Published: August 2021

Counting homelessness

melancholic older male renter looking out window

Homelessness update

In Australia there are over 116,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night. More than 24,000 of them live in Victoria. These stark statistics were derived from the 2016 census count – and now it’s time for a much-needed update.

This important data collection work is being undertaken in 2021 as part of the latest census count. Census night is on Tuesday 10 August 2021 and gives a snapshot of the Australian population.

Obtaining accurate statistics on homelessness is a vital piece of demographic research to inform the housing sector’s work and build policy that works, including planning and funding for services such as emergency shelters, family violence programs and transitional housing.

In a welcome move, two staff from Tenants Victoria have been seconded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to help with this effort. Our workers are contributing their knowledge, along with other community service providers, to improve the census reach into a traditionally ‘hidden’ population.

The staff, Catherine Dyer and Sarah Davidson, are working as census field officers and for some weeks now have been donning masks and visiting rooming houses in the north and west of Melbourne to safely provide information and liaise with residents to encourage them to participate in the census. Their particular focus is on unregistered rooming houses, which operate on the very margins of affordable housing providers.

Much of Tenants Victoria’s work for renters in information, legal advice and representation during the intensity of the pandemic has been for those who had previously lived in relatively stable accommodation. But one group of renters that has always been at risk of homelessness – and will continue to be so beyond the pandemic – is those who live in rooming houses.

‘Rooming house residents often have few financial resources and may suffer social disadvantage, due to ill-health and lack of literacy, and may have a range of health concerns or experience other disadvantages including family violence. We are also now seeing many more overseas students join the ranks of rooming house residents because of cost pressures,’ said Jennifer Beveridge, CEO of Tenants Victoria.

What is homelessness?

It’s Homelessness Week (1 to 7 August), and important to remember the ABS definition of ‘homelessness’ goes far beyond street homelessness or ‘sleeping rough’ – for example, it extends to people living in ‘severely’ overcrowded housing. And the definition also covers people in our community living in rooming or boarding houses where residents are counted by the census as homeless due to their insecure housing.

The housing choices available to people living in rooming houses are severely limited. Rooming house residents are part of an inadequate housing continuum that stems from the policy challenges of lack of housing affordability in Australia. Many among this group are listed on tenancy database ‘blacklists’ and are effectively locked out of mainstream renting. As a result, rooming houses are often the only available housing ‘option’.

Tenants Victoria’s long-running Outreach Program in Melbourne’s north and west liaises with rooming house residents and provides tenancy advice and vital pathways to long-term secure housing options, and short-to-medium-term outreach support and health services. In the 2019-2020 financial year, we made 189 visits to rooming houses and provided 70 residents with 132 service referrals.

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