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About Homelessness



What is homelessness?

Homelessness is not a choice. It can happen to anyone.

People who are homeless are among the most marginalised people in Australia. Homelessness is one of the most potent examples of disadvantage in the community, and one of the most important markers of social exclusion (Department of Human Services, 2002). To have a socially inclusive Australia, all Australians must have the capabilities, opportunities, responsibilities and resources to learn, work, engage and have a say (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2012).

Definitions of homelessness

There are many different definitions of homelessness, below are some of the most referred to in Australia:

Australian Bureau of Statistics definition

On the most basic level homelessness is the state or condition of having no home.  But what is "home?" A home is merely more than having shelter - a home needs to be secure, safe and connected.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) definition states that when a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives they are considered homeless if their current living arrangement:

  • is in a dwelling that is inadequate; or
  • has no tenure, or if their initial tenure is short and not extendable; or
  • does not allow them to have control of, and access to space for social relations.

The ABS definition of homelessness is informed by an understanding of homelessness as 'home'lessness, not 'roof'lessness. It emphasises the core elements of 'home' in Anglo American and European interpretations of the meaning of home as identified in research evidence (Mallett, 2004). These elements may include: a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety, and the ability to control living space. Homelessness is therefore a lack of one or more of the elements that represent 'home'.

Mackenzie and Chamberlain’s cultural definition

Mackenzie and Chamberlain's (1992) definition includes three categories in recognition of the diversity of homelessness:

  • Primary homelessness is experienced by people without conventional accommodation (e.g. sleeping rough or in improvised dwellings);
  • Secondary homelessness is experienced by people who frequently move from one temporary shelter to another (e.g. emergency accommodation, youth refuges, "couch surfing")
  • Tertiary homelessness is experienced by people staying in accommodation that falls below minimum community standards (e.g. boarding housing and caravan parks).

This definition was adopted by the Commonwealth Advisory Committee on Homelessness in 2001 and is widely used in the homelessness sector. 

Hutt St Centre’s preferred definition of homelessness

Homelessness is that state in which people have no access to safe and secure shelter of a standard that does not damage their health, threaten their personal safety or further marginalise them through failing to provide either cooking facilities, or facilities that permit adequate personal hygiene (Neil and Fopp, 1992 – Homelessness in Australia: Causes and Consequences, p.8).

Talking about homelessness

People working in the homelessness sector often say ‘people experiencing homelessness’ instead of ‘the homeless’ or ‘homeless people’.  This is because for most people homelessness is an experience (often short term) not a life sentence. Saying ‘experiencing homelessness’ is one of the first steps to changing the perception of homelessness.


Homelessness statistics

How many people are homeless in Australia?

The 2021 ABS Census determined that in Australia there are 122,494 people who are homeless. On any given night 1 in 200 people are homeless.

  • 60% of people facing homelessness were under 35 years old
  • 17,646 children under 12 years old were homeless
  • 1 in 7 people facing homelessness will sleep rough

How many people are homeless in South Australia?

There are 7,428 people in South Australia experiencing homelessness. (2021 ABS Census). This is a 19.3% increase since the 2016 Census.

Where do people who are homeless go?

There are a number of places people who are homeless stay.  These include:

  • Living in 'severely' crowded dwellings (39%)
  • Supported accommodation for the homeless