Facts about homelessness

What is homelessness?

Over the past 20 years, various definitions of homelessness have been developed and used in Australia and other OECD nationsIn 2012, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released its definition of homelessness, after some years of discussion and debate.The ABS statistical definition is that:When a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives they are considered homeless 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 ABS definition of homelessness is informed by an understanding of homelessness as 'home'lessness, not rooflessness. It emphasises the core elements of 'home' in Anglo American and European interpretations of the meaning of home as identified in research evidence (Mallett, 2004). These elements may include: a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety, and the ability to control living space. Homelessness is therefore a lack of one or more of the elements that represent 'home'.The definition has been constructed from a conceptual framework centred on the following elements:

  • Adequacy of the dwelling;
  • Security of tenure in the dwelling; and
  • Control of, and access to space for social relations.

Another commonly accepted definition of homelessness is Chamberlain and Mackenzie’s definition, which was adopted by the Commonwealth Advisory Committee on Homelessness in 2001. It includes three categories in recognition of the diversity of homelessness.

Primary homelessness is experienced by people without conventional accommodation (e.g. sleeping rough or in an improvised dwelling).

Secondary homelessness is experienced by people who frequently move from one temporary shelter to another (e.g. emergency accommodation, youth refuges, "couch surfing").

Tertiary homelessness is experienced by people staying in accommodation that falls below minimum community standards (e.g. boarding houses and caravan parks).

The definition is based on the premise that concepts of homelessness and housing are culturally bound, and that in order to define homelessness it is necessary to identify shared community standards about minimum housing.
Homelessness can be caused by poverty, unemployment and by a critical shortage of affordable housing. Homelessness can be triggered by domestic and family violence, family breakdown, mental illness, sexual assault, addiction, financial difficulty, gambling and social isolation.

How many people are homeless?

At the last count 105,237 people were homeless in Australia on census night in 2011. The 2011 Census tells us where homeless Australians are staying.


  • 39% are living in severely overcrowded dwellings,
  • 20 % are living in supported accommodation for the homeless;
  • 17 % are staying temporarily with other households;
  • 17% are staying in boarding houses;
  • 6% are sleeping rough on the streets of our cities and towns,
  • 1 % are in other temporary lodging

Other key national results from the 2011 Census are:

  • Most of the increase in homelessness between 2006 and 2011 was reflected in people living in severely overcrowded dwellings;
  • About 75% of the increase in the numbers of homeless people was accounted for by people who were born overseas;
  • 60% of homeless people were aged under 35 years, and 22% of the increase in homelessness was in the 25 to 34 years age group;

In NSW, that number is 28,190 people (an increase of 5,971 or 27% on the revised 2006 Census figure). The 2011 Census also indicates:

  • 34% of all homeless people live in severely overcrowded housing;
  • The number of people who are rough sleepers remained stable at 7% of the total homeless population;
  • The number of boarding houses residents increased by 9.5% over the 2006-11 period;
  • There was a 27% increase in the number of people in supported accommodation services on the nights of the 2006 and 2011 Census

Who makes up the homeless population?

The national Census 2011 homeless person’s figures indicate that:

  • 17% are aged under 12;
  • 10% are aged between 12 and 18
  • 15% are aged between 19 and 24;
  • 18 are aged between 25 and 34;
  • 14% are aged between 35 and 44;
  • 12% are aged between 45 and 54;
  • 8% are aged between 55 and 64;
  • 4% are aged between 65 and 74; and
  • 2% are aged 75 and over

The data also suggests nationally that:

  • 56% are men and 44 % are women
  • 67% are non indigenous, 25% are indigenous, with 8% not stated; and
  • The homelessness rate is 48.9% per 10,000 population (which is an increase of 3.7% since 2006)

What can I do?

Ask your local Commonwealth, State and local Council politicians what they are doing to respond to and prevent homelessness. Support Homelessness NSW and receive regular updates on what we see happening to reduce and prevent homelessness in NSW. Click to follow links and become member.

Make contact with one of your local homeless services to see what help you can offer them.