What is Australia’s homeless population?
The Salvation Army believes everyone should have a safe, affordable and secure home. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, more than 278,000 Australians sought help from Specialist Homelessness Services in 2020-21. This number represents the homeless population in Australia, and the growing number of people who are at risk of homelessness and are seeking support to avoid becoming homeless.
Homelessness does not just mean sleeping on the street. In fact, when Australia’s homeless population was last counted (in 2016), 116,000 Australians were officially classified as homeless. Of those, only 7 per cent were rough sleepers.
Read on for more Australian homelessness statistics and how The Salvation Army is helping provide the keys to overcoming homelessness.
What does it mean to be ‘homeless’?
When a person does not have suitable accommodation, they are considered homeless if their current living arrangement:
- Is in a dwelling that is inadequate; or
- Has no tenure, or if their initial tenure is short and not extendable; or
- Does not allow them to have control of, and access to space for social relations
This may include:
- Rough sleeping, for example on park benches, in public toilets, under bridges
- Makeshift tents
- Sleeping in a car
- Staying temporarily with a friend, family member or acquaintance (couch surfing)
- Staying at refuges or transitional housing
- Overcrowded housing – that is, dwellings that require four or more extra bedrooms to adequately accommodate the residents
Homelessness data – where are homeless Australians staying?
- Severely crowded dwellings – Nearly half (44 per cent) of all homeless people live in ‘severely’ crowded dwellings
- Supported accommodation for the homeless – Almost one in five (18 per cent) homeless people live in supported accommodation for the homeless
- With other households – Approximately 1 in 7 (15 per cent) homeless people stay temporarily with other households
- In improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out – 7 per cent of people experiencing homelessness are rough sleepers
Homelessness facts – Reasons for presenting at a homelessness service
There are many key reasons why people may experience homelessness. It could include a family crisis or violent situation, a housing crisis such as nowhere to rent or an imminent eviction, financial difficulties, transitions from custodial arrangements, mental health issues, or alcohol and other drug related reasons.
However, family and domestic violence is the most common main reason people seek assistance from Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) (29 per cent or more than 79,000 people in 2020-21). Furthermore, 18 per cent (or around 48,400) said a housing crisis was their main reason for seeking assistance.
Children and youth experiencing homelessness
A large group of Australians presenting to Specialist Homelessness Services include families with young children. On any given day, across Australia in 2021, these services were supporting over 18,300 children in families. Families with children may be sleeping in cars or temporarily with friends or family – in what could be classed as a 'severely’ crowded dwelling.
Youth homelessness statistics
Statistics from Specialist Homelessness Services show over 11,600 young people presented on their own for support at various services across Australia, on any given day in 2021.
- 6 in 10 (61 per cent) homeless youth aged 12-18 years live in ‘severely’ crowded dwellings
- Just under half (48 per cent) of young people presenting alone at Specialist Homelessness Services in 2020-21 had a current mental health issue
- Family and domestic violence, and housing crisis (for example, eviction), were equally the two main reasons young people presented alone for assistance from Specialist Homelessness Services in 2020-21
- Of the 41,700 young people presenting alone to Specialist Homelessness Services in 2020-21, over 60 per cent were female, about 30 per cent identified as Indigenous and 59 per cent had previously been assisted in the past 10 years
The Salvation Army has tailored services throughout Australia to support youth experiencing homelessness. In 2020-21:
- 53,800 bed nights were provided to young people who were at risk of or experienced homelessness
- Over 100,000 sessions of care were provided to help young people overcome their challenges
Veteran homelessness statistics
The Veteran Support Program – a partnership between RSL Queensland and The Salvation Army – supports ex-military personnel and their families who are struggling with homelessness, or at risk of homelessness. In a recent six-month period, over 60 veterans were supported and more than 80 per cent secured private rentals.
Bron is a veteran who became homeless after being priced out of the private rental market. Read how the Veteran Support Program helped her.
Homeless statistics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders
Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples make up about 3 per cent of the Australian population. However, statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show they are overrepresented in the homeless population – making up 20 per cent of the number of people experiencing homelessness on Census night. Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples also represent over a quarter (28 per cent) of the people assisted by Specialist Homelessness Services in 2020-21.
Why are there more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are homeless?
Several of the key reasons why people seek assistance from Specialist Homelessness Services, like The Salvation Army, include family and domestic violence, housing crisis and inadequate or inappropriate dwelling conditions. Statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) show the main reasons why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders may experience homelessness are similar  :
- Family and domestic violence: 25 per cent of Indigenous clients; 29 per cent of all clients
- Housing crisis: 17 per cent of Indigenous clients; 18 per cent of all clients
- Inadequate and inappropriate dwelling conditions: 14 per cent of Indigenous clients; 12 per cent of all clients
According to a report by the AIHW, the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia’s homeless population is a result of a range of previous discriminatory policies. The flow on effect means that Indigenous people now experience:
- Higher rates of unemployment, which means reduced financial resources to access secure and good-quality housing
- Discrimination when applying for accommodation
- Long waiting lists for public housing – particularly in remote areas
- Housing that does not meet the needs of Indigenous Australians – whether that’s inadequate bedrooms to cater to large families or poor housing facilities
Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders experiencing homelessness live in severely crowded dwellings (70 per cent, ABS 2018). The AIHW notes that Indigenous peoples have strong family connections and cultural obligations to share resources. This extends to providing accommodation to family members – even when the home is too small to comfortably do so.
