In September 2012 the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) published the first official statistical definition of homelessness (see Information Paper - A Statistical Definition of Homelessness (cat. no. 4922.0)), followed by an associated new method for estimating homelessness using data from the ABS Census of Population and Housing (see Information Paper - Methodology for Estimating Homelessness from the Census of Population and Housing (cat. no. 2049.0.55.001).
The first official homelessness estimates based on this methodology and derived from the 2001, 2006 and 2011 Censuses were subsequently released in late 2012 (see Census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness, 2011 (cat. no. 2049.0)).
Estimating youth homelessness
It is generally agreed that estimates of youth homelessness derived from the Census are likely to have been underestimated. Nevertheless, ABS homelessness estimates indicate that youth (defined in this paper as persons aged 12-24 years) are over-represented in the homeless population. In 2011, homeless youth accounted for 25% of all homeless persons in Australia, while youth represented only 17% of the total population at that time (see Census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness, 2011 (cat. no. 2049.0)).
Homeless youth were most likely to be enumerated in the homeless operational group 'Persons living in 'severely' crowded dwellings' (52% of homeless youth in 2011). This was followed by 'Persons in supported accommodation for the homeless' (21% of homeless youth in 2011). The operational group 'Persons staying temporarily with other households' accounted for only 12% of homeless youth, however these estimates are likely to be particularly impacted by underestimation issues.
Table 1. Homeless persons aged 12 to 24 years by homeless operational group, 2011 (a)(b)(c)
|Homeless operational group||Aged 12-18||Aged 19-24||Total youth (aged 12-24)||Total persons (all ages)|
|Persons who are in improvised dwellings|
|Persons in supported accommodation for the homeless|
|Persons staying temporarily with other households|
|Persons staying in boarding houses|
|Persons in other temporary lodgings|
|Persons living in 'severely' crowded dwellings|
|Total homeless persons|
b. Estimates in this table have been randomly adjusted to avoid the release of confidential information.
c. The estimates presented in this information paper exclude 24 duplicate records included in the initial release of the 2011 homelessness estimates.
Identifying homeless youth staying temporarily with other households (often described as 'couch surfers') rests firstly on them being recorded as present in a dwelling on Census night and, secondly, being reported as having 'no usual address'. However, it appears that a usual address is often reported for such youth, making them indistinguishable from genuine 'visitors'. A usual address may be reported for 'couch surfers' for various reasons, including that the young person does not want to disclose to the people they are staying with that they are unable to go home, or the person who completes the Census form on behalf of the young visitor assumes that the youth will eventually return to their home. Estimates of youth homelessness for the other homeless operational groups are not subject to these specific underestimation issues.
Neither the ABS nor other researchers have yet been able to establish a robust method, using existing data sources, to more reliably estimate homeless youth staying with other households. This is a major concern for policy makers and service providers, given the strong association between youth homelessness and poorer outcomes in adulthood, particularly in relation to education and employment (see Australian Social Trends: Life after Homelessness, March Quarter 2012 (cat. no. 4102.0)).
Development of ABS quality study
A number of recent data developments have sought to build the evidence base for developing policy to address and monitor the levels of homelessness, including for youth. These include but are not limited to:
- The establishment of the Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) collection, compiled by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) from data on the clients of specialist homelessness agencies. The collection includes information on 'support periods' (including previous periods of homelessness) by demographic characteristics such as age, education and employment status.
- The commissioning of the project Journeys Home: A Longitudinal Study of the Factors Affecting Housing Stability, funded by the Department of Social Services (DSS) and run by the Melbourne Institute. The project tracks a national sample of individuals exposed to high levels of housing insecurity to assist in understanding the various factors associated with homelessness and housing stability.
- The Longitudinal Survey of Reconnect Clients, run by DSS to evaluate the role of the Reconnect program in building community capacity for early intervention into youth homelessness.
Despite these developments, concerns remain over whether youth homelessness, particularly 'couch surfing', is being adequately captured in the various existing data sources, including Census homelessness estimates.
In response, guided by the ABS Homelessness Statistics Reference Group (HSRG), the ABS has undertaken a quality study with two main aims:
- To investigate the feasibility of conducting a national school survey of the living arrangements of secondary school students.
- To determine whether such a survey could address limitations in the estimation of youth homelessness, particularly for estimates of 'couch surfing'.
The quality study and its outcomes are the subject of this information paper.
This work was jointly funded by the ABS, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) and the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA).