care – for a resident group that have complex personal histories, health care needs and that require correspondingly high levels of support – is out of the question for many providers.
Where social housing is available, it may not be fit for purpose for ageing residents:
Despite some dedicated ‘over-50s’ blocks, the built environment of social housing – often older stock of low-quality standards – usually lacks the universal design standards of age-friendly housing, as defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
HammondCare submitted that accessing assistance can be challenging for aged homeless people:
The interface between the homeless and aged care sector is characterised by fragmentation and access issues, and both sectors are severely under-resourced, leaving many older people with inadequate levels of support.
Further, Wintringham said that ‘the majority of community-based aged care services are predicated on the assumption that the care recipient has secure and appropriate housing’:
The only program that specifically acknowledges that older people may be living in sub-standard housing is the Assistance with Care and Housing (ACH) sub-program in the Commonwealth Home Support Program (CHSP), which provides entry level aged support services to older Australians…CHSP providers are funded for specific service types and – depending on what their funding makeup is- have very limited flexibility to respond to client need if the older person unexpectedly finds themselves experiencing homelessness.
Per Capita noted that the Government’s 2013 Living Longer Living Better reforms gave priority residential aged care access to older homeless people and increased funding for their complex needs and outreach services.
The Aged Care and Housing (ACH) sub-program has also been expanded, with a homelessness supplement provided to residential aged care providers to help them meet the costs incurred in providing specialised services. A focus on housing circumstances now forms part of the aged care assessment process, whereas in the recent past, housing and ageing portfolios have operated separately.
Moreover, the Australian Government has acknowledged the ‘premature ageing’ of homeless people in order to provide access to Commonwealth-funded aged care services for homeless people over 50 (rather than 65). Wintringham endorsed the recognition of premature aging in this way: ‘it makes a key difference to service provision if we ‘label’ a client aged and homeless, rather than homeless and aged’.
Nevertheless, the Committee was told that access through the My Aged Care System can be difficult to navigate without a support worker:
In general, Specialist Homelessness Support Workers are not familiar with the Aged Care system and therefore do not refer to it. Consequently, this results in people who are eligible for the Aged Care Services not receiving the services they need and are entitled to.
Bolton Clarke observed similarly that mainstream aged care service providers had little understanding of issues facing elderly homeless people:
People living with homelessness are often distrustful of ‘faceless’ government services and paperwork. Most services are not able to provide assertive outreach or deliver services to environments where people are living such as rooming houses due to concerns about safety for workers.
Per Capita submitted that early detection and intervention mechanisms are vital to support the homeless aged and the elderly at risk of homelessness, particularly older women.
Wintringham also advocated for ‘holistic, wrap-around, and sustainable support’ models and strategies based on collaboration between housing, aged care, mental health and other services such as brokerage funding.
Within the group of older Australians facing homelessness or the risk of homelessness, several groups highlighted the situation of single older women.
The National Older Women’s Housing and Homelessness Working Group (NOWHHWG) stated that between the Censuses in 2011 and 2016, homelessness among older women rose by 31 per cent with poverty attributed as the key driver for this group.
The 2016 Census reported a 75 per cent increase in older women sleeping in their cars, which was observed by HAAG staff.
Safe emergency housing for older women is particularly rare, and many women tell us they prefer to live in their car (if they have one) or under a street lamp than in a rooming house or cheap motel which can be more dangerous.
An increase was also reported by YWCA, which stated that ‘65% of YWCA tenants are over 50, with many being first time users of the welfare system’.
The true scale of homelessness amongst older women may however be hidden as many women may be reluctant to access services due to stigma, stoicism or shame. HAAG stated that:
We know many women aren’t accessing services and will often couch surf and manage overcrowding, poor living conditions (such as living in a shed or garage) or live under the threat of violence from a partner/ family member for many years before seeking service support.
NOWHHWG submitted that older women experience homelessness differently to men:
Most [women] will not self-identify as homeless, instead describing their situation in terms of ‘housing crisis’. Homeless women generally move from place to place, often in a downward trajectory in terms of mental and physical health as their situation becomes untenable… Most older women who are homeless have not been homeless before and are therefore unlikely to approach traditional homelessness services for support.
Anglicare Australia submitted:
The precarious nature of their economic circumstances means that older women can find themselves suddenly, and very unexpectedly, without a home, and without the coping strategies that people who have grown up through hardship might develop.
Homelessness risk factors for older women included being single and renting, situations of family and domestic violence, loss of a partner, and crisis situations such as job loss, illness or eviction. Risk can be compounded by economic disadvantage from lifelong lower wages and superannuation.
Lower financial accumulation by women over their lifetimes was cited by submitters as a key causal factor leading to homelessness when these women reach retirement age. The reasons for this included lower rates of pay in casual or part-time work; less time in the workforce due to children or caring roles; (previous) employment discrimination against married or pregnant women; mortgage access discrimination; and less access to additional income earning opportunities for older women.
On superannuation, the Australian Human Rights Commission submitted that:
The average superannuation balance of women at retirement is $157,050, while the average superannuation holdings of men at retirement are $270,000. Approximately 48% of women aged 45 to 64 have less than $40,000 in superannuation—or none at all.
NOWHHWG submitted that during the COVID-19 emergency, women were disproportionately economically affected, and that allowing early access to super is likely to have ‘future ramifications for homelessness amongst older women’.
Older women face particular challenges in accessing housing. Anglicare Australia’s 2020 Rental Affordability Snapshot illustrated the current lack of private rental housing for single older women, with less than 800 of the 69,000 properties available for rent on the survey weekend affordable for a single person on the aged pension, even with the Coronavirus Supplement. Others advised that in the decade prior to the 2016 Census, the number of older women forced to rent increased by 97 per cent.
NOWHHWG submitted that ‘older women will often not get access to priority social housing as they are usually homeless due to low incomes, not because of having complex needs’.
The submission added that older women’s basic need for housing cannot be overstated as housing is ‘an important social determinant of health’:
Women’s health needs generally increase as they age and are exacerbated for those women who are living in precarious housing, at risk of homelessness or who experience homelessness.
McAuley Community Services for Women questioned whether traditional homelessness services, which target people with complex needs, are well suited to the needs of older women at risk of homelessness:
It could be that relatively modest investment in support for this cohort, who may still be working but are only a few pay-packets away from being unable to maintain their housing – will divert older women from requiring homelessness support.
