What is homelessness?

For the purposes of the Specialist Homelessness Services Collection (SHSC), a person is homeless if they are either:

  • living in non-conventional accommodation or 'sleeping rough' (including living on the streets, sleeping in parks, squatting, staying in cars or railway carriages, living in improvised dwellings or living in the long grass), or
  • in short-term or emergency accommodation due to a lack of other options (including couch surfing or living in a dwelling with no tenure, often rent-free with family and friends for short periods of time) [1].

While couch surfing is considered a subset of those in short-term or emergency accommodation, they are analysed here as a separate cohort due to their demographic differences to rough sleepers and others in short-term or emergency accommodation.

Between 2011–12 and 2014–15, around 43% of all persons presenting to Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) were assessed as homeless.

There is no one universally agreed definition of homelessness. Rather there are significant complexities in defining homelessness as well as the characteristics of people who might be considered homeless [1]. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) definition considers homelessness as 'home'lessness not 'roof'lessness. It is a lack of one or more of the elements that represent home. These may include a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety and the ability to control one's living space [2]. The ABS definition considers a person as homeless if they lack a suitable accommodation alternative or 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.

The key homelessness estimates from the 2011 Census state that 105,237 people were homeless on Census night, with a homelessness rate of 49 persons for every 10,000 persons enumerated (up 8% since 2006) [3].

Policy context

The National Afforable Housing Agreement

The National Affordable Housing Agreement (NAHA) aims to ensure that all Australians have access to affordable, safe and sustainable housing that contributes to social and economic participation. The NAHA is an agreement of the Council of Australian Governments that commenced on 1 January 2009, initiating a whole of government approach to tackling the problem of housing affordability. The NAHA provides approximately $1.3 billion per annum, of which a portion is allocated by states and territories for homelessness services [4]. The NAHA is supported by the National Partnership Agreements on:

  • social housing
  • homelessness
  • Indigenous Australians living in remote areas.

The National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness

The National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness (NPAH) contributes to the objective of the NAHA that 'all Australians have access to affordable, safe and sustainable housing that contributes to social and economic participation' and outlines the roles and responsibilities of the Australian Government and state and territory governments in relation to reducing and preventing homelessness [4].

Funding associated with the NPAH was provided for the period 1 July 2009 to 30 June 2013, with an interim funding arrangement agreed between the Australian and state and territory governments for 2013–14 and 2014–15. Under the 2015–17 NPAH, the Commonwealth Government is providing $230 million over 2 years, matched by states and territories, to fund frontline homelessness services. In total, funding of nearly $250 million per year is being directed to around 800 homelessness services around Australia. In providing this level of support, states and territories have exceeded the Commonwealth's contribution. The 2015–17 NPAH retains the commitment by the Commonwealth and states and territories to reduce homelessness through partnerships with business, the not-for-profit sector, and the community sector [4].

The increase in funding for the homelessness sector brought with it an increase in reporting requirements. The introduction of the SHSC in July 2011 replaced the previous Supported Accommodation Assistance Program Data Collection, which was in operation from 1985 to 2011. The SHSC provides information about all people who seek assistance from specialist homelessness agencies, and includes both a client collection and an unassisted person collection.

Scope of this report

This report analyses all unique adult SHS clients (aged 18 and over) and young people (aged 15–17) who presented to SHS alone, who accessed SHS from 1 July 2011 to 30 June 2015.

There were three primary cohorts of interest, including those, who on first presentation to a SHS:

  • were identified as 'rough sleepers'.
  • were identified as 'couch surfers'.
  • were in 'short-term' or 'emergency accommodation'.

There are also a number of other sub-populations of interest. These sub-population have been identified as being particularly vulnerable to homelessness and include: young people (aged 15–24 years) presenting alone, older people (aged 55 years and over), Indigenous clients, clients experiencing domestic and family violence, clients with a drug and/or alcohol issue, and clients with a mental health issue.

While these sub-populations are not investigated here, they will be included in the follow-up detailed report to be released in the first half of 2017. This follow-up report will also provide a more in-depth exploration of pathways and repeat homelessness experiences of these cohorts.

Data source

The source of data for this analysis is the SHSC. It is collected by the AIHW on behalf of SHS agencies. Data span the period from the commencement of the collection on 1 July 2011 to 30 June 2015. As this analysis is focused on the housing outcomes of clients following support, only clients for whom support has ended as at 30 June 2015 and for whom housing status was known at the beginning and end of support have been included.

Results are presented based on adult clients (18 years and over) and young people (aged 15–17 years) who presented alone. Children are excluded as their needs, services and outcomes largely mirror the parent or carer they presented with. The analysis does however look at living situations as the presence of children is likely to impact on the needs, service responses and outcomes for clients.


  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2013. Specialist Homelessness Services Collection manual. Cat. No. HOU 268. Canberra: AIHW.
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2011. ABS Review of Counting the Homeless Methodology. Cat. No. 2050.0.55.002. Canberra: ABS.
  3. ABS 2012. ABS Census of Population and Housing: Estimating Homelessness 2011. Cat. No. 2049.0. Canberra: ABS.
  4. Department of Social Services (DSS) 2016. National Affordable Housing Agreement. Viewed 10 May 2016