About shelter

Why is shelter important?

A child’s access to stable, adequate shelter is recognised as a basic human need. Having adequate housing enables people and children to engage with the wider community – socially, recreationally, and economically, and can influence both their physical and mental health (Wise 2003).

Shelter broadly refers to about having a safe place of one’s own in which the routines of daily life can be established, privacy can be negotiated, and where there is a secure base from which to engage in social interactions based on trust which enable self-esteem to be enhanced and self-identity to be maintained (Hulse & Saugeres 2008).

For children, the home environment, including both physical and social dimensions, provides a sense of identity and security that is fundamental to their development. Shelter is closely linked to the social and emotional aspects of a child’s health and wellbeing, and not merely to the structural features of the built environment. This approach to shelter is consistent with the view that children’s interactions with their immediate environment, and the relationship between children’s immediate environments and larger social contexts, are critical to their development (Ziol-Guest & McKenna 2014). 

There are a number of components of shelter that affect child development and wellbeing, including home ownership, affordability, mobility, homelessness, overcrowding and characteristics of the dwelling.
Housing costs are usually the largest and least flexible item in a family budget. High housing costs can adversely affect child wellbeing through the experience of financial or material hardships (Herbers et al. 2012); impact on parental wellbeing and family stress and the quality, size and type of housing a family can afford (Leventhal & Newman 2010).

Housing mobility, overcrowding and homelessness are associated with an increase in social, emotional and behavioural problems, and a decrease in children’s short-term academic achievement, in particular school age children and adolescents (Cole et al 2013; Herbers et al. 2012). Frequent family moves are linked with increased grade repetitions, school suspensions and expulsions and other psychological issues. The magnitude of the effect of frequent moves increases with additional risk factors such as poverty, minority race, single-parent family structure, low levels of parental education and young maternal age (Cooper 2001). In addition, the adverse effects of overcrowding and homelessness on children can persist throughout life, ultimately affecting future socioeconomic status and adult wellbeing; children are also at a greater risk of finding themselves in similar situations as their parents, leading to the intergenerational transmission of social inequality (Solari & Mare 2007).

How is shelter reported?

This indicator has been developed to incorporate three mutually exclusive measures from ABS Census: homeless, overcrowding and housing stress.

  • The denominator is every child in the ABS Census aged 0–14.
  • The numerator is children aged 0–14 who were homeless (including those living in a residence requiring 4 or more additional bedrooms according to the Canadian national standard), living in an overcrowded household or living in a household experiencing housing stress (including those living in a residence requiring 1–3 additional bedrooms) on ABS Census night.
  • The disaggregation is by jurisdiction and sex, household composition, Indigenous status, cultural and linguistic diversity, remoteness areas, socioeconomic status areas.


  • Cole RL, Laventhal T, Lynch AD & Kull M 2013. Poor quality housing is tied to children’s emotional and behavioural problems. Chicago: MacArther Foundation.
  • Cooper M 2001. Housing affordability: a children’s issue. CPRN discussion paper F|11. Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks. Viewed 27 April 2011.
  • Harkness JM & Newman SJ 2005. Housing affordability and children’s wellbeing: evidence from the national survey of America’s families. Housing Policy Debate 16(2):223–55.
  • Herbers JE, Cutuli JJ, Supkoff LM, Heistad D, Chan C, Hinz E & Masten AS 2012. Early reading skills and academic achievement trajectories of students facing poverty, homelessness, and high residential mobility. Educational Researcher 41(9):366–74.
  • Hulse K & Saugeres L 2008. Housing insecurity and precarious living: an Australian exploration. Sydney: AHURI.
  • Leventhal T & Newman S 2010. Housing and child development. Children and Youth Services Review 32(9):1165–74. Solari CD & Mare R 2007. The effects of crowded housing on children’s wellbeing. Viewed 5 May 2011.
  • Vic DHS (Victorian Government Department of Human Services) 2008. Headline Indicators for children’s health, development and wellbeing. June 2006. Prepared by the Victorian Government Department of Human Services on behalf of the Australian Health Ministers’ conference and the Community and Disability Services Ministers’ conference. Melbourne: Vic DHS.
  • Wise S 2003. Family structure, child outcome and environmental mediators: an overview of the Development in Diverse Families Study. Research paper no. 30. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Ziol-Guest KM & McKenna C 2014. Early childhood housing instability and school readiness. Child Development 85:103–13.