Unmet demand for specialist homelessness services

Specialist homelessness services (SHS) in Australia supported, on average, an estimated 69,500 people each day in 2020–21. However, there were also people who approached agencies who were unable to be offered any assistance (unassisted requests for service) or who did not receive all the services that they required (client’s unmet need for services).

It is important to note that these figures reflect people who approach SHS agencies for support and do not measure the population level unmet demand for support. Results from the 2014 General Social Survey suggest that of those who had experienced homelessness in the last 10 years, approximately 67% did not seek assistance (ABS 2014).

For those that do approach a SHS agency, there may be a range of reasons an agency cannot provide assistance. For example, the person may be seeking a specialised service not offered by that particular agency, the agency may not have the capacity to provide assistance at that time or the person may not be in the target group for the agency. An Australian Council of Social Service survey found that, in 2019, 76% of staff in housing and homelessness services reported an increase in the number of clients they were unable to support and 36% reported rarely or never being able to meet demand (ACOSS 2019).

Unassisted requests for services

Key findings – Unassisted requests for services

  • In 2020–21, on average, there were more than 300 unassisted requests per day (UNASSISTED.1); a total of around 114,000 unassisted requests for 2020–21 (UNASSISTED.2), which was around 18,700 more than in 2019–20 (95,300).
  • Almost two thirds (61%) unassisted requests involved short-term or emergency accommodation and a quarter (25%) unassisted requests involved other housing or accommodation (UNASSISTED.6).
  • Most commonly, agencies were unable to offer requests for accommodation because there was no accommodation available at the time.
  • The majority of unassisted requests were for females (67%). This is unchanged from 2019-20 (UNASSISTED.2) 


Identifying unassisted requests for services in the Specialist Homelessness Services Collection (SHSC)

Unassisted requests for services are instances where a person requests assistance from a SHS agency and receives no assistance at the time of request. The information required by the SHSC is limited as it is not always appropriate for an agency to collect the same detailed information as they would if the person was to become a client.

Importantly, for some central intake models, the role of intake agencies is to identify and link clients to an agency well suited to the individual client's needs. This may decrease the number of unassisted requests for services for jurisdictions operating central intake services.

See Technical information for more information on measuring unassisted requests in the SHSC.

Unassisted requests for services 2020–21

Across Australia, there were around 114,000 unassisted requests in 2020–21.

  • On average, there were more than 300 unassisted requests per day (Supplementary table UNASSISTED.1).
  • Over two thirds (67%) daily unassisted requests were made by females and 33% by males (Supplementary table UNASSISTED.2). Among females, around 23% unassisted requests were from females aged 25–34 whereas for males the most common age group was 0–9 (25% males).
  • The majority (88%) of unassisted requests from single adults with children were from females (Supplementary table UNASSISTED.7).

Unassisted requests for services, trends over time

Some key trends in unassisted requests since 2016–17 include:

  • The number of unassisted requests increased between 2019–20 and 2020–21 from 95,250 to 114,000 requests (Historical data table HIST.UNASSISTED). The increase in unassisted requests was primarily due to increases in Victoria and Western Australia. For further details, see the data quality information and Technical notes.
  • The proportion of unassisted requests from persons living alone has decreased from 60% in 2016–17 to 57% in 2020–21 while the proportion of unassisted requests from single parents has remained at 35% between 2016–17 and 2020–21.

Analysis of how often a person requested assistance and how many later became SHS clients can only be examined and understood where the statistical linkage key (SLK) was complete and valid (around 52% of all unassisted requests). Of the valid data, in 2020–21 on average each unassisted person approached an agency 1.7 times (Historical data table HIST.UNASSISTED).

In 2020–21, 47% of people with a valid SLK later went on to become clients and received services during the year, similar to 2019–20 (48%). The future service use experience for the remaining 53% were unknown; they may have received assistance from a non-SHS service, used their own support networks or continued to experience unstable housing or homelessness. Alternatively, these people may go on to become clients in future years.

