Homelessness – Why We Care

Homelessness is a widespread and serious issue in our country. It is not someone else’s issue. It impacts all of us, whether or not we experience it ourselves. People experiencing homelessness sleep on the street, in cars, in shelters, and in overcrowded dwellings. They live in every jurisdiction in Australia, representing both a personal hardship for those experiencing homelessness and a lost opportunity for the community and the economy. More importantly, homelessness is a human tragedy.

Fundamental to the ethos of The Salvation Army is the idea that every human being has inherent worth and every person should live with dignity. The Salvation Army envisions an Australia where all people have adequate and stable incomes, can afford and sustain housing, and are healthy and connected to community.

For too many Australians this is not the reality. One of the most visible ways in which this is manifested is in the ever-increasing number of people experiencing homelessness across the country. It has been more than twenty years since Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner affirmed adequate housing is a fundamental human right. Yet, over this period, we have witnessed our country’s worst record on homelessness.

According to the 2016 Census, there are over 116,427 people who are homeless in Australia. This figure has risen by almost 14,000 compared against 2011. Children made up 15,872 (or 14 per cent) of the total national homeless population.

Number of homeless people, by homelessness type, Census night 2016

Type of homelessnessNumber
Persons living in improvised dwellings, tents, or sleeping out (rough sleepers)8,200
Persons in supported accommodation for the homeless21,235
Persons staying temporarily with other households17,725
Persons living in boarding houses17,503
Persons in other temporary lodgings678
Persons living in severely crowded dwellings51,088
All homeless persons116,427
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics., Census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness, 2016 (2018). cat. no. 2049.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics. Available at <https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/2049.0&gt;.

Data from our homelessness services show that 67 per cent of clients reported being homeless on more than one occasion in their life, with half of these experiencing homelessness at least four times. The data also reveals that 33 per cent of clients presenting to The Salvation Army homelessness services are doing so for the first time.

There are many misconceptions about what causes homelessness. As a society, we often think that homelessness is caused by addiction, mental illness, domestic violence, job loss, and disability. It is true that many individuals experiencing homelessness are also dealing with mental illness and addiction. Often, these individuals are using alcohol or other drugs which exacerbates their disadvantage and housing prospects. Many individuals experiencing homelessness have been victims of domestic violence, and a significant proportion of them have also been victims of prior physical or sexual abuse. However, despite all of the above being accurate demographic features of the homelessness population, these are not exclusive to them. Perhaps, our greatest misconception about homelessness is that the people who experience it somehow deserve it and should be defined by it.

The five most common primary presenting reasons at Salvation Army homelessness services give a sense of what drives people toward homelessness:

  • Housing crisis (imminent eviction) – 26.5%
  • Domestic or family violence – 13.7%
  • Financial difficulties – 12.2%
  • Inadequate or inappropriate dwelling – 11.1%
  • Transition from custodial arrangements – 5.5%

As a matter of fact, a key theme of these presenting reasons is the role of poverty as an underlying cause of homelessness. The circumstances of poverty that can lead a person to become homeless include having little money, debt, a lack of education, poor mental and physical health, disability, reliance on public housing, living in sub-standard accommodation and social exclusion.

We believe that homelessness in Australia can be fixed. It is the Salvation Army’s view that homelessness is the result of systemic and structural failures that disproportionately affect disadvantaged people. The Salvation Army believes that having safe, secure and affordable housing is a human right. Without a home, a person’s ability to access and maintain employment, education, training, family and social networks, and health and wellbeing can be very difficult, and often impossible, further exacerbating the situation.

We believe that, as a community and individuals, we have the means to:

  • Acknowledge homelessness as a major issue
  • Treat people who find themselves homeless with dignity and respect. For example, changing our language from ‘homeless person’ to ‘person experiencing homelessness’
  • Treat with generosity and kindness any individual experiencing homelessness. A simple “Hi!” or a genuine conversation with someone who is experiencing homelessness can make a huge difference
  • Become an advocate and help to lessen the stigma around homelessness

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