Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020) Specialist homelessness services annual report 2019-20, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 05 July 2022.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2020). Specialist homelessness services annual report 2019-20. Retrieved from https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/homelessness-services/shs-annual-report-2019-20
Specialist homelessness services annual report 2019-20. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 11 December 2020, https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/homelessness-services/shs-annual-report-2019-20
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Specialist homelessness services annual report 2019-20 [Internet]. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2020 [cited 2022 Jul. 5]. Available from: https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/homelessness-services/shs-annual-report-2019-20
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2020, Specialist homelessness services annual report 2019-20, viewed 5 July 2022, https://pp.aihw.gov.au/reports/homelessness-services/shs-annual-report-2019-20
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Older people are the fastest growing subpopulation of people experiencing homelessness and of people using homelessness services in Australia (AIHW 2019).
Australia and international research suggest that there are two main and contrasting pathways into homelessness for older people, each with different risk factors. Firstly, many people who experience homelessness for the first time later in life have led “conventional” lives (Shinn et al. cited in Petersen et al. 2014) involving employment, residential stability and family; these people only experienced homelessness after critical life events such as relationship breakdown, financial trouble or the onset of illness (Petersen et al. 2014). Three factors may be important for this subgroup, which is more often female, educated and in good health: (1) they have an element of financial insecurity, often because of a history of low paid or insecure work, (2) they are unfamiliar with health and welfare systems, (3) they may have a reluctance to draw on existing social capital (Burns and Sussman, 2018).
Secondly, there is also a population of older adults who have experienced long-term, or chronic, homelessness often with poor physical and mental health and histories of substance misuse and institutionalisation (Petersen et al. 2014). For this group, the pathway to homelessness is an ongoing issue, featuring repeated attempts to obtain assistance, long-term housing instability, little or no social capital and limited options before becoming homeless at later ages (Burns and Sussman, 2018).
Affecting both groups is the increasing cost of home ownership and of rental accommodation, which has resulted in fewer older Australians owning their own home (ABS 2019), and many older Australians on low incomes being unable to compete in rental markets (Nesbitt and Johnson, 2019). For older Australians who rely on government payments and live in private rental accommodation, rent increases or evictions are common risks for becoming homeless (Morris et al. 2005). Also relevant is a lack of age-specific services for older people as well as an unawareness of available services and, in some cases, an unwillingness to engage with services because of shame (Thredgold et al 2019).
When compared with other people at risk of experiencing homelessness, an Australian survey found that older respondents (45 years and over) were more likely to sleep rough than younger respondents and, when homeless, experience longer periods of homelessness (Bevitt et al 2015).
The experiences of older people accessing SHS for assistance have been investigated in detail in a recent AIHW report (AIHW 2019). For the purposes of the Specialist Homelessness Services Collection (SHSC), older people are defined as clients aged 55 years and over. For further information, see Technical information.
In 2019–20 (Table OLDER.1):
Number of clients
Proportion of all clients
Rate (per 10,000 population)
Source: Specialist Homelessness Services Collection 2015–16 to 2019–20.
Of the more than 24,400 older clients who received SHS support during 2019–20:
The proportion of clients 55 and over was lower for Indigenous clients (5% or 3,600) compared with non-Indigenous clients (9% or 18,600).
In 2019–20, of the almost 22,100 clients who stated their living arrangement upon presentation to a SHS agency (Supplementary table OLDER.10):
The majority of older clients (53% or 12,900) reported no vulnerabilities (defined as a current mental health issue, experiencing family and domestic violence, or problematic drug and/or alcohol use) (Table OLDER.2).
Family and domestic violence
Mental health issue
Problematic drug and
or alcohol use
Source: Specialist Homelessness Services Collection 2019–20.
Since 2015–16, the number of older clients seeking assistance from SHS agencies increased at a greater rate than other age groups. Key trends identified in this client population over the 5 years to 2019–20 are (Table OLDER.3):
Length of support (median number of days)
Average number of support periods per client
Proportion receiving accommodation
Median number of nights accommodated
More than half (54% or 13,300) were returning clients, having previously been assisted by a SHS agency at some point since the collection began in 2011–12 (Supplementary table OLDER.7). A greater proportion of returning clients were aged 55-64 (69% compare with 31% aged 65 and over) than were new clients (60% were aged 55 to 64 years).
The 3 main reasons why older clients sought assistance from SHS agencies in 2019–20 were (Supplementary table OLDER.5):
The main reason for older clients seeking assistance was different for those experiencing homelessness compared with those presenting to services at risk of homelessness (Supplementary table OLDER.6).
In 2019–20, over half (51% or 12,500) of older SHS clients needed accommodation, of those 36% were provided with some type of accommodation assistance. Demand was highest for long-term accommodation (39% or 9,600 needed long-term accommodation) compared with medium-term (21% or 5,100) and short-term or emergency accommodation (27% or 6,600). Of the older clients that needed long-term housing, less than 1 in 15 (6%) were provided assistance (Figure OLDER.1).
Other services most commonly needed by older clients during 2019–20 were:
Source: Specialist Homelessness Services Collection 2019–20, Supplementary table OLDER.3.
Outcomes presented here describe the change in clients’ housing situation between the start and end of support. Data are limited to clients who ceased receiving support during the financial year—meaning that their support periods had closed and they did not have ongoing support at the end of the year.
Many clients had long periods of support or even multiple support periods during 2019–20. They may have had a number of changes in their housing situation over the course of their support. These changes within the year are not reflected in the data presented here. Instead, the client situation at the start of their first support period in 2019–20 is compared with the end of their last support period in 2019–20. A proportion of these clients may have sought assistance prior to 2019–20, and may again in the future.
At the end of the reporting period in 2019–20 (Table OLDER.4).
Beginning of support
Beginning of support
No shelter or improvised/inadequate dwelling
Short term temporary accommodation
House, townhouse or flat - couch surfer or with no tenure
Public or community housing - renter or rent free
Private or other housing - renter, rent free or owner
Total at risk
Total clients with known housing situation
For clients with a known housing status who were at risk of homelessness at the start of support (over 10,500 clients), by the end of support (Supplementary Table OLDER.4, Figure OLDER.2):
Source: Specialist Homelessness Services Collection, 2019–20
For clients who were known to be homeless at the start of support (over 5,200 clients) (Figure OLDER.3):
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2019. Housing occupancy and costs, Australia, 2017–18. ABS Cat. no. 4130.0. Canberra: ABS.
AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2019. Older clients of specialist homelessness services. AIHW Cat. no. HOU 314. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Bevitt A, Chigavazira A, Herault N, Johnson G, Moschion J, Scutella R et al. 2015. Journeys home research report No. 6: Complete findings from waves 1 to 6. Melbourne: Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Policy.
Burns VF, Sussman T 2019. Homeless for the first time in later life: uncovering more than one pathway. The Gerontologist, vol. 59, issue 2: 251–259.
Morris A, Judd B, Kavanagh K 2005. Marginality amidst plenty: pathways into homelessness for older Australians. Australian Journal of Social Issues, vol. 40, issue 2: 241-251.
Nesbitt O & Johnson L 2019. Homeless at home? Analysing the housing needs and insecurities of single, older, non-homeowning women. UQ|UP Research Paper no. 2/2019. Brisbane: University of Queensland.
Petersen M, Parsell C, Phillips R, White G 2014. Preventing first time homelessness amongst older Australians. AHURI Final Report No. 322. Melbourne: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited.
Thredgold C, Beer A, Zufferey C, Peters A, Spinney A 2019. An effective homelessness services system for older Australians. AHURI Final Report No. 322. Melbourne: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited.
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