Services requested

In 2020–21:

  • The majority (61%) of daily unassisted requests involved short-term or emergency accommodation (Supplementary table UNASSISTED.4).
    • Females were more likely than males to have unassisted requests for short-term or emergency accommodation – on average there were approximately 117 unassisted requests from females for short-term or emergency accommodation per day compared with 58 for males.
    • A quarter (25%) of daily unassisted requests involved housing or accommodation other than short-term or emergency accommodation, with more unassisted requests from females than males (approximately 45 and 27 respectively).
  • Unassisted requests on average most commonly came from people presenting alone (208 instances per day) or single people with children (nearly 65 instances) (Supplementary table UNASSISTED.5).
  • When a reason was recorded, most commonly agencies could not meet requests for any accommodation because there was no accommodation available at the time of the request (Supplementary table UNASSISTED.6).

Clients’ unmet need for services

Key findings – Clients’ unmet need for services

  • Around 166,900 SHS clients (60%) identified a need for accommodation services in 2020–21 and this service was provided to more than half of these clients (around 86,600 clients or 52%) (CLIENTS.23).
  • The ability of agencies to provide certain specialist services was similar to the previous year. For example, in 2020–21, around 35% mental health service requests were neither provided nor referred (CLIENTS.23), remaining steady from 2019–20 (35%).

Clients receiving support from SHS agencies often need a wide range of services. Some needs arise more than once in a support period and this makes it difficult to assess the extent to which the need has been met from the available data.

Reporting unmet need for services in the Specialist Homelessness Services Collection (SHSC)

Unmet need is recorded when an SHS client has some, but not all, their identified needs for services met. Agencies can also refer clients to another service for assistance.

Unmet need for accommodation and housing assistance services

More than half (60%) of all clients needed at least one type of accommodation service (Figure UNASSISTED.1 and Supplementary table CLIENTS.23):

  • Nearly 40% (or 111,100 clients) needed short-term or emergency accommodation; nearly 67,400 (61%) of those requesting this service were provided with assistance.
  • Around 109,200 clients (39%) identified a need for long-term housing; about 3.4% (nearly 3,700 clients) of these clients were provided with this type of support.
  • The number of clients requesting either short-term or emergency accommodation or long-term housing were similar; however, the difference in the proportion of clients receiving these types of accommodation highlights the substantial unmet need for long-term housing encountered by SHS clients (70% or nearly 76,200 clients with unmet need for long-term housing).

Figure UNASSISTED.1: Clients with unmet need for accommodation and housing assistance services, 2020–21

This stacked horizontal bar graph shows the number of clients with unmet need for accommodation and housing assistance services. Accommodation was the most needed service. Long term housing was the least provided service.

Unmet need for general and specialised services

Agencies were able to meet the general needs of most clients. For example, of the over 217,600 clients who needed advice/information, 98% were provided assistance, and of the more than 154,200 clients requesting advocacy/liaison, 96% were provided with assistance (Supplementary table CLIENTS.23).

Other types of client needs were less commonly met. For example, among those SHS clients who required professional legal services (3.0% or more than 8,200 clients), the level of unmet need was substantial, around 26% at the end of support. This may be because of the specialist skills required to provide legal services and the limited availability of these skills within the SHS agencies and other referral services offered to clients.

The level of unmet need for broad groups of specialised services can be determined (Figure UNASSISTED.2 and Supplementary table CLIENTS.23):

  • Mental health services, including psychological, psychiatric and mental health services, were one of the most common specialised services needed by clients; however, these needs were frequently unmet with 35% neither provided nor referred these services.
  • Many of those identifying a need for disability services (36%) or drug and alcohol services (37%) did not have their needs met.
  • Immigration and cultural services, needed by 7.7% of SHS clients (nearly 21,500 people), were provided for most requiring them (86%).

Figure UNASSISTED.2: Clients with unmet needs for specialised services (grouped), 2020–21


ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2014. General Social Survey: Summary Results, Australia, 2014. ABS Cat. no. 4159.0. Canberra: ABS.

ACOSS (Australian Council of Social Service) 2019. Demand for Community Services Snapshot December 2019. Sydney: ACOSS.