Misleading stats could leave the homeless out in the cold
Later today there’s a very good chance Australia’s official number of homeless people could drop significantly.
Ordinarily, any drop in homeless numbers is cause for celebration. But this result, unfortunately, has nothing to do with Australia’s success at getting more people back into long-term accommodation. In fact there is a danger that this ‘drop’ could be seized upon to derail the nation’s assault on homelessness. Let me explain…
The Census provides us with the only national and state/territory count of homeless people. While the homeless count has its challenges, it’s still hugely significant for governments and homeless agencies and is of considerable interest to the broader community.
However it’s been the ABS’ recent view that its approach to counting homeless people in previous censuses – which began in 1996 – was flawed and needed improvement.
Put simply, the Bureau’s changes are about arriving at a more accurate count. Among other things it aims to exclude from the count people who might be sleeping on a friend’s couch while on holiday or living in a garage while building a new home.
The Bureau’s new approach will not only be applied to the 2011 Census count of homeless people – to be released in November – but also, retrospectively, to the 2001 and 2006 Census homeless counts, to be released today.
It’s widely expected that as a result of the Bureau’s change the number of homeless people counted in both the 2001 and 2006 Censuses will be revised downwards. Why? Because, quite plainly, if you eliminate from the count people who aren’t homeless and who previously had been considered as such, your top line number is going to fall.
As one of the country’s largest providers of services to homeless people, Mission Australia supports the Bureau’s efforts to arrive at a more consistent approach for counting homeless people. Our concern is the potential for the recalculated numbers to be misinterpreted as a real reduction and as a pretext for putting fewer resources into our fight against homelessness.
Federal and State/Territory Ministers with responsibility for homelessness are currently in the early stages of renegotiating the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness (NPAH).
The joint federal-state agreement – $1.1 billion over five years in extra funding for homeless services and the centrepiece of the Federal Government’s efforts to reach the nation’s 2020 goals of halving homelessness and providing all roughsleepers with access to accommodation – runs out in June 2013.
While we take comfort in the fact that the Federal Minister for Housing Brendan O’Connor has expressed his intention to pursue a new agreement, there’s been nothing put aside in the federal budget. Nor do the states appear to be approaching renegotiations with any enthusiasm given they will need to put up half the funding.
With most states under financial pressure, it’s not hard to imagine Premiers and Housing Ministers under enormous pressure from their Treasuries to pull back on homeless funding, using the Bureau’s new figures as evidence:
‘Look, homelessness isn’t as big an issue as we previously thought. The numbers have gone down. 2020 is a long way away, let the next government deal with the targets.’
From our perspective as a provider of services to homeless people demand for help is as high as it’s ever been. Across just three of our Sydney homeless services, we turned away more than 1400 people in the last financial year because of a lack of vacancies.
In any case, the very real challenges encountered in counting homeless people means any Census number is likely to underestimate the true scale of the problem. On any Census night tens of thousands of people identify as being housed but the full picture of their vulnerability to homelessness is not picked up.
For example, young homeless people who are couch-surfing with friends; or people living in caravan parks, particularly in regional areas, not because they’re on holiday, but because the temporary accommodation is all they can afford and is available.
The Census also can’t capture the complexities around homelessness. For most people, homelessness isn’t a short, one-off experience. Most move back and forth between homelessness, marginal housing and stable housing. A day, week or a month down the track they could be homeless again.
And finally there’s the length of time between counts. We’re still using figures from the 2006 Census. In that time we’ve had three Prime Ministers, a global financial crisis and a domestic recovery. A lot can happen in five years.
While the Census count of homeless people is valuable – and there’s no question that counting homeless people is extremely difficult and problematic – we need to remember it’s just one source of information.
Let’s not let a statistical rewrite create the false impression that a big problem has suddenly become smaller. The work to truly bring homeless numbers down is all ahead of us.
Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEST.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…