First-of-its-kind report shines a spotlight on Australia’s ‘rough sleepers’

On Census night in 2016, around 8,200 Australians were ‘sleeping rough’—living on the streets, sleeping in parks, squatting, staying in cars or living in improvised dwellings. For the first time, a new report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) provides insights into this complex and vulnerable group in our society.

The report Sleeping rough: A profile of Specialist Homelessness Services clients, uses 4 years of Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) data to build a comprehensive picture of this group, the challenges they face and the services they use.

Despite being the most visible, rough sleepers account for only around 1 in 14 homeless people in Australia according to the latest Census estimates, with the remainder having other accommodation, such as at shelters or refuges, couch surfing or in emergency accommodation. While rough sleepers make up a relatively small proportion of Australia’s homeless population, the number people in Australia who are sleeping rough has grown by 20% since 2011.

The report shows that compared to other clients of SHS rough sleepers are generally older males, often with drug, alcohol or mental health issues.

“While 36% of all SHS clients are male, this is much higher, at 66%, for rough sleepers,” AIHW spokesperson Matthew James said.

“However, male rough sleepers tend to be older than females. Around 55% of female rough sleepers were aged 15–34 compared with 41% of males.”

The report shows that many rough sleepers experience multiple periods of homelessness, highlighting the journey that many people face exiting homelessness. At the end of the 4-year study period, SHS agencies had assisted more than one-quarter of rough sleepers (27%) into housing; others were in ongoing SHS support and for about a quarter of rough sleepers, their housing situation was unknown.

“Looking forward, there may be opportunities to bring SHS data together with information on rent assistance, income support and social housing to build a more comprehensive picture of the journey of rough sleepers, towards independent housing and community participation,” Mr James said.

“This will also give service providers the evidence they need to build targeted programs to assist their clients and evaluate the effectiveness of the programs that are currently in place.”

The full report from AIHW can be downloaded from its website.