The Committee was told about research indicating that older women are particularly interested in accessing large scale (between 25-30 units) cooperative housing or ‘cohousing’, in which each woman has independent accommodation around communal areas and shared responsibility for day-to-day community operations.
This is important because it shows that what older people really want from housing is not only affordability and secure tenure; older women have a preference to belong to a small and socially connected community in their final years of adulthood.
Per Capita research showed that ‘even older women who own their homes outright would consider moving into cohousing, but cohousing models have received very limited attention or support in Australia’.
People living with disability
People living with a disability are at a greater risk of housing stress and homelessness and face additional barriers to accessing support and housing services.
PIAC submitted that risks included ‘generally lower income, limited opportunities to secure a full time, well paid job, and low levels of appropriate, affordable stock in the private rental market’.
The Committee heard that carers of people with disabilities are also at greater risk of homelessness due to income stress, as caring duties reduce ability to work or study:
It can lead to [carers] losing current work and limiting other employment opportunities. As such, household income decreases and people can be forced into vulnerable situations, particularly if they are renting or already experiencing low socioeconomic status. This coupled with stress and pressure to pay bills and maintain quality of life can have devastating consequences for people and increase their risk of homelessness.
Bolton Clarke noted that many homeless people may be living with a disability which, if undiagnosed, presents barriers to accessing support from the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). NDIS service access requires a formal diagnosis of mental health, physical or cognitive disabilities. Despite having obvious functional challenges, there may be difficulties providing the required evidence:
There can be long waiting lists for neuro-psychology assessments and difficulty accessing mental health services. The cost of private neuro-psychology assessment service is prohibitive and access to bulk billing psychiatry limited. Cognitive challenges may make it difficult to collect the ‘evidence’, such as getting to appointments and having insight into needs. Fragmentation of medical history, transience and unstable housing contribute to the difficulty.
Dementia Australia noted that while data was limited, evidence of poor health outcomes indicated that homeless people with dementia had higher rates of cognitive impairments than the general population:
This poses challenges for the healthcare and social services workforce to meet the demands of identifying and providing appropriate care and support for homeless persons living with dementia and those who care for them.
Dementia Australia also noted that dementia symptoms can be confused with mental illness symptoms and that dementia does not preclude other mental health illnesses, or vice versa. This poses challenges for homeless sector workers who report that:
While their training focuses to some degree on mental health, they lack adequate knowledge on the early signs and symptoms of dementia, making it difficult to recognise the disease or distinguish between dementia and mental health symptoms or other neurocognitive issues (such as acquired brain injuries).
Submissions were also received from minority cohorts with disabilities to highlight the particular difficulties they faced.
The Pride Foundation Australia stated that LGBTIQ+ people with disability were likely to face additional challenges including:
higher risks of family violence and violence from carers and others;
discrimination when accessing services;
restrictions on freedom of sexual expression;
increased sense of social marginality, isolation, and higher risks of psychological distress and mental health risks; and
difficulties connecting with LGBTI and disability communities.
For asylum seekers with a disability, the Jesuit Refugee Service Australia submitted that:
There is currently not a comprehensive set of data on people seeking asylum with disability. People seeking asylum with disability are currently not eligible for the NDIS. Even if they have access to Medicare and SRSS, this does not cover costs of all therapeutic needs. Experiences of housing, particularly house sharing arrangements and access to employment are increasingly difficult and compounded for people seeking asylum with disability as they exhaust their savings and funds to manage their health.
Domestic Violence Victoria highlighted that domestic violence survivors with disabilities face difficulty finding safe long-term housing options that fit their unique needs, particularly if they also have children:
Without long-term housing options, many victim-survivors with disabilities and their children are forced to stay in violent relationships.
Domestic Violence Victoria pointed to the Disability Family Violence Crisis Response Initiative, which provides funds for support workers, equipment, transport and temporary crisis accommodation to enable people with disabilities to escape a violent relationship:
This initiative fills an important gap in services for victim-survivors with a disability because the funds can be distributed quickly and flexibly at short notice to facilitate a victim-survivor’s escape. Other schemes such as the NDIS are unsuited to a crisis response because NDIS packages can be slow to negotiate and difficult to change to meet rapidly changing needs.
Mission Australia highlighted the importance of building accessible social and affordable housing for people with disability:
In addition to increasing the accessible housing stock, the government must also ensure that appropriate measures are in place so that people with disability are provided with supports to be active and participating members of the community.
Canberra Community Law submitted that many of its clients with disabilities faced barriers in accessing suitable housing due to:
lack of specific modifications to existing public housing;
failure to transfer clients to disability-compliant public housing despite evidence of specific needs; and
long delays in modifying properties or transferring tenants once approvals were given.
PIAC argued that the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) could reduce homelessness amongst people with disability through reform of its specialist disability accommodation (SDA) policy, which provides accommodation funding for people with significant functional impairment or very high support needs.
Other recommendations to address homelessness and disability included:
supporting people with disability to participate in the community;
designing rapid response transitional housing for complex disability;
building the capacity of homelessness services to identify and assess the needs of people with disability;
establishing and evaluating innovating housing and support which addresses failure points in current housing and service systems; and
creating a vision of what success might look like in the future.
People living with mental illness
The Committee received extensive evidence regarding the relationship between mental health issues and homelessness.
Submitters noted that mental health was correlated with homelessness and that Australians with undiagnosed or untreated mental illness were more likely to experience homelessness than the general population. The Mental Health Association of Central Australia, for example, submitted that there is a ‘strong association between mental health and homelessness’.
Dr Olav Nielssen advised that many rough sleepers in urban areas may have a mental illness:
About a third of the rough sleepers in Sydney and other large cities have severe mental illness, mainly schizophrenia. Moreover, people with severe mental illness are more likely to be chronically homeless and to sleep in the open for long periods.
Sacred Heart Mission (SHM) reported a 36 per cent increase in its clients with mental health concerns in 2018, and a further 51 per cent with unclear mental health status.
The Committee heard that the relationship between brain injury or mental illness and homelessness may be ‘bidirectional’, with one increasing the risk of the other.
