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Facts belie positive spin on homelessness



Housing Minister Luke Howarth came under fire for saying he wanted to put a 'positive spin' on homelessness, but worse than his comments is the misinformation. Howarth said homelessness affects a 'very, very small percentage of the population' and only 'about half a per cent of the population don't have a permanent roof over their head'. While an ABC RMIT fact check found his claim is correct, that still means one in every 200 Australians is experiencing homelessness.

Forlorn looking woman in leather jacket sitting on steps. Stock photo by pixelfit via GettyAs audience member Hayden Champion-Silver said on ABC's QandA: 'There's nothing positive about being homeless. There's not a single thing I could think of when I was homeless that was positive.'

When asked where I live, an unease rises in my gut as I decide how best to answer. Depending on the day I tell the questioner where my stuff is or where I am currently staying; they seem bemused by my hesitation but they accept. But if I say I am currently homeless they respond with surprise: 'But you don't look homeless.'

Homelessness has long been falsely equated with sleeping rough but in reality that makes up only a small proportion. Since 1996 the Australian Bureau of Statistics has been examining ways to better count and measure homelessness using the census.

The ABS devised six groups to collect data on homelessness. The statistics from 2016 were: persons living in improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out (seven per cent); persons in supported accommodation for the homeless (18 per cent); persons staying temporarily with other households (15 per cent); persons living in boarding houses (15 per cent); persons in other temporary lodgings (one per cent); and persons living in 'severely' crowded dwellings (44 per cent).

However, data collection about homelessness using the census often still results in underestimation due to a lack of awareness about categories and a reluctance to report. The option was introduced for homeless people to write 'none' where it says 'usual address' or to write 'none-crisis' if in crisis accomodation. However, people escaping domestic violence often choose not to disclose this for a number of reasons such as stigma or a belief they may return to their home soon. Meanwhile, homeless youth may report the place where they are staying temporarily as their current address which would mean they are only counted as a visitor. 

An additional issue is that there is likely a higher frequency of youth homelessness at any point in time than can be counted in a survey snapshot like the census. Young people can become homeless for a period, and possibly on multiple occasions. The ABS has suggested an incidence measure may be a better way to gather this sort of information.


"The stigma and the stereotypes of homelessness harm all people who have unstable or insecure living arrangements. Not having correct perceptions and accurate data hinders the capacity for government and organisations to assist people effectively."


Not having a place to call home is exhausting. This is exacerbated for the high proportion of homeless people who have a mental illness. They may worry that the slightest change in the mood of a place where they are residing rent free might upset them or those who are giving them shelter. For those who already see themselves as unworthy or a burden on others, accepting the generosity of others can feel like a conditional time bomb.

Addressing measures to reduce homelessness requires data to be as accurate as possible. The stronger the evidence, the better chance advocacy groups and non-for-profit organisations can have at lobbying for solutions such as more public and community housing and increasing initiatives like the National Rental Affordability Scheme (NRAS) and Housing First.

NRAS, which uses financial incentives to encourage investors to rent dwellings to those on low or moderate incomes at less than market value, was capped at 38,000 allocations in 2014-15 and the scheme ends in 2026. This seems like shocking foresight when you consider homelessness is increasing ahead of population growth — from 2011 to 2016 the population grew by eight per cent while homelessness went up by 14 per cent. 

Meanwhile the number of affordable rentals for those doing it tough, such as on Newstart, minimum wage, pensioners and those on the disability support pension are incredibly scarce, and there is a severe lack of social housing, with 195,000 households on the waitlist.

Another key part of developing ways to combat homelessness is recognising the varied needs of vulnerable groups. Homelessness among young people and older people is rising steadily, while one in every 25 Indigenous people is homeless. Often governments roll out a one size fits all model which can waste resources where it would have been a smarter use of funding to differentiate solutions to suit specific demographics.

Every time someone who is homeless has to fill out a form that asks their address they are reminded of their precarious, unstable living situation. Every day that a person does not have a place to call home they expend energy organising somewhere to stay.

Having a dedicated housing minister presents an opportunity to take stock of what services are available and improve their availability, effectiveness and delivery. But Howarth needs to see the whole picture to do this rather than making glib assessments about the state of the homelessness.

The stigma and the stereotypes of homelessness harm all people who have unstable or insecure living arrangements. Not having correct perceptions and accurate data hinders the capacity for government and organisations to assist people effectively and for those people without a fixed address to find the right kind of support to survive and thrive.



Eliza BerlageEliza Berlage is a Melbourne-based journalist and audio producer with a background in sociology.

Main image by pixelfit via Getty

Topic tags: Eliza Berlage, Luke Howarth, homelessness



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Existing comments

"Howarth said homelessness affects a 'very, very small percentage of the population' and only 'about half a per cent of the population don't have a permanent roof over their head'." Tragically, I am no longer amazed at the thoughtlessness, or perhaps cruelty, of some of our Federal Ministers. Luke Howarth's reduction of homeless people to a set of benign-sounding statistics further diminishes their human value in the minds of many comfortable Australians. No, I'm not over-reaching in this statement - what other reason would justify a 'positive spin' on homelessness?

Ian Fraser | 19 July 2019  

Ian Fraser is right, tragically. The homeless may be only 'about half a percent (.5%) of the population' but they have even less political influence that your average Australian punter who votes federally once every three years only because she or he thinks they have to. (By a quirk of Aussie electoral law they only have to attend a polling booth and have their names marked as having presented themselves.) Minister Howarth's in telling us that the housing glass is 99.5% full is insinuating that the .5% not there count for nothing. And we the comfortable shouldn't be concerned for them. The LNP government eschews any policy that might be based on compassion. Listen to the Gospel of Prosperity. Ignore the cry of the Poor. Shame.

Uncle Pat | 19 July 2019  

Thanks Eliza for your excellent article. Let's look at the incidence from a slightly different perspective. Assuming for sake of argument that Australia's population is 25 million and accept that homelessness is one half of one percent, that means that 125,000 Australians are experiencing homelessness. To me, that is cause for shame and demands that all three levels of government do much more to seek out solutions.

John Casey | 19 July 2019  

Whether there is a problem depends on whether the sample is static or moving. If most of the people in 2011 are still in the 2016 sample, the problem is that they’re still there and that the community’s ameliorative mechanisms are failing to reach and help them. If most have moved on to a better status of housing, hope might be offered that most, too, of the 2016 cohort will be moving on to a better status of housing and that each sample consists mainly of new but temporary entrants, not desirable but also not more than a statistical feature that in a population of 23 million, it can’t help but be expected that a base number of people in a modest number of thousands will sleep rough. If the rate of increase in the sample is outstripping the rate of increase in the population, it is because the percentage increase in small samples will almost always be larger than the percentage increase in large samples. Increasing a sample size from 1 to 2 gives you an increase of 100%. When sample sizes are small, what is important is whether the same people are staying stuck in them.

roy chen yee | 21 July 2019  

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