Later today there’s a very good chance Australia’s official number of homeless people could drop significantly.

Don't let the new ABS definition of homelessness lull you into thinking this isn't happening

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.

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    • nathan says:

      06:36pm | 11/09/12

      i work in a homeless shelter and on the last 2 census nites our forms were never colected.the one bfore that i was living in a homeless shelter and did the forms for the worker out of bordom. six monthes later i went in to say hi and the forms were still on the desk. the feeling i get is that stats for the homeless are best not collected and you can make up the rest. out of sight out of mind

    • James says:

      05:15pm | 11/09/12

      This line of comments is pathetic. i cant believe the garbage some of you have typed. It just proves that ignorance is well and truly alive in Australia. Why did this whole conversation become about ‘boat people’ Most of you sound like xenophobic rednecks who have had it all on a silver platter.

    • Poking the Dead says:

      07:55pm | 11/09/12

      Didn’t take you long to figure out this is the home of redneck right wingers.

      Most of us just come here to poke them and have a bit of fun.

      They’re like zombies. If this site had sound available with the comments, all you’d hear is
      BRAAAAIIIIINNNNSSS in a real guttural tone as they zombie walked in search of some.

    • Just Saying says:

      12:22pm | 11/09/12

      Although there has been a lot of additional people added into the count who may not have needed to be, I am absolutely sure there were many who were missed because they were sleeping rough or in their cars or tents in the bush etc… I also wonder how many homeless couchsurfing migrants have been counted when there would Language Barriers.
      Whatever the case, they need to adopt a consistent approach to their methodology and deal with the issue at hand with appropriate funding and multi-disciplinary approaches, and with a stronger focus on Mental Health Care.

    • No to liars! says:

      12:11pm | 11/09/12

      Spare us the mock concern for the homeless as an excuse to bash “boat people”! These are the same people you Tory tossers despise for being dole “bludgers” on “your” taxes! Poor you!

    • Anne71 says:

      12:48pm | 11/09/12

      Exactly. The ones who trot out the “Aussies live on the streets while them illegals get it all on a plate” line in response to articles like this are nearly always the same ones ranting about ‘welfare bludgers” when the article is about Government’s welfare spending. 

      They’re usually also the ones who defend most vociferously their right to middle-class welfare. Funny, that.

    • P. Walker says:

      12:08pm | 11/09/12

      Oh Sarah, go away you commo ganGrene.  Have you realised that the Soviet block countries have understood that it don’t work any more. 
      When you work for a pittance for long days, one has NO incentive to achieve.  That’s what happens dearie.  Imagine, no more funds for nose piercings, tats, cheesecloth flowing dresses or flutes to play.
      You are simply a jealous person with your mention of obscene rich….blah blah.  I am not but I do not begrudge them.

      Did you know you can donate 80% to the government in tax, do YOU?

    • Anna C says:

      11:28am | 11/09/12

      Does anyone know why asylum seekers get into government housing pretty quickly while Australians have an average wait of 16 years on the government housing waiting list.  I’m not making any judgements about the rights and wrongs of this but would be interested in knowing why this discrepancy exists.

    • Peter says:

      11:26am | 11/09/12

      Oh, so there are not really 104,000 homeless people in Australia (a city the size of Darwin).  Imagine that.  Who would have guessed.  Is it possible that special interest groups have been exaggerating the issue all these years just to support the cause?  Nah.  You wouldn’t do that, would you?

    • bananabender says:

      10:15am | 11/09/12

      The number of genuinely homeless people is always wildly exaggerated by welfare lobbies.

      One of my undergraduate statistics textbooks used homelessness measures as an example of bad methodology. Back in the 1970s a statistics professor in Chicago was told by social workers that there were 40,000 homeless men living on the streets in Chicago. This result was based on polling shelter managers.

      The professor decided that this 40,000 homeless number seemed implausibly high.  So he sent his students out every night for a month to every known shelter and refuge in Chicago to count and identify these men. The actual number of genuinely homeless turned out to be fewer than 200 - less than 1% of the claimed number. It turned out that individual men were being counted many times as they went from charity to charity.  Virtually all of these men had mental health issues or substance abuse problems.

    • Sarah Bath says:

      09:34am | 11/09/12

      and yet the obscene rich live in mansions while there are homeless.  Perhaps if people would listen to us we can ensure there is a leveling of profits with an increase in public housing expenditure

    • iMitchy says:

      01:08pm | 11/09/12

      That’s called tax and it already exists. In most cases people have lots of money because they earned it, and in doing so have created jobs, goods, services, housing etc. for others.

