New ABS homeless count welcomed but caution advised
- Created on Tuesday, 11 September 2012 12:01
Mission Australia believes a drop in the official number of homeless Australians should not be misinterpreted as an actual fall in homelessness or as a pretext for cutting back on national efforts to fight the problem.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics has applied a new methodology to recalculate its 2001 and 2006 Census counts of homeless people in an effort to improve its accuracy.
As a result, the number of homeless Australians counted has changed from 100,000 to over 95,000 in 2001 and 105,000 to almost 90,000 in 2006.
The recalculation of the 2001 and 2006 homeless count has been carried out as a precursor to the same methodology being applied to the 2011 Census of homeless people with the results due for release in November.
Mission Australia’s spokesperson, Eleri Morgan-Thomas, said it supported the ABS’s efforts to arrive at a more consistent approach for counting homeless people but was concerned about the potential for the change to be misinterpreted as a real reduction in homeless numbers.
“There’s no question that counting homeless people is extremely difficult and problematic,” said Ms Morgan-Thomas. “The ABS is seeking to introduce a more consistent approach for counting homeless – a valuable endeavour which we support.
“We don’t question the motives behind this change, but we are wary that recalculated homeless numbers could be misinterpreted as a real reduction in the problem and therefore as a pretext for putting fewer resources into our fight against homelessness.
“Federal and State/Territory Ministers with responsibility for homelessness are currently in the early stages of renegotiating the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness.
“The joint federal-state agreement – $1.1 billion over five years in extra funding for homeless services and the centrepiece of the Federal Government’s efforts to reach the nation’s 2020 goals of halving homelessness and providing all rough sleepers with access to accommodation – runs out in June 2013.
“While we take comfort in the fact that the Federal Minister for Housing Brendan O’Connor has expressed his intention to pursue a new agreement, there’s been nothing put aside in the federal budget.
“And with most states under financial pressure and engaged in cost-cutting, it’s not hard to imagine Premiers and Housing Ministers under enormous pressure from their Treasuries to pull back on homeless funding and using the Bureau’s new figures as evidence.
“From our perspective as the provider of a range of services to homeless people, the demand for help is as high as it’s ever been. The real test will be in November when the homeless count from the 2011 Census is released. Measured against the recalculated 2006 Census results we’ll be able to see what the trend is.
“Given the very real challenges counting homeless people, any number is likely to be an underestimation of the true scale of the problem – whatever the methodology – that’s always been the case.
“On any Census night tens of thousands of people identify as being housed but the full picture of their vulnerability to homelessness is not picked up.
“For example, young homeless people who are couch surfing with friends; homeless families in private motels paid for by state housing departments; people in rooming or boarding houses; and people living in caravan parks, not because they’re on holiday, but because it’s the only roof over their head they can afford and is available.
“The Census also can’t capture the complexities around homelessness. For most people, homelessness isn’t commonly a short, one-off experience. Most have long histories of homelessness, cycling back and forth between homelessness, marginal housing and stable housing – a day, week or a month down the track they could be homeless again, reflecting the fluid nature of their situation.
“And then there’s the length of time between counts – we’re still using figures from the 2006 Census.
“While the Census count of homeless people is very useful, we need to remember it’s just one source of information. Let’s not let a statistical rewrite create the false impression that a big problem has suddenly become smaller.
“The work to truly bring homeless numbers down is all ahead of us,” said Ms Morgan-Thomas.
Media contact: Paul Andrews 0409 665 495 or (02) 9219 2080