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Caught in a longterm cycle: homelessness in Australia

Despite a growth in the study of homelessness, significant gaps remain in our understanding of it. Flickr/Davco9200

In Australia the homeless population has become more diverse over the last 20 years, with more young people, women and families experiencing homelessness. This has led to a growth in the study of homelessness. But significant gaps in our understanding of homelessness remain.

Therefore, in late 2010, the Australian government commissioned the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic Research at the University of Melbourne to design and implement a new longitudinal survey, called Journeys Home. Over two years, Journeys Home will track a national sample of individuals exposed to high levels of housing insecurity employing much more rigorous sampling methods than ever previously used.

The first wave of the Journeys Home study was conducted between September and November 2011 involving responses from 1,682 people out of an effective sample of 2,719 (a response rate of just over 62%).

The sample has been selected using Centrelink’s Homelessness Indicator (introduced in January 2010) and comprises recipients of an income support payment that had been flagged by Centrelink as either “homeless” or “at-risk of homelessness”.

In addition, the sample includes a group selected using statistical techniques that identify income support recipients that have not been flagged as homeless, but nevertheless have characteristics similar to those that have been. These persons might be thought of as a group of people who are, at least in a statistical sense, vulnerable to homeless.

As expected, the profile of our respondents is very different to that of general population. Respondents are on average younger, more likely to be single, have no dependent children, born in Australia and much more likely to be Indigenous Australian than in the general population.

Journeys Home respondents also have much lower levels of education on average and the vast majority are not in the labour force. The incidence of mental illness is also higher than that of the general population and smoking, drinking at “risky” levels and drug use more widespread.

A key finding from the first wave of the study is that respondents’ housing situation appears to vary considerably over time. At the first interview, half of the participants were in what we consider to be stable housing, a quarter were in more marginal living arrangements and 24% were homeless. However, when we examine homeless experiences in the six months prior to the first survey, we find that 50% of the Journeys Home participants had been homeless. Almost all participants (94%) had reported an experience of homelessness at some stage in their lives.

We also find some early indications that many respondents are cycling in and out of homelessness over their lifetimes, and spending considerable amounts of their lifetimes in an unstable housing situation. Almost half (49.7%) of respondents reported that they had spent at least a year homeless in total over their life and 23% had spent four or more years homeless. While we suspect that the JH sample may be better at capturing persons experiencing either “episodic” or “chronic” forms of homelessness, a plausible alternative is that long-term homelessness is more common than previously thought.

Half of the participants had their first experience of homelessness at a young age (under 18) and just under three quarters had their first experience before they turned 25. Early indications show that those who first experience homelessness at a young age are more likely to experience persistent homelessness. Also, by far the most common reason reported for first becoming homeless was family breakdown and/or conflict. In contrast, a relatively low rate of respondents reported mental illness and substance abuse as major factors leading to their first homeless experience.

From our first set of interviews we can already see that those exposed to homelessness for the longest periods are the most likely to have had adverse childhood experiences such as being exposed to violence or abuse, having been placed into state care and child protection systems, or having experienced poverty in childhood, than those with shorter homeless durations.

They are also much more likely to have diagnosed physical and mental health conditions and report problematic substance use. In contrast, those never homeless or homeless for short periods tend to have stronger relationships with their families, fewer or no diagnosed health conditions and be less engaged in substance use.

To determine the cause of all of these relationships there is a need for further longitudinal data on our participants allowing us to examine their housing status over a longer period of time, and the antecedents and consequences of homelessness.

However, even at this early stage these findings provide useful information to refine program design, particularly around the identification of people at risk of long-term homelessness.

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