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Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Some facts about the study of homelessness

Earlier this week I contacted the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to find out when the 2016 Census’ homelessness figures would come out. I was told the figures would appear in early- to mid-2018. International homelessness figures only cite the 2011 Census, notably an OECD report  on affordable housing, and I wanted to know how things had changed in more recent years.

In the OECD report, which looks at the cost of housing generally, and homelessness as a part of that, Australia comes out looking reasonably good in the housing affordability stakes compared to its peers. Compared to Finland, say, or France, or Sweden, the amount of income spent on housing in Australia was not high in 2013, which is the year the figures point to. The definition:
This indicator presents information on the final consumption expenditure of households on housing, water, electricity, gas and other fuels, as a percentage of overall final consumption expenditure of households.
When it came to homelessness, however, Australia did worse than Finland and Sweden and France, with almost 0.5% of our population reported as homeless in 2011. There are differences in the way the figures are collected across national boundaries, however, so it’s very difficult to make neat comparisons between how different countries deal with homelessness.

In Australia, people living in institutions are not counted among the homeless, for example. Australians who are counted as homeless fall into the following categories:
  1. Sleeping rough
  2. In emergency accommodation
  3. Living in accommodation for the homeless
  4. Living in non-conventional dwellings due to lack of housing, and
  5. Living temporarily with family or friends due to lack of housing.
Using these categories, Australia had 105,237 homeless people in 2011. France counted 141,500 people (0.22% of the population) in the first three of these categories, which means that the government didn’t count people in the other two categories as being “homeless”.

Finland also counted people in the first three categories and not in the last two, but it also counted people living in institutions, in its 2015 survey, finding 7200 “homeless” people (or 0.13% of the population). Sweden counted 34,000 homeless people (0.36% of the population) in 2011 including all categories used by Australia as well as people living in institutions (this included prisons, healthcare institutions, and treatment centres).

New Zealand uses the same categories as Australia, and found 41,207 people (0.94% of the population) to be homeless in 2015.

Australia’s homeless in 2011 were up on 2006 (89,728) and on 2001 (95,314). There were more people living in boarding houses in 2011 (21,258) compared to 2006 (17,329) but fewer people living in improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out in 2011 (6813) compared to 2006 (7247). Most of the increase in homelessness between 2006 and 2011 was accounted for by people aged 25 to 34 years.

The ABS has spent time and effort finding better ways to count the homeless. It is clear that governments are trying to improve their responses to homelessness. In an ABS fact sheet: “In Europe this has led to the development of the European Typology of Homelessness and Housing Exclusion (ETHOS) definition (European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless, 2011). Closer to Australia, the ETHOS definition informed the development of the Statistics New Zealand definition of homelessness (Statistics New Zealand, 2009).”
In 2008, following widespread discussion in Australia about the meaning and measurement of social inclusion and exclusion, the ABS recognised the need to develop robust and transparent homelessness statistics across a range of ABS datasets. This decision coincided with the release of the Federal Government White Paper on Homelessness (The Road Home) (FaHCSIA, 2008a), which highlighted homelessness as an important social issue in Australia and identified the need to "turn off the tap", "break the cycle" and arrest chronic homelessness.
An article by Yale Global says that a shortage of comparable numbers is holding back efforts to fix the problem:
Obtaining an accurate picture of homelessness globally is challenging for several reasons. First, and perhaps most problematic, is variations in definitions. Homelessness can vary from simply the absence of adequate living quarters or rough sleeping to include the lack of a permanent residence that provides roots, security, identity and emotional wellbeing. The absence of an internationally agreed upon definition of homelessness hampers meaningful comparisons. The United Nations has recognized that definitions vary across countries because homelessness is essentially culturally defined based on concepts such as adequate housing, minimum community housing standard or security of tenure.
Second, many governments lack resources and commitment to measure the complicated and elusive phenomenon. Authorities confront a dynamic situation with frequent changes in housing status, and many communities have not established accurate trends of homelessness.

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