What is homelessness?

Understand the definitions and facts

A man in a check shirt is looking at the women beside him as she is talking about homelessness

Definitions of homelessness are difficult to narrow down, because people’s experiences are many and varied. Homelessness is a broad term which encompasses a diverse range of people and experiences.

“When I was sleeping in the car… I would just drive around… try and drink the day away really to just get rid of it… till the next day, which would become a perpetual sadness.” (Maureen, aged 43)

“People look at you different… you just want to hide all the time, you don’t want to go near people, you don’t want to walk up any main street, you stick to all the back streets…”

“Homelessness separates you from society because, or you feel, yeah, really you do become separated from society cause you don’t live the same as other people. You don’t have a home to go to. You don’t have something to do with yourself like a job… your hygiene becomes poor because you don’t have access to washing facilities. Your diet, your eating, becomes affected because you don’t have access to food the same as you would if you have your own home.” (Malcolm, 42)

Facts about homelessness

The term homeless is broad, and while everyone has a different experience of being homeless, at its very core, being homeless is about absence: an absence of a home, a safe place to live, security, choices and control over one’s life. It is also often an absence of family and friends.

The 2016 ABS census statistics showed more than 116,000 people experiencing homelessness in Australia on Census night (an increase from 105,000 in 2011). 24,817 Victorians were reported as experiencing homelessness, which accounts for 27 per cent of Australia’s homeless population.

The total number of people sleeping rough accounts for just seven per cent of the homeless population. The remaining 93 per cent comprises a range of distinct groups including persons living in supported accommodation (18 per cent); persons staying temporarily with other households (15 per cent); persons living in boarding houses (15 per cent); and persons living in overcrowded dwellings (44 per cent).

There are more males than females, around a quarter are from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds and 15 per cent were born overseas and arrived in Australia in the last five years.

While nearly 60 per cent of people experiencing homelessness are under 35 years, there has been a 28 per cent increase in people aged 55 and over experiencing homelessness - a rapidly growing age bracket.

These statistics don’t capture the even greater number of people who are at risk of homelessness in Australia through economic and social disadvantage. People experiencing homelessness may be sleeping rough, live in improvised dwellings, tents, cars, temporary or crisis accommodation, boarding houses, severely overcrowded dwellings, or be couch-surfing (those temporarily staying with other households).

The causes of homelessness

Many people ask, what causes homelessness? This is a significant question which raises many issues because people experiencing homelessness face a range of challenges, among them:

  • mental illness
  • lack of family support and few friends
  • many have experienced a disproportionate number of traumatic incidents compared with the average Australian
  • sexual abuse in childhood and being a victim of an assault while sleeping rough
  • neglect or family violence
  • disability
  • thoughts of suicide or self-harm
  • substance abuse issues (drugs and alcohol are often used as coping mechanisms)
  • interpersonal problems
  • social isolation and marginalisation.  

Trauma exposure in childhood, and in later years can impact a person's social and emotional development.

Client forums

Each year we aim to hold three client forums to receive structured feedback from people who use our services. Each forum explores an issue relevant to the lives of Mission clients, such as welfare reform, illicit drug use and how people sleeping rough are depicted by the media. Feedback from each forum is collected and published as a newsletter and the findings are used to guide Mission services and advocacy.

More information about homelessness

For more information about homelessness in Australia including definitions, statistics, facts and figures, visit:

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