Making sense of Australia's growing homelessness problem

6 April 2018 Magazine

Making sense of Australia's growing homelessness problem

When the Australian Bureau of Statistics announces that 116,427 people are homeless, it can be easy to get lost in numbers. But every single one of those numbers is a person who doesn’t have a safe place to sleep tonight.

Big Issue editor Amy Hetherington looks at what the latest census figures on homelessness actually mean.

Big Issue homelessness

What’s your favourite time of day? That first moment you wake up, stretching away a cosy night’s sleep? Maybe it’s that moment you leave the office, headed for home? Or the instant you walk in the front door to your tail-wagging dog? That second you collapse into a comfy bed and curl up to a loved one?

It’s the early evenings that hurt most, says Sheldon, a Big Issue vendor who has lived on the streets of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane between rooming houses and private rentals over the years.

“As I walked through the streets of the city and inner suburbs all I noticed was the comfort and security of other people’s lives,” he remembers. “…[And] the depressing fact that at the end of the day I was still without a home.”

Vendor Tukuf wakes up every morning to the squawk of seagulls in the inner-city park where he’s been sleeping. “The first thing I do is check that my bag and belongings are still there and that they haven’t been stolen,” he writes.

Today. Tonight. Tomorrow. There are more than 116,000 Australians like Sheldon and Tukuf who are homeless. The new census figures, released by the ABS last month, reveal that homelessness has increased almost 14 per cent in five years, outstripping population growth at nine per cent.

It is this transience that makes homelessness difficult to quantify. There is no simple box to tick on the Census form, no single variable. It is an informed estimate, that is generally considered an underestimate. But the snapshot is clear: homelessness is getting worse.

In real terms, our homeless population now outnumbers most of our regional centres. There are more people without a home than live in the whole of Port Macquarie (78,500), Launceston (81,000), Bendigo (94,300) and Bunbury (102,600). If you imagine homelessness as a city, it’s the size of Rockhampton or Mackay.

That number is mind-blowing. It means on the night of the August 2016 Census count, just a week after Homelessness Week, in mid-winter, 1 in 200 of us were considered homeless. That number includes rough sleepers but, overwhelmingly, our homeless population is less visible.

As Adelaide vendor Ricky says, “Homelessness includes anybody that doesn’t have a place of their own. It can be anything from a tent, car, caravan park, park bench, street, friend’s couch, a backyard or boarding house.”

The numbers paint a picture of the most vulnerable in our community. Homelessness has tripled among people aged over 65, and young people (under 25) make up 38 per cent of our homeless population. That includes 15,872 children under 12 who don’t have a safe place to sleep on any given night. Migrants and Indigenous Australians are grossly over-represented.

And while the numbers show who is suffering, they don’t explain why. The causes of homelessness are varied and complex. Family violence remains the leading cause in Australia, especially for women and children, and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports the problem has grown in the past five years.

“Homelessness is not a lifestyle choice, it reflects a systems failure and, most critically, a shortage of affordable housing,” Jenny Smith, chairwoman of Homelessness Australia (HA) told The Guardian.

As of June last year, there were almost 195,000 people on the waiting list for social housing across the country. Emergency accommodation can’t keep up: tonight, homelessness services will turn away about 250 people they’re unable to provide with a bed.

HA says that one in 10 Australian households are in “housing stress” and at risk of homelessness. They are stretched by rent or mortgage payments more than 30 per cent of their income. That is an additional 850,000 people.

But homelessness is not an unsolvable problem. In the latest Big Issue we outline some ideas that are reducing homelessness around the world. Closer to home, a coalition of housing bodies and homelessness providers have launched the Everybody’s Home campaign, calling for a national strategy to meet the shortfall of 500,000 affordable homes needed to meet demand.

For us, homelessness has been our biggest issue since we launched 22 years ago.

In our very first magazine, we set out our goal: to provide the people who sell our magazine with an income, a means to fight their way back into society. And to give our vendors a voice.

That’s why we’ve asked our vendors to share with you their lived experiences of homelessness in the pages of The Big Issue. And why we’ll be bringing you a series of stories about homelessness in Australia in the coming weeks, written by the men, women and teenagers who are among the nation’s 116,427 people who are without a place to call home on any given night.

Their voices are important. They deserve to be heard.


Amy Hetherington is the editor of The Big Issue magazine. 

Top illustration: Tom Jay


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