Bolton Clarke submitted that many homeless people with undiagnosed mental health conditions ‘fly under the radar’:
It is extremely difficult to access mental health services unless the person is in an acute crisis and even then, due to concurrent substance use, often the person falls between the service gaps. Often a police response is recommended which can have a negative and traumatising effect. It usually takes repeated and assertive attempts to engage the person with mental health services.
The B Miles Women’s Foundation similarly said that people with significant mental health problems ‘fall between the gaps’, resulting in rough sleeping:
[Non-government organisations] are…under resourced and ill equipped to manage people in acute stages of mental illness. These people often find themselves being assessed as not unwell enough to meet the criteria for an admission to hospital, yet too unwell to meet the criteria for admission to an NGO.
SHM stated that early identification and treatment of mental health issues for homeless people is crucial:
People we see at SHM are often not treated by the mental health system until they are visually unwell, at serious risk of self-harm, or harm to others. From there, the road of recovery is often long, and complex given their exposure to trauma and experience of social exclusion.
Bolton Clarke stressed that it was vital for homelessness outreach programs to be assertive and have embedded access to mental health expertise:
Assertive outreach programs need timely access to mental health expertise and recognition that although some people are not in a crisis, they are not making a ‘choice’ about homelessness but are in fact disengaged, functionally impacted and experiencing psychological distress as a result of undiagnosed mental health issues and trauma. Without appropriate, assertive mental health care they are unable to shift from entrenched homelessness.
South Port Community Housing Group expressed concern over the systemic fragmentation of support for mental illness:
This has been particularly so after the mental health system was deinstitutionalised in the 1990s with the expectation that patients would be accommodated in social housing with adequate supports attached. While we recognise the criticality of housing to helping people address and manage mental illness, we often see support services withdraw[n] after a person is housed.
Melbourne City Mission highlighted that homeless youth can find it difficult to access both mainstream mental health services (which cater for mild and moderate illness) and intensive clinical mental health support. Reasons include:
lack of formal documentation and formal diagnoses;
no fixed address and difficulty with appointment-based models of care;
being considered ‘lost to follow up’ when uncontactable by phone;
exclusion from short-term recovery of ‘step down’ residential clinical mental health services, as these require a fixed address to return to;
low trust in mental health services based on previous experiences; and
lack of family carer to help them to navigate complex systems.
As for housing services, the National Mental Health Commission highlighted the importance of housing as a priority for the mentally ill because:
Generally for people with lived experience of mental illness, getting and keeping their own home is harder to achieve compared to the general community.
For the most vulnerable and unwell, cycles of homelessness, unstable housing and mental ill health can become their typical life experience.
The B Miles Women’s Foundation agreed that well-resourced long term accommodation is needed for those with significant mental illness.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists stated that integrating and tailoring both mental health and homelessness services to meet specific needs of people experiencing mental illness would improve outcomes. It also recommended that:
Greater efforts be made to ensure that people with mental health conditions have access to purpose-built accommodation if they are at risk of homelessness.
Dr Olav Nielssen proposed a housing model suitable for severely mentally ill people who lack stable tenancy of family support, comprising:
Clusters of purpose built units within a secure perimeter and day staff to direct care and rehabilitative programs. The best example of the model in Australia is the Haven foundation founded by Allan Fels in Melbourne (havenfoundation.org.au). However, a large scale version can be found in Italy, where the radical closure of the large psychiatric hospitals, seen at the time as an example of Italian chaos, has in fact led to the construction of around 30,000 community based places in small clusters. The Italian example has been in effect the adoption of the recommendations of the Richmond Report. A more systematic version in Europe, based on the quality of construction and the integration of mental health care into the service, has been the Y Foundation in Finland (ysaatio.fi), the only European Country to reduce homelessness among the mentally ill.
SANE Australia recommended that:
The Federal Government work with all States and Territories to immediately increase social housing stock.
A greater focus on the design and configuration of services for people who need a medium-term intensive housing response that combines accommodation and support.
Dedicated funding to provide targeted outreach support where tenancies are at risk.
Homelessness and housing program commissioners allocate funding on evidence-based models, including but not limited to Housing First.
A federal housing policy is established to drive housing and homelessness service improvements across the health sector. This policy should articulate the importance of service collaboration and integration between all health-based services, and provide flexible responses for people experiencing homelessness, or risks to tenure.
Other recommendations received in submissions included:
integrating mental health, housing and homelessness services;
tailoring support programs for people with complex mental health issues to maintain stable housing, including access to the private rental market;
providing more social housing availability and mental health triaging, as per the Housing First model;
actively monitoring and reducing the social and public housing waitlist for people with mental health issues; and
increasing the number of supported housing placements for people affected by complex mental health issues.
The Committee heard evidence regarding the number and experiences of Australian military veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
Contributors to the inquiry stressed that while there was insufficient data on veteran homelessness, what is known is that veterans are at greater risk of homelessness than the general population and that they may face additional barriers when accessing relevant services.
Possible responses to veteran homelessness focused on providing specialist services specifically working for veterans and assisting the transition from military to civilian life.
Ms Liz Cosson, Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA), pointed to the ‘top issues for attention’ regarding veteran homelessness:
They often delay seeking support. When they first leave the military service, they want to think that they can continue to find their way outside of the military, and therefore they think they'll be right and they'll just continue on, and then they'll get to a crisis point when they do reach out. Sometimes they have complex medical issues, if they have been medically discharged. Some may have some mental health issues and don't want to share accommodation with someone else; they would rather be alone. When they transition out of the military, sometimes they're in an area where there's potentially a lack of housing affordability, whereas during service they may have been living in soldiers' quarters or may have been in receipt of rental assistance, and then they find it a little bit of a struggle.
Ms Livia Carusi, General Manager, Homelessness, The Salvation Army Australia stated that there was no one reason why a veteran might become homeless and that the issue was often complex:
It's certainly around housing affordability. For some veterans it's how the current veterans support system operates and perhaps doesn't work as well as it can for people in terms of access to support and other essential services that they may need. Of course there is their experience of trauma, their experience of perhaps family and social network breakdown and some of the challenges more broadly about coming back into community and trying to fit back in from a world that they have come from which is very different.
Queensland Shelter submitted research evidence undertaken by the AHIW for DVA which found that:
Between July 2011 and June 2017, 1.1% of the contemporary ex-serving Australian Defence Force (ADF) population used homelessness services. Veterans that were more likely to be SHS clients were women, young people, or had less ADF experience. The main reasons for seeking SHS assistance included accommodation, financial and interpersonal reasons.
