Homelessness: A new Approach

Table of Contents


On 27 January 2008, the Prime Minister, the Hon Kevin Rudd MP and the former Minister for Housing, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, announced the Government's new approach to tackling the problem of homelessness in Australia through the development of a comprehensive, long-term plan.


While many Australians enjoy a decent standard of living and a place to call home, an increasing number are without stable accommodation and some have no shelter at all.

It is unacceptable that after a long period of economic growth the number of people who are homeless and marginalised from work and society continue to grow.

The Government is committed to identifying new ways of tackling all forms of social exclusion and in particular the number of Australians who find themselves homeless.

The task is large and complex. People who are homeless often find themselves between service systems. They have lost housing, cannot find work, may have chronic health conditions or been victims of repeated abuse or violence.

While significant funds are dedicated to housing and support of the homeless, for too many intervention does not bring stable housing, a job or increased participation in their community.

It is for this reason that the Government will embark on the unprecedented examination of homelessness in Australia through the development of a green paper and a white paper. The process will be supported by community members, service providers and academics with experience and new ideas.

This examination will form the basis of a concerted new effort to tackle homelessness in Australia.

Who is homeless?

On any night, approximately 100,00 Australians are homeless.1

Almost half of the people who are homeless on any night are staying with family and friends but have no home of their own. Fourteen percent sleep rough in parks, tents or on the streets. A further 23 per cent are living in insecure accommodation such as boarding houses.2

Currently, homelessness services provide accommodation to only 14 per cent of those who are homeless each night.3

Of the 100,00 people who are homeless on any one night there are:
  • 10,000 children under the age of 12
  • 6,745 families (consisting of 23,000 people)
  • 36,173 young people between the ages of 12 and 24
  • 58,116 single people, many in the prime of their lives
  • 6,000 people over the age of 65

Indigenous Australians are significantly over-represented in the homeless population. Seventeen per cent of Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP) service users are Indigenous, making Indigenous people eight times more likely to use emergency accommodation than non-Indigenous people.4

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The problem is getting worse

There are signs that homelessness may be getting worse.5

Preliminary data from the 2006 Census suggests an overall national increase in the number of people who are sleeping rough.

On an average day 12,300 people will be accommodated in services funded by the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP). A further 356 people, including 130 children, will seek accommodation but be turned away. This represents approximately half of all people seeking new emergency accommodation.6

In a recent report, Don't Dream It's Over, the St Vincent de Paul Society found that the number of families with children seeking assistance from homelessness services increased by 30 per cent between 2002 and 2007.7

2005-06 SAAP data confirms this upward trend. The number of families with children seeking assistance from homelessness services has increased by 46 per cent over the past 10 years. The number of children in SAAP services has increased by 7.3 per cent over the same period.8

Each year approximately 55,000 children accompany their parents into SAAP services. Seventy three per cent of these children are under 10 years of age.

This means that almost one in 50 Australian children under 5 years slept in a SAAP service at some time during 2005-06. 9

The impact of homelessness on children in these families is substantial and can be life long. When children become homeless, their education is disrupted. Often families have to move several times before they find a new, permanent home. Each move may be to a different suburb or community.

There is evidence that homelessness in childhood can be the beginning of a cycle where children too often become homeless teenagers and then homeless adults.

The extent of homelessness is understated because many homeless Australians do not approach services. It is difficult to estimate the true number of families escaping violence while they are living temporarily with friends or family.

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Why does homelessness continue to happen in Australia

People who are homeless often do not just need help with housing.

They may need assistance with a range of problems such as mental health problems, substance abuse, family breakdown and employment assistance.

Financial problems such as the rising cost of rent and poor financial literacy may also lead to homelessness.

The largest single cause of homelessness however is domestic violence. More than one in five people seeking emergency accommodation are escaping domestic violence. Most victims bring children with them which means they share in the disruption and trauma of being displaced from their home.

One in four homelessness service users are repeat clients, about half of whom access services three or more times a year. Around 13 per cent of older service users have been using homelessness services over three consecutive years.10

These figures suggest the difficulties in providing appropriate services to prevent people remaining or returning to homelessness.

This, and the lack of suitable longer term accommodation, makes it difficult for homeless people to successfully move on from crisis accommodation. Twenty seven percent of people exiting emergency accommodation move to private rental housing and 21 per cent access public or community housing.

Around 17 per cent of those leaving SAAP services find accommodation in boarding houses. Five per cent sleep rough after leaving SAAP.11

The absence of affordable housing is therefore both a trigger for homelessness and the reason people return to homelessness.

People with little means, no home, poor health or other support needs are often faced with a complex service system with different entry points and criteria. Mainstream services often do not cater well for those requiring additional or long term assistance. Without adequate service supports, homeless people also lose touch with their social networks, families, friends and the support of work peers. Many of these services are run by states and territories. Any successful work requires joint action between governments.

At present more people are receiving income support when they leave SAAP services (87.2 per cent) than when they entered them (85.1 per cent). However only 10.3 per cent of people are in employment after leaving SAAP. This highlights that our homelessness support system is failing to connect people to employment.

The challenge of arranging support around homeless people, and providing encouragement for them to use these to rebuild their lives and achieve economic independence, is critical to preventing and alleviating homelessness.

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What are we currently doing?

The first national programs to assist homeless people were established in the 1970s by the Whitlam government. Non government agencies received capital funding for shelters and funding for some operational costs, such as a subsidy for the number of meals provided each day.

The establishment of the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP) in 1985 was a landmark achievement for the Hawke government. For the first time SAAP created a national system of homelessness services with funding from both the Commonwealth and state territory governments.