      Levelling of profits stiflesdomestic productivity and sends investment offshore. That means a lot of existing tax simply dries up and you are left worse off than you started.

      I disagree that money should go towards housing. Money should go towards supporting homeless to find decent jobs and maybe free childcare so that they can go to work, just until they get back on their feet.

    • chuck says:

      08:48am | 11/09/12

      We treat our own disadvantaged far worse than the stream of illegal immigrants - WHY? I know a bloke with 5 kids earning ~ $ 19/hr and believe it or not works who can’t get public housing after waiting for 3 years as opposed to Cap’t Emads lying lot who were automatically housed and don’t work!

    • AdamC says:

      11:20am | 11/09/12

      While I think some people go over the top in complaining about the benefits, etc, provided to refugees, this seems like an area in which the widespread public concern is valid. How do people like Captain Emad receive housing, seemingly quite promptly, when other people on the public waiting lists supposedly languish for years?

    • Richard the Lionheart says:

      08:48am | 11/09/12

      Send the homeless to the bush. They don’t need nor can afford the amenities of living in a city. I’ve seen houses for $40,000 -$60,000 in run down country towns where group living and regular dole/disability payments could be most beneficial. A “Save the Homeless” drive by church groups could raise the money to purchase these houses.

    • Bear says:

      12:18pm | 11/09/12

      So they live somewhere with zero prospects but with shelter!? Despite the complete callous disregard for them as little more than cargo, not a completely useless idea. But nah I think we just “make” them move to the sea. That’s the answer, live under the sea. It’s rent free and there would be no accusations, just friendly crustaceans under the sea.

    • tez says:

      09:57am | 11/09/12

      You would have to be very carefull of the Not In My Back Yard effect

    • Little Joe says:

      08:38am | 11/09/12

      @ Nathan

      Actually I have worked quite closely with several groups who help the homeless ..... organising blanket donations and charity drops. I know that I could, and probably should do more ..... but as a husband and father I can only give so much.

      If you followed any of my postings at The Punch I mention our homeless whenever possible in the hope that people like you simply don’t forget that there are 1000’s of Australians who do not sleep on a bed every night. Even when Tory wrote about her sleep out I tried to bait her to write about the issue more frequently.

      Unfortunately too many Australians do not know how tough it is for our citizens.

    • Gregg says:

      07:57am | 11/09/12

      ” 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. “
      That was rather dumb to have them included in the first place just as it would be to include all those living in caravan parks as sure some may do it because it is cheaper and then they are acting responsibly to live within their means.

      There are also quite a few caravan parks about with relocatable mini homes and not such a bad set-up, offering many people good conveniences and in some cases a higher level of security and friendship.


      07:10am | 11/09/12

      Hi Prins,

      Unfortunately homelessness may be something which has been overlooked in a country such as Australia and why?  I also would like to know why it exists in affluent and wealthy nations like the USA, the UK and Australia?  It is alright so see such pictures of homeless people living and sleeping in cardboard boxes, bus stations and parks, may be in India, China, South Africa!  But I do have a problem with such scenes in Australia, where we might call ourselves a little lucky to say the least.

      In the USA the actual problems with homelessness seems to be so much larger magnitude, more like 46 million people are homeless in that nation!  So why does it not make headlines around the world?  Is it a minor or a major problem?  Or is it more like wishing and thinking that these poor people don’t deserve any better anyway?  May be a combination of all or one! Which ever way we look at it, there could be no right way of justification as far as the excuses we can all come up with, as a society really! 

      Somehow I also feel that things like they drink too much, they don’t work that hard and they don’t have caring families are the usual lines!  But is that really all?  I am most certain that some of the homeless were once law abiding and tax paying citizens like most Australians or were they?  I would like to see more action as well as funding put side in order to help the homeless to gather some kind of strength to actually have some kind of much needed dignity and self worth in their lives.  Kind regards to your editors.

    • Gregg says:

      07:51am | 11/09/12

      You’ll find that most societies one way or another function on a certain ammount of dog eat dog philosopies and there are always going to be the wealthier better off at one end of the spectrum and poor not so well off people at the other end in most societies.
      Sure, there are any number of reasons why people become homeless and there is only so much public housing available and some that becomes unavailable when the worst of tenants trash them to the state of being uninhabitable.
      If you are really interested, why not go out and see what information you can get first hand and then consider if you want to contribute more of your own money for governments can only extract so much from taxpayers before general decline increases.
      The US had their Fanny and Freddy cheap loans saga that partially led to the GFC commencing and subsequently many people just walking away from houses they could not afford payments on when they became unemployed.