Ms Cosson from DVA acknowledged that existing information on homeless veterans and their families is insufficient:
To be honest, I don't feel that we have an accurate number on homelessness for veterans or their families, so we are very keen to have that. With the census in 2021, where we now have that question, 'Have you served in the Australian Defence Force?' we may get closer to actually starting to understand where our veterans are and how many veterans we have in Australia.
The Community Housing Industry Association (CHIA) told the Committee that veterans’ needs were not being met by homelessness service organisations:
The research into veterans’ homelessness found that only 39 per cent of recently transitioned ADF members who reported experiencing homelessness had sought assistance from mainstream homelessness service organisations, citing a number of barriers to access. Those who had sought help reported high rates of dissatisfaction with the help received. Positive outcomes from the few specialist housing and support services that exist suggest that an increase in targeted provision is needed.
CHIA recommended in its submission that the Australian Government provide funds to support Housing First accommodation options for veterans facing housing stress or who have become homeless.
CHIA pointed to the RSL Victoria Veteran’s accommodation project in the City of Yarra. This project was designed to meet a need for accommodation for young veterans by delivering short to medium-term accommodation to veterans experiencing personal issues. Support was tailored, based on circumstances and included accommodation assistance, bill payment, home maintenance, medical expenses, transport and socialising.
Since commencing in 2015, the project has supported 20 veterans, mostly ex-army servicemen aged between 31 and 50 and with diagnosed mental health or addiction issues. CHIA believed the project had successfully met the needs of these veterans.
Ms Cosson from DVA summarised the Department’s approach to veteran homelessness:
In summary, DVA's approach has been to gain a better understanding of the scale and profile of homelessness amongst veterans to address the risk factors associated with homelessness; to work with Defence to ensure optimal support for veterans during transition; and to work across government, states and territories, and with the homelessness sector to improve outcomes for veterans and their families.
The Committee received evidence on the challenges LGBTIQ+ people may face with regards to housing pressure or homelessness.
Bolton Clarke summarised factors that may increase the risk of homelessness for LGBTIQ+ people:
They are twice as likely as heterosexuals to experience homelessness. They often experience homelessness at a younger age due to family rejection. Crisis and short-term accommodation can be unsafe and traumatic. LGBTIQ people experiencing homelessness frequently experience discrimination, harassment, misgendering and violence when accessing services, shared accommodation and rooming houses. As a result, they may be less likely to seek out a service leading to rough sleeping or other unsafe alternatives.
The Pride Foundation Australia stated that LGBTIQ+ people are ‘more likely to be living with a disability, living with mental illness, be older, or have experienced repeated homelessness. The intersectionality of multiple vulnerabilities and marginalised identities is well known to increase vulnerability and risk.’
The Foundation noted statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ General Social Survey that indicated LGBTIQ+ people are over-represented amongst the homeless population:
It showed that bisexual respondents were much more likely to have at least 5 repeated experiences of homelessness (McNair, Andrews et al. 2017). Lesbian/gay respondents were twice as likely to stay in crisis accommodation or sleep rough, and bisexual people were at least 3 times more likely than heterosexual respondents.
However, the Foundation raised concerns that there was no LGBTIQ+ field in the national database for homelessness services, despite being repeatedly identified as necessary for understanding prevalence and trends, particularly amongst intersectional subgroups. It continued:
Although some services have made changes to their databases, there are still many services that do not collect data, and training is needed to ensure that – when appropriate fields are available to report information – staff are comfortable and competent asking questions in a way that is sensitive, respectful, and reassuring of confidentiality.
A joint submission from The Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, Transgender Victoria, the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby of New South Wales and Intersex Human Rights Australia stressed the paucity of research on the causes, rates and experiences of LGBTIQ+ homelessness, including amongst intersectional subgroups of multi-faith, multi-cultural, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people living with a disability, aged people, refugees and people seeking asylum:
Research into the rates and causes of LGBTIQ homelessness is critical to enable appropriate strategies to be put into place to begin to address its root causes, and to better support LGBTIQ people experiencing it.
In terms of measures to address homelessness in LGBTIQ+ communities, the Pride Foundation Australia advised that people with experience of homelessness reported that they needed the legitimacy of their LGBTIQ+ identity to be acknowledged by services and to be recognised. Many wanted affirmation and visibility.
The Foundation pointed to three possible opportunities for early intervention and prevention of LGBTIQ+ homelessness:
‘family of origin interventions’, which focus on the person’s family with education and counselling services;
‘school based interventions’, which address discrimination, bullying and harassment at schools; and
‘peer support’, where a peer support worker can work with a LGBTIQ+ person to provide strong client advocacy and specific support.
Homelessness NSW provided the Committee with a series of recommendations focused on addressing homelessness among LGBTIQ+ Australians:
funding LGBTQI+ education and training to address the lack of knowledge, discrimination about LGBTQI+ people and increase inclusivity within community and homelessness services;
funding targeted assistance to LGBTQI+ people at risk of or facing homelessness; and
including LGBTIQI+ people as vulnerable sub-groups that require specific attention in Australian housing and homelessness policies.
Migrants, temporary visa holders and people seeking asylum
The Committee received evidence from submitters discussing the risks of homelessness faced by migrants, temporary visa holders and people seeking asylum.
PIAC noted that newly arrived migrants must wait for 208 weeks before being eligible for social security payments, which causes financial hardship and risk of homelessness.
Homelessness NSW listed factors which increased homelessness risks for people on temporary visas in that state:
NSW Housing policy, which excludes temporary visa holders from housing and rental assistance;
NSW and Commonwealth health policy, which excludes people without Medicare and temporary visa holders from accessing public hospitals except in limited circumstances;
Commonwealth policy which excludes temporary visa holders from Centrelink benefits, and restricts or prohibits work permits;
limited specific funding for crisis accommodation to assist people on temporary visas;
complex intersecting legal issues relating to domestic violence, immigration, family, and child protection law;
lack of culturally safe and free interpreting services;
limited social networks and support; and
lack of understanding of their rights.
Women’s Legal Service Queensland referred to the predicament of non-resident and New Zealand women who ‘fall between contradicting federal legislative systems and are unable to leave Australia with their children or access social housing and Centrelink payments in order to stay in Australia’, effectively forcing them into homelessness or into leaving Australia without their children.