Overcrowding can have negative effects on physical and mental health such as food insecurity, a lack of privacy, reduced hygiene, increased spread of infectious diseases, and a lack of quiet space for study, work and sleep. This can lead to poor mental health and education outcomes, which continues the cycle of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander homelessness.
How does The Salvation Army help people experiencing homelessness?
Our homelessness and housing support services include crisis accommodation for the homeless, transitional housing and affordable housing. All of these services operate under a casework model of care – helping people to overcome their challenges and supporting them towards a more stable future.
The Salvation Army and support for the homeless figures
- Support to more than 37,000 people experiencing homelessness
- More than 309,800 sessions of care to people at risk of, or experiencing homelessness
- More than 887,500 crisis beds to people experiencing homelessness
- More than 1.7 million meals to people accessing homelessness services
What is The Salvation Army doing to help people at risk of homelessness?
In 2020-21, The Salvation Army’s social programs assisted close to 319,000 vulnerable people. These services help people currently experiencing hardship or crisis such as homelessness, but also seek to address the root causes of homelessness. This includes:
- Supporting survivors of family and domestic violence with finding a safe place to live
- Offering practical support as well as financial coaching and counselling to people experiencing financial hardship (including in the wake of an emergency or disaster) or struggling with the cost of living so they can pay their rent/mortgage
- Working with people to overcome alcohol and other drugs addictions
- Helping youth at risk of homelessness with training and employment programs to achieve independence
Find out more about The Salvation Army’s social programs and services.
Learn more about the people who access our services in our latest Annual Report.
Our support for people at risk and experiencing homelessness is just one of the key ways The Salvation Army is working to end homelessness. The Salvation Army is also advocating for solutions and regularly makes submissions or statements to the local, state and national government. We believe by addressing the availability of social and affordable housing, improving the cost of living, and increasing financial support for casework we can improve the services offered to people experiencing crisis.
Read about The Salvation Army’s advocacy and what you can do.
Supporting people experiencing homelessness
The journey from violence to housing security
After her traumatic marriage of 10 years ended, Gabbi* experienced years of homelessness, which deeply impacted her already complex mental health issues.
Complex factors in homelessness spiral
Justin went from working in management to years of homelessness – often living rough on the streets and sheltering in doors for warmth.
Searching for the keys to the rental housing crisis
Before Louise* was asked to vacate the house she was renting, she had no idea of the magnitude of the current rental housing crisis.
A home with hope, healing and music
Marshall shares his journey and the keys to stability he has achieved through the friendship, faith and music he enjoyed at The Salvation Army’s Sunrise Centre.
Australia’s housing crisis
The limited availability of affordable housing (including on the city fringes) is causing a housing crisis in Australia. This has economic and social implications such as unstable housing or increased competition in the rental market closest to employment opportunities.
With the rental market becoming more competitive, affordable housing becomes more challenging for people on low incomes. Among lower income households, in 2019-20, more than half (58 per cent) of those renting from a private landlord were spending more than 30 per cent of their gross weekly income on housing costs. A household is in housing stress if more than 30 per cent of its income is spent on housing costs.
The effects of COVID-19 have also impacted Australian renters, putting many at risk of homelessness. Since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020:
- Around 17 per cent of renters reported that their rent became unaffordable
- Around 25 per cent of renters skipped meals to save money
Added to the rental market competition and housing crisis is a reduced government investment in social housing. Despite the national population being 41 per cent higher than in 1996, social housing has grown by just over 3 per cent since then.
Social housing is housing that is offered to people at below market rates. It is essential for people overcoming a crisis or unable to earn a higher income for a variety of reasons.
Demands are high and waiting times are long, which can be detrimental to people in a family or housing crisis. Across NSW, for example, typical waiting times for social housing is 5-10 years for a studio or one bedroom property, with many three-bedroom houses waiting times at more than 10 years.
In terms of applications Australia-wide, this looks like:
- In 2020-21, just under 30,000 new applicants were granted a social housing tenancy
- In the three years to 2021, the overall social housing waiting list grew by 164,000 households
- The annual number of “new greatest need applications” (that is, people experiencing or at risk of homelessness) grew by 48 per cent over this period
Social housing and The Salvation Army
We believe that having safe, secure and affordable housing is a human right. We also believe that more social housing with access to support ends homelessness.
A study among people who sought assistance from a Salvation Army Emergency Relief centre in the past 12 months revealed the following:
- Nearly 4 in 5 respondents (or 78 per cent) were in housing stress, paying 30 per cent or more of their household income on housing
- Those with paid employment had only $29 a day (median figure) to live on after paying for housing
- Respondents on government support payments had to live on $22 a day after paying for housing (median figure)
- Of those who had faced family and domestic violence, 1 in 2 (49 per cent) reported that experiencing or being at risk of homelessness was one of their greatest challenges of the past 12 months
- Of those who had faced family and domestic violence, 9 in 10 respondents (93 per cent) said that they had found it difficult to meet necessary living expenses, such as housing, utilities, food, and health care – which puts them at increased risk of homelessness in the future as the costs of living, renting and housing rise
Salvation Army Housing works alongside other Salvo services to provide affordable housing for people experiencing homelessness.
In 2020-21, Salvation Army Housing provided:
- 900+ people with longer-term housing
- 670 people with transitional housing
- 240+ people with crisis housing
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