In the last year, 1 in every 85 Australians sought help from homelessness services, with new analysis giving greater insight into ‘couch surfers’

Two reports released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) provide valuable insight into the use of specialist homelessness services (SHS), with a special focus on Australians who are ‘couch surfers’.

The first report, Specialist Homelessness Services, shows that almost 288,800 people sought assistance from specialist homelessness services agencies in 2017–18, equating to 1 in 85 Australians. The number of clients has risen from 254,000 people in 2013–14. This equates to a change in the rate of Australians supported from 110 people per 10,000 population in 2013–14 to 117 in 2017–18.

The data shows that most people assisted by specialist homelessness agencies in 2017–18 were female (61%), and close to 3 in 10 (29%) were aged under 18.

‘It’s important to note that most – close to 6 in 10 – clients were not homeless when they sought assistance, but were at risk of becoming homeless,’ said AIHW spokesperson Matthew James.

Around 3 in 10 clients of homelessness services – or 85,000 people – said domestic and family violence was their main reason for seeking support, while for about 2 in 10, ‘housing crisis’ (such as eviction) was the main reason.

‘Following support, almost 9 in 10 clients who were living in public or community housing and who were at risk of becoming homeless were able to maintain their existing tenancy, while a further 7% were assisted into private or other housing,’ Mr James said.

Over 8 in 10 who were living in private or other housing were helped to maintain their housing, with 6% assisted into public or community housing.

‘This highlights this important role specialist homelessness agencies play not only in helping people who are homeless, but also in providing a range of services to help prevent people becoming homeless in the first place,’ Mr James said.

This message is echoed in the second report, Couch surfers: a profile of Specialist Homelessness Services clients, also released today. This report analyses data from previous years to follow a group of 16,300 adult couch surfers over 4 years from 2011–12.

‘Couch surfers are people who don’t have stable housing, but have a roof over their head – for example, by temporarily staying at the home of someone who is not regarded as being a usual part of their household,’ Mr James said.

The report shows that while similar in many ways to other people seeking homelessness services, the age profile of couch surfers was much younger than for other types of clients.

‘Almost half of couch surfers were aged 15 to 24, while this age group made up just a quarter of other types of homelessness services clients – that is, those who were not couch surfing,’ Mr James said.

For most couch surfers supported by homelessness agencies, accessing homelessness services was not a once-off occurrence; rather, 44% accessed services in 2 or 3 years of the 4 - year study period, with a further 12% accessing services in all 4 years.

Mr James said that these most frequent users of services were also more likely to experience circumstances that made them particularly vulnerable, such as mental health issues, problematic drug and/or alcohol use, and experiences of domestic and family violence.

‘Couch surfers most frequently sought help with accommodation, followed by assistance with interpersonal relationships and financial difficulties,’ he said.

Mr James again noted the role specialist homelessness services agencies played in helping couch surfing clients find more permanent accommodation. After receiving assistance, about one-third of couch surfers were housed.

Today’s report is the second in a series, with the earlier report in the series highlighting the complexities facing Australia’s ‘rough sleepers’.

The third report in the series is due for release in early 2019, focusing on homeless Australians who are living in short-term accommodation or emergency, such as boarding houses and refuges.

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