Bolton Clarke highlighted challenges faced by New Zealand citizens in Australia on Special Category Visas who are homeless:
They are not eligible for permanent visas due to income requirements and they have no safety net. As a result, they are unable to pay rent, purchase food or medicines. They are ineligible for many charitable services as they do not have a Centrelink card. They are reliant on volunteers to provide food and sometimes temporary housing as they are ineligible for social housing.
AWAVA stated that crisis and long-term housing was the service most needed, and not able to be provided, to women on temporary visas experiencing family violence.
To help support migrants, people on temporary visas and people seeking asylum, Homelessness NSW recommended that the Australian Government:
Immediately allow all temporary visa holders the same access to Centrelink entitlements as permanent residents in Australia, including the JobSeeker subsidy.
Redress gaps in the specialist homelessness system to adequately fund targeted support for culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
Fund social and affordable housing with culturally appropriate support.
PIAC highlighted asylum seekers as a particularly vulnerable group, submitting that ‘people seeking asylum are particularly and increasingly at risk of homelessness, yet they are not mentioned in the terms of reference of the inquiry as a group of people with particular risk of homelessness’.
The Australian Community Safety & Research Organisation (ACRO) pointed to the bridging visa system as a direct cause of homelessness for some asylum seekers:
The current practice adopted by the Federal government in responding to women and children who are fleeing violence and trauma in another country through the application of a protection visa is both unworkable and inhumane. The current approach requires such people to subsist on a bridging visa for an indeterminate period without access to adequate levels of income support. The direct result of this approach is to create homelessness for them.
ACRO argued that ‘all access to services and support should be based on assessed need not a visa status’.
PIAC advised that financial pressures on people seeking asylum increased as a result of a 60 per cent funding reduction to Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) since 2018:
Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) is a safety net for the most vulnerable people seeking asylum, allowing them to access basic income support for food and rent, medication, and torture and trauma counselling. This payment is designed to support people while they await assessment of their protection claims, as they tend not to be eligible for mainstream services.
As documented in the Cutting the Safety Net report by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), these cuts have greatly increased demand for housing support, and many families cut off from SRSS are now either at risk of, or experiencing homelessness. ASRC reports providing 64,643 nights of accommodation in 2018 following the cuts, up 265% from 17,682 nights in 2016.
Jesuit Refugee Services Australia (JRS) also noted the impact of SRSS reductions on people seeking asylum:
Since 2018, only carers of children under 6, people over the age of 70, those experiencing a significant medical and/or mental health issue, or facing significant crisis are eligible for SRSS. The risk of homelessness, homelessness itself or the loss of work does not meet [the Department of Home Affairs’] criteria for significant crisis. With an estimated 1600 people in NSW currently receiving SRSS, most people seeking asylum, roughly 95% of the estimated 40,000 people in NSW, are not eligible and therefore have no income support when they are not in work.
JRS argued that there were two opportunities for early intervention to prevent homelessness for people seeking asylum. First, give people seeking asylum the right to work upon submission of a protection application and while waiting for a review or when a claim has been rejected but the person cannot be removed from Australia. Second, provide practical support to seek housing when a protection claim is initially lodged.
The 2016 Census estimated that of the 116,427 people in Australia experiencing homelessness, 8,200 were classified as ‘rough sleepers’, making up approximately seven per cent of the homeless.
In its submission Per Capita elaborated on this group:
They are not accommodated in any kind of established dwelling but instead live in improvised dwellings, tents, or on the street. These 8,200 people are at the ‘pointy end’ of homelessness and are likely to face dangerous and/or traumatising circumstances on a regular basis, putting them at high risk for mental health and substance misuse issues.
Per Capita submitted the view that:
The scale of rough sleeping in Australia is both ‘preventable and solvable’ and… all 8,200 individuals could be housed relatively quickly if there were political will and funding.
Rough sleepers have different experiences and needs to people in temporary or supported accommodation. They are at greater risk of physical or verbal abuse, are more likely to interact with law enforcement and often have unmet physical or mental health needs.
The End Street Sleeping Collaboration’s submission noted a 2019 survey of people experiencing homelessness in the City of Sydney. The results of the survey gave some insight into the circumstances and experiences of rough sleepers, and are set out in Table 3.1.
Table 3.1: End Street Sleeping Collaboration November 2019 Survey Results
48% report past trauma or abuse
27% brain injury
32% Disability Support Pension
23% report out of home care as a child
22% learning/Intellectual disability
10% Government payment (other)
28% report being in prison or watch house in the past 6 months
63% problematic substance use
53% report experiencing physical harm or verbal abuse while homeless
75% mental health diagnosis
52% problematic substance use and mental health diagnosis
3% no income
9% other/not recorded
Source: End Street Sleeping Collaboration, Submission 11, p. 5.
The Committee heard evidence on proposed policies to support rough sleepers. A number of participants in the inquiry advised that the ‘Housing First’ model of responding to homelessness was particularly effective in assisting rough sleepers. The End Street Sleeping Collaboration, for example, expressed the view that:
A variety of housing types and models of support must be available to support people in different circumstances. Taking a ‘Housing First’ approach is among the most critical of these.
Housing First is discussed in detail in Chapter 4.
Other responses raised specifically in relation to rough sleepers included changing police approaches to homelessness, and changing legislation and law enforcement to remove the ‘criminalisation of homelessness’.
In a personal submission, Mr Corey Allen CF APM stated that police services in Australia have had negative relationships with people experiencing homelessness and the organisations that support them in the past. However, the role and expectations of first responders are now changing, and their role needs to be better articulated:
Competing interests and traditional expectations of police make any investment in efforts to tackle homelessness unappealing and tokenistic at best. Until the role of police in this space is articulated in terms of harm reduction, community benefit and community expectations there will be continued resistance to serious investment from agencies. This creates boutique, short lived and disingenuous efforts to portray police as active in these spaces. Police responses and strategies should include proactive partnership response to vulnerable persons as part of core business. The same may be said of the role of police in mental health and domestic violence, factors that contribute to homelessness.
Mr Allen proposed steps to address homelessness including partnered outreach to the long term homeless, using medical/welfare oriented tools to identify needs, improving information sharing between services, and referral pathways for emergency services.