    • acotrel says:

      06:53am | 11/09/12

      We also don’t hear the statistics about the unreported suicides in the Melbourne CBD, - usually by jumping off multi-story car parks.  Perhaps we need to keep our confidence up during this downturn by all means possible ?  That would include not talking down the economy - even lies are justified if they stop people getting depressed and topping themselves.

    • colin says:

      01:46pm | 11/09/12

      @ M 10:33am | 11/09/12

      “They are just storeys made up by liberal party drones…”

      Been at the Wacky Tabacky again, M..?

    • M says:

      10:33am | 11/09/12

      They are just storeys made up by liberal party drones people who are homeless dont kill themselves because they get paid by the government to spy on people

    • Little Joe says:

      06:16am | 11/09/12

      That’s OK .... in Australia, Boat People have a higher priority to housing than Australians.

      Boat people complain about nice warm housing .... and in some cases MOTELS .... while Australians get to sleep on cold hard concrete.

    • simonfromlakemba says:

      03:31pm | 11/09/12

      Has he been NathanfromLakemba previously?

      If so, I havent seen it.

    • Gregg says:

      03:15pm | 11/09/12

      Your name for one mate and maybe that Natnan is being shifty in not declaring himself as NathanfromLakemba

    • Just Saying says:

      12:30pm | 11/09/12

      Little Joe- do you know anything about the range services available to homeless people?
      You need to do some research before making such unfounded comments…
      There are some Australian people who openly admit to rather spending their money on other things as opposed to paying rent. Yes, their other priorities are probably the root of their homelessness (e.g alchohol, drugs and Mental Health), but there are services there to assist. You cannot force a person to deal with issues, they have to make the choice.
      To compare this with Boat People is a typical bogan comment.

    • simonfromlakemba says:

      11:33am | 11/09/12

      Whats being from Lakemba got to do with anything?

    • jade (the other one) says:

      10:59am | 11/09/12

      @Little Joe - without being rude, most of the homeless in Australia are homeless because they CHOSE to waste the bountiful opportunities this country provides them with MY tax dollars.

      Free education, free job seeking services, ridiculous welfare benefits, not to mention the charitable assistance I keep getting badgered for.

      Many chose to take drugs, squander the resources given to them by the privilege of their birth, refuse to take appropriate medication for their mental illness, or simply “disengage” from formal education, provided FOR FREE!

      Why do lazy individuals who have no hesitation in committing crimes against decent hardworking Australians trying to get to and from work (many of my friends who work in CBDs have been the victim of muggings from homeless people) deserve more of my money, when they’ve proven incapable of managing the money they’ve already received?

      I’d rather see the money and resources on people who have been persecuted, tortured, and have proven their resolve and their determination to access a safer, better existence than on people who were given a safe and world class existence and chose to squander it.

    • HC says:

      09:36am | 11/09/12

      Yeah because most moron voters care less about homeless Aussies than boat people.  Governments are given a mandate from voters to deal with boat people in spite of this being a minute issue compared to homelessness in this country because the voters keep whinging and whining about people skipping imaginary queues and “illegaly” entering our borders etc.

      I suggest if people want this to change they should start ignoring the boat people and start raising the issues that really matter.

      But then again logic is not the strong suit of the average Aussie voter so it’s unlikely this will ever change…

    • Gregg says:

      08:56am | 11/09/12

      ” More money is spent on illegals flying into Australia than boat people, “
      Posting stuff like that is so so easy ain’t it but where is your support of such a claim or should we just consign you to the BS bin along with your post.

      First off, how does an illegal fly into Australia?
      Have you ever tried to board a flight to Australia?
      Needed a visa if you’re not holding an Australian or NZ passport would you not have?

      Yep, boat people are costing Australian taxpayers billions$$$ and the sooner more tent cities and UNHCR style refugee standards are applied, the better.

    • acotrel says:

      08:38am | 11/09/12

      ‘Boat people complain about nice warm housing .... and in some cases MOTELS .... while Australians get to sleep on cold hard concrete. ‘

      Gillard has failed again.  She should supply homeless Australians with sheets of corrugated iron to use as blankets when they are sleeping on the cold hard concrete ?

    • P. Walker says:

      07:47am | 11/09/12

      Little Joe, I suspect that Nathan is actually “Nathan from Lakemba”, yeah?  He’s a refugee advocate.

    • Nathan says:

      06:54am | 11/09/12

      Little Joe
      More money is spent on illegals flying into Australia than boat people, so if your concerned over money that is the group to look at. I doubt you actually care about anything to do with homeless and this is just a poor attempt to carry on about Boat People again.

      On point yet again


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