SAAP continues to be the core of Australia's overall response to homelessness. In 2005-06, $348.8m was spent on SAAP services.12

In 2005-06, 1,300 non-government, community and local government organisations were funded through SAAP to provide support and accommodation to people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness. Most agencies specialise in supporting a particular client group such as young people, single men, single women, women and children escaping domestic violence or families.

The Australian Government supports some additional programs to reduce homelessness. The HOME Advice program works with families to address financial and household problems that may put them at risk of homelessness. Since 1999, the Australian Government has funded Reconnect to bring about family reconciliation between young people who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness, and their families.

Employment services assist homeless people to get work or education and training. The Job Placement, Employment and Training Program (JPET) and Personal Support Program (PSP) provide homeless people with help to overcome barriers in their lives which have prevented them from participating socially, educationally or economically.

12 Homeless People in SAAP, SAAP NDCA Report, 2005-06, AIHW, p81

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What more can be done?

Homelessness can be dramatically reduced.

In 2005 the United Kingdom set a target to halve homelessness by 2010. As a result, homelessness rates have been reduced by 46 per cent between 2003-04 and 2006-07. The number of rough sleepers in the UK now stands at a record low.

Three hundred United States' cities and countries have committed to 10-Year Plans to End Chronic Homelessness. In New York, the Common Ground model has seen a reduction in rough sleepers and better services for young people and families.

Many Australian states and territories have supported new and creative projects to achieve more on homelessness.

The best responses to homelessness provide more than a bed. They wrap services around an individual, connecting their clients to education, employment and counselling.

For some people who have been sleeping rough, the best models provide a secure home and the support they need to keep it. Clients are connected with training and job placement and receive case management for up to twelve months. Accommodation may be provided in mixed use developments and people are able to stay in their homes long term without having to move again to another location.

Better results can be achieved for families at risk of homelessness by services that keep people in their family home. For example homeless services can take over the lease on a family's behalf while they resolve issues like financial problems or safety and violence.

Internationally, young homeless people have been helped by programs that link accommodation to education and training. Some models have been tried in Australia and have assisted young homeless people to finish school, gain trade qualifications or go to university.

The Government has already made some specific commitments to tackle homelessness.

The Government will work with the states and territories to build an additional 600 houses for homeless individuals and families over the next 5 years.

We will work with states and territories to expand the reach of homeless services across the country.

In addition, the Government has committed $2.8m to expand cultural and sporting programs for homeless people across Australia. RecLink programs provide important social networks and life skills that make it possible for homeless people to be housed long term.

The Government also has a number of plans to address long term affordability of housing in Australia. The National Rental Affordabiliy Scheme will create 50,000 new affordable rental properties by providing tax credits to build affordable homes. A new national Affordable Housing Agreement will bring together community, public and crisis housing to create pathways for people to leave homelessness and get a home for long term.

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A New Approach

Addressing homelessness is an essential part of the Government's social inclusion agenda. For all Australians to maximise their participation in economic and social life, homelessness must be effectively prevented and, where it does occur, dealt with swiftly.

The Government's new approach to homelessness will aim to:
  • prevent homelessness;
  • improve crisis services;
  • create exit points to secure longer term housing; and
  • stop the cycle of homelessness.

To achieve this goal, we need to rethink how current homelessness specific and mainstream programs work and how they can work together.

This means linking support for individuals and families across their full range of needs, from employment and education to health and community services. The national response to homelessness will complement other social inclusion strategies and improve the way essential services work for vulnerable Australians.

Governments must provide services that help resolve people's homelessness and exclusion from mainstream society. Homeless Australians must be given the encouragement to achieve economic independence.

The private sector and charitable and community organisations play a critical role in tackling this social challenge.

With current rates of homelessness after sixteen years of economic growth, it is clear that we need a new approach to tackling this very significant problem.

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The Green Paper on Homelessness

The Government has commissioned a Green Paper on Homelessness.

The Green Paper will be a major piece of work that takes into consideration the ideas and views of the community as to how Australia should address homelessness over the next decade. The Government will involve all stakeholders while the Green Paper is being written.

The Green Paper will be considered by Government, tabled in Parliament and then issued for formal consultation during May 2008.

A call for submissions was advertised in the national press.

This will be followed by a White Paper, with a plan for action, by August 2008*.

Kevin Rudd
Prime Minister

January 2008

* This publication was released in January 2008. Due to State and Territory negotiations the White Paper is now scheduled for release later in 2008.
  1. Counting the Homeless 2001, ABS Cat 2050.0
  2. Counting the Homeless 2001, ABS Cat 2050.0, p57
  3. Counting the Homeless 2001, ABS Cat 2050.0, p57
  4. Homeless people in SAAP, SAAP NDCA Report 2005-06, AIHW, p30
  5. 2006 Census of Population and Housing Australia, Tables
  6. Demand for SAAP accommodation by homeless people 2005-06: summary, NDCA Report, AIHW, p2,3
  7. Don't Dream it's Over, the St Vincent de Paul Society, 2007, p7
  8. SAAP Annual Reports 1996-07 to 2005-06, AIHW various tables
  9. SAAP NDCA Data Collection, 2005-06
  10. SAAP Monograph, Older SAAP Clients, SAAP Monograph 2, February 2003, Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services
  11. Homeless people in SAAP, SAAP NDCA Report 2005-06, AIHW, p75
  12. Homeless People in SAAP, SAAP NDCA Report, 2005-06, AIHW, p81
Content Updated: 18 June 2012