Mr Allen also raised two practices he considered as possibly harmful. First, the provision of food and interpersonal services which, while well intentioned, could sustain and normalise unsafe and unhealthy rough sleeping. Secondly, poorly administered boarding houses could increase the risk of residents experiencing abuse and of being unable to access wrap around services, which could increase reliance on emergency services.
Another harmful phenomenon discussed by CLA was what it termed the ‘criminalisation of homelessness’, meaning ‘the use of policing and the criminal justice system as central features of our response to homelessness’.
CLA argued that the homeless are disproportionately more likely to be charged with minor criminal offences through ‘enforcement-based approaches’. These included:
Express laws: for example, laws that prohibit sleeping in public places and begging – these laws directly prohibit the activities of people experiencing homelessness;
Neutral laws with a disproportionate impact: for example, laws prohibiting drinking in public or public urination that impact disproportionately on people experiencing homelessness because they have relatively little choice except to carry out their private activities in public;
Neutral laws enforced differently: for example, laws that prohibit jaywalking, public drunkenness and public transport offences and general ‘stop and search’ powers that are enforced differently because of the increased visibility of people experiencing homelessness as well as the attitudes of law enforcement officers towards people experiencing homelessness;
Targeted collaborative enforcement: for example, arrest or move-on powers that are enforced in collaboration with homelessness support agencies to promote engagement with services;
Crackdowns or blitzes: these are intensive, targeted enforcement of existing laws prohibiting, for example, begging or sleeping in public places, for short periods as part of a direction by government or law enforcement officers;
Tickets, fines, court orders and sentences: use of these instruments, as well as community corrections orders and ‘anti-social behaviour orders’, to deter or modify the movement and activities of people experiencing homelessness.
CLA argued that enforcement-based approaches negatively impact the wellbeing and safety of rough sleepers, who may be excluded from safe spaces, be deterred from seeking help, or have their relationships with existing services strained.
CLA recommended that all states and territories review legislation that targets or disproportionally affects rough sleepers. It also argued that Australian jurisdictions should establish specialist homelessness courts, similar to those operated in other countries such as New Zealand.
Rural and remote areas
While capital cities provide a hub for large numbers of homeless people, the Committee received a range of evidence to the inquiry from those in Australia’s rural, regional and remote areas, highlighting their experiences of and perspectives on homelessness in their places.
Blue Sky Community Services submitted that the lack of affordable, safe and stable housing, financial difficulties, domestic and family violence, health and mental health issues were major factors pushing young people into homelessness along the New South Wales Mid North Coast.
Young People Ahead Youth & Community Services Incorporated was another regional not-for-profit that cited family and domestic violence and over-crowded living conditions as significant causes of homelessness among people in Mt Isa.
Based in the regional centre of Young, the Young Crisis Accommodation Centre Incorporated recommended urgent actions at national and state levels:
1. A National Housing Strategy: More low-cost properties mean more choices, making it cheaper and easier to find a home. 500,000 new social and affordable rental homes are needed nationally to meet the current demand for affordable housing.
2. Immediate relief for Australians in chronic rental stress: we need to keep JobSeeker at current funding levels.
3. A plan to end homelessness by 2030: With real effort we can halve homelessness in five years - and end it in 10.
4. A better deal for renters: Get rid of ‘no grounds’ evictions and unfair rent rises so that millions of Australian renters have the security they need to create homes, build lives, and raise families.
The Tamworth based Tamworth Family Support Services and Youth Homeless Services made similar recommendations in its submission to the inquiry.
Young People Ahead stated that mixed tenancy arrangements could be a possible way to support homeless people and youth in the Mt Isa region:
As a means of innovative practice that could be explored is the provision of a mixed tenancy arrangement, termed in most European countries as Intergenerational Living program, which involves young people and the Elderly suitably matched to support one another and address critical issues that Australia is encountering, such as Youth Homelessness, High Youth Unemployment and a rising Ageing Population who require support and connection to thrive.
More generally, the National Rural Women’s Coalition advised that the rate of women’s homelessness in the regions was growing, with women’s economic insecurity colliding with ‘a significant decrease in rental affordability and limited access to property and services in rural, regional and remote Australian communities’.
The Coalition expressed concern that there was insufficient data on homelessness in rural, regional and remote areas:
Data collection to date has been limited and general in nature, setting up significant data gaps, which lead to insufficient analysis of the issue and therefore inferior outcomes for rural, regional and remote women.
It is our assessment that what is being expressed anecdotally and on the ground in rural, regional and remote communities is not being adequately captured by mainstream research. Rural women’s homelessness is often hidden from view due to circumstances such as couch surfing, living with friends, living in cars and caravans and in women’s refuges.
The Coalition recommended Government funding for a comprehensive survey and targeted, place-based research with a gender-specific focus on homelessness issues facing rural women which could form the basis of a gender-responsive and strategy to support safe, secure housing and decrease homelessness for rural women.
Blue Sky Community Services highlighted the importance of employment opportunities in preventing and addressing youth homelessness in rural and regional areas. It recommended creating more opportunities for vocational training as part of school curricula and better access to traineeships and apprenticeships in growing sectors in regional areas.
The Committee heard that rural and remote parts of Northern Territory have the highest rates of homelessness and the lowest levels of services in the nation and deserve more attention.
A joint submission from Catholic Care NT and the University of South Australia noted that:
Program deliverables that may have relevance within either urban or regional settings elsewhere in Australia, are often not appropriate in remote communities in the Northern Territory and the way they intersect with regional and urban settings. Homelessness in the Northern Territory stands at 13 times the national average. In Katherine the figure is 31 times the national figure.
In its submission, the Northern Territory Mental Health Coalition pointed to the particular challenges of services delivery in the Northern Territory:
Remoteness, which adds time and cost to deliver services, especially where these need to be co-designed with local communities for tailoring to individual needs.
Thirty per cent of the population are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people; 77 per cent of the Aboriginal population lives in remote or very remote areas of the NT.
The economy is relatively small, and the NT Government has very few streams of own-source revenue. The Territory Government remains in considerable debt and is predicting operating deficits for the duration of the budget out years.
Commonwealth arrangements that allocate funding based on jurisdictional populations rather than need inevitably result in under investment in services in the NT where the population is small but the relative disadvantage is high.
There is historical underinvestment in mental health services and social/affordable housing compared to need, across the government, private and community sectors. This underinvestment is especially evident in regional and remote areas of the NT. There are currently very limited, or no housing supports and supported accommodation for people with mental illness outside Darwin. For example, people seeking help from the Katherine hospital out of hours or on the weekend will be sent to Darwin (300km away) because there are no local facilities available. Their recovery is inevitably less successful when they are away from their family and country.
The City of Darwin’s submission to the inquiry noted that ‘although homelessness and high levels of peopled displaced into “rough sleeping” are national issues, there are specific challenges with regard to the disproportionately high levels of homelessness experienced in the Northern Territory’.
The City’s submission highlighted that the Northern Territory has significant issues with housing for Australians at risk of homelessness:
It is widely recognised there are significant deficits in the provision of housing in both communities and urban centres, as well as chronic overcrowding in existing dwellings, including in ‘town camps’. There is also a huge gap in the provision of short to medium term accommodation in urban and regional centres in the NT, including Darwin, for visitors who access major centres for a range of health and social reasons. The overall shortage of accommodation, including long term housing and accommodation places for those who need it in the short to medium term, (or in times of crisis) puts huge pressure on existing housing across the NT. It also pushes people into a cycle of sleeping rough and puts an inordinate amount of pressure within human service organisations and/or the community sector tasked with addressing homelessness and the complex social issues that go hand-in-hand with it. A lack of safe accommodation greatly increases the vulnerability experienced by individuals and families and creates further deficits in the interrelated areas of health, social and emotional wellbeing, employment outcomes and education.
As noted above, WoSSCA highlighted the role of family, domestic and sexual violence in homelessness in Central Australia, intersecting with a ‘critical lack of housing availability’ and high prevalence of overcrowded dwellings. WoSSCA stated that a range of housing models were needed to meet the demand for early intervention of homelessness, crisis based accommodation and needs based housing in Central Australia.
As discussed in Chapter 2, submitters from the Territory raised concerns regarding the model and proportion of funding from the Federal Government to the Northern Territory under the NHHA, especially in light of the Territory’s high level of homelessness and particular needs.
Other factors and vulnerabilities
The Committee also heard evidence regarding other factors interacting with homelessness, or groups at particular risk of homelessness. These included alcohol or drug dependency, and people facing legal issues or interacting with the justice system.
The University of Melbourne Justice Health Unit submitted that:
The prevalence of alcohol and other drug dependence among people who experience homelessness is between 2 – 4 and 3 – 9 times higher than the prevalence in the general population, respectively.
Danila Dilba Health Services noted a link between substance abuse and homelessness, although cautioned that the matter is not fully understood:
While the causes of homelessness are complex, the role of substance abuse can not be ignored. There is a strong positive association between homelessness and substance abuse but a lack of evidence of causation in an extensive study in Victoria but there is a positive causal relationship between risky alcohol use and homelessness.
The Committee received evidence from SHM noting that people may be denied access to mental health services or assessment if they are not drug-free despite alcohol and drug use being a cause and consequence of mental illness and trauma.
The Central Australian Aboriginal Congress stated that there was a link between substance abuse, family violence and homelessness:
Harmful alcohol consumption, especially binge drinking, is strongly correlated to increased levels of family violence, with women often the victims. Alcohol and drug use can, of course, also lead directly to homelessness. Addressing high levels of harmful alcohol use is therefore a key way to prevent homelessness.
It pointed to evidence of ‘very significant reductions in alcohol-related harm across the Northern Territory’ as a result of reforms introduced in that jurisdiction in 2019, including a minimum unit price for alcohol, and recommended the adoption of similar policies across Australia.
Kids Under Cover cautioned, however, that the attribution of homelessness to drug and alcohol addiction by many Australians was a misperception, recognising that while drug and alcohol abuse may be associated with homelessness, it is not an isolated cause.
Justice Connect stated that ‘legal issues cause and compound homelessness, often making it impossible for people to move into stable housing’.
Justice Connect submitted that specialist homelessness legal services are a key component of multi-disciplinary services for reducing entrenched homelessness and improving access to justice:
These targeted services are able to identify the common barriers faced by this highly marginalised cohort and implement innovative solutions to better ensure access to justice. This assists identification of core issues and the facilitation of a more informed delivery of legal services to achieve positive outcomes.
The interlinked and complex vulnerabilities often experienced by homeless or at risk Australians generally increases the intensity of legal help required. Early access to specialised legal help is vital for people with complex needs, and crucial to resolving legal issues before they escalate to crisis point.
LawRight’s submission stated:
Laws, policies and practices disproportionately affect people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, and entrench their disadvantage and inequality before the law. An experience of homelessness will almost inevitably be accompanied by significant legal issues that are impossible to resolve without assistance.
Australian Specialist Homelessness Legal Services added:
…people experiencing homelessness often present specific challenges to engagement, such as limited literacy and other communication barriers, unstable accommodation, unfamiliarity with legal processes and a distrust of the justice system.
Justice Connect recommended that ‘wrap-around, specialised legal services should be seen as an important part of achieving long-term housing outcomes for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness across Australia’. The submission recommended:
a. Investing in early-intervention, client-centred and co-located legal services that can proactively resolve legal issues to minimise barriers to housing security;
b. Supporting the integration of legal, social work, health and other community-support professionals to help people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity in successfully accessing, navigating and exiting the justice system.
Evidence set out in this chapter highlights the diverse range of causes and risk factors that contribute to homelessness, and the different ways in which homelessness manifests in different groups in the Australian community.
While acknowledging that each case of homelessness is unique, the Committee is concerned to see that all governments’ responses to homelessness, where possible, work in systematic ways to recognise common causes and effects and include strategies to address these.
The Committee notes that the NHHA includes six national priority homelessness cohorts, and allows states and territories to designate additional priority homelessness cohorts in their bilateral agreements with the Australian Government.
However, the Committee is concerned that the process of designating priority cohorts under the NHHA is not clear. Moreover, while recognising that the states and territories are required to report annually the amounts of Commonwealth and state/territory funds spent on each cohort, the Committee considers that there is insufficient transparency and accountability about what is actually done for each of these cohorts and how effective those responses are.
The Committee notes that for some of the cohorts identified under the NHHA—such as victim-survivors of family and domestic violence and Indigenous people—homelessness appears to be a persistent and in some cases worsening problem. On the other hand, the Committee also received evidence about particular groups not identified under the NHHA—such as people living with mental illness—for whom specialised programs and services appear to be particularly important.
Given this, the Committee considers that the Australian Government should work with state and territory governments to ensure the NHHA adequately captures the full range of at-risk groups, and that there are clear requirements on governments to address these groups and account for their responses.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in consultation with state and territory governments, review the national priority homelessness cohorts identified in the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement and determine whether new cohorts should be added and/or whether existing cohorts should be removed.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in consultation with state and territory governments, consider strengthening the requirements on state and territory governments in relation to national and state-specific priority homelessness cohorts listed in the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement.
This should include considering requirements such as:
formal consultation with representative groups from priority cohorts;
dedicated funding for measures to address priority cohorts; and
additional evaluation of and reporting on measures taken to address priority cohorts.
In addition, the Committee acknowledges the evidence it received indicating that there is an acute shortage of emergency and crisis accommodation, which necessarily impacts on those most at risk of homelessness, including several of the groups discussed in this chapter.
The Committee accepts that crisis and emergency accommodation is not a solution in and of itself to the problem of homelessness. Nevertheless, these forms of accommodation can play an important role in assisting people until a crisis has passed, thereby avoiding more protracted and entrenched cases of homelessness.
In this context, the Committee recognises the particular risk faced by victim-survivors of family, domestic and sexual violence and the importance of appropriate, dedicated accommodation to assist victim-survivors who cannot safely remain at home. At the same time, the Committee stresses that where it is safe to do so, it is perpetrators who should be removed from the family home, providing stability to victim-survivors and children. Perpetrators in those instances may need to be temporarily housed.
These issues were the subject of recommendations in the Committee’s report on its inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence.
As foreshadowed in that report, the Committee considers that there is a role for the Australian Government, along with state and territory governments, in providing additional funding for crisis and emergency accommodation.
The Committee considers that this funding should provide accommodation for people at risk of homelessness generally, and particularly the vulnerable groups identified in this report. However, recognising the clear link between family violence and homelessness, the Committee recommends dedicated funding for accommodation for victim-survivors, and perpetrators who are removed from the family home.
In this regard, the Committee welcomes the announcement in the 2012‑22 Budget of additional funding to expand the Safe Places program, which provides new or expanded emergency accommodation for women and children experiencing family and domestic violence. The Committee nevertheless considers that there is always more work to be done.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government and state and territory governments provide funding for additional crisis, emergency and transitional accommodation, and associated support services including pathways to long-term accommodation, for people at risk of homelessness. This should include dedicated funding for accommodation for victim-survivors of family, domestic and sexual violence.
In addition, the Committee reiterates Recommendation 75 of the report of its inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence, that the Australian Government and state and territory governments consider funding emergency accommodation for perpetrators of such violence, to prevent victim-survivors from having to leave their homes.
While responsibility for the provision and the detail of homelessness programs and services rests with the states and territories, it is a fact that the Australian Government makes a significant financial contribution to these programs and services through the NHHA.
The Committee therefore encourages the Australian Government to work with the states and territories to ensure that the collective response to homelessness is properly targeted at those who are most at risk, and supports people with particular needs and vulnerabilities.
To this end, while the Committee encourages all governments to consider the broad range of evidence and suggestions made to this inquiry in relation to various vulnerable groups, the Committee has identified the following specific recommendations which it endorses and encourages the Australian Government to pursue through relevant agreements with state, territory and local governments.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state and territory governments to ensure the availability of an appropriate proportion of social housing and transitional, crisis and emergency accommodation which is accessible and appropriate for people with diverse needs, including but not limited to:
people living with disability;
people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds; and
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state and territory governments to establish nationally consistent tenancy legislation for victim-survivors of family, domestic and sexual violence to terminate a tenancy when they need to leave a home, or alternatively maintain an existing tenancy when a perpetrator is removed from a home.
Recognising the association between substance abuse and homelessness, the Committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state and territory governments to implement further measures to reduce alcohol-related harms at a whole-of-population level.
In addition, the Committee reiterates Recommendation 60 of the report of its inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence for a public health approach to preventing and managing drug and alcohol related harms experienced by families and children, involving all jurisdictions, including local governments.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government lead the development of a national integrated approach to housing and homelessness services for Indigenous Australians, co-designed with Indigenous community-controlled organisations and grounded in the principle of self-determination.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state and territory governments to review public order offences and other offences that disproportionately affect people experiencing homelessness, particularly rough sleepers, and those in a cycle of homelessness, with a view to minimising enforcement-based responses to homelessness.
This should include consideration of sentencing practices and bail conditions for public order offences and the need for effective integration of legal, social, health and other agencies to create pathways out of the justice system.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state and territory governments to implement strategies to address the risk of exiting into homelessness from state institutions, including hospitals, mental health facilities, correctional institutions and out-of-home-care, including developing a nationally consistent approach to discharge planning and a national definition of ‘no exit into homelessness’.
The Australian Government should also work with state and territory governments to better integrate housing and mental health support services.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state and territory governments to ensure that:
adequate incentives are in place for social housing providers to accept tenants with high needs or who are at risk of repeat homelessness;
adequate support is available for social housing tenants, particularly those with a history of episodic homelessness, to minimise re-entries into homelessness; and
housing providers and support services are more accountable for the housing outcomes of the people they support.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government and state and territory governments expand the circumstances in which asylum seekers, particularly those on bridging visas, have the right to work and are able to access social housing, transitional, crisis and emergency accommodation, safe-at-home programs, and housing and homelessness services.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government together with state and territory governments increase investment in economic development and other measures to enhance employment opportunities in rural and regional areas. This should include the creation of new traineeships and apprenticeships in the mining, renewable energy, eco‑tourism and technology sectors.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government establish a comprehensive strategy to address the financial insecurity of older women. This should include consideration of:
measures relating to superannuation and income support with a view to improving financial outcomes for women; and
the need for new data collection and reporting measures, including new national data sets, to inform polices and strategies targeted at older women.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in cooperation with state and territory governments, fund data collection and research to address gaps in evidence relating to the prevalence of homelessness and demand for support services among specific vulnerable groups, including but not limited to:
people living in regional, rural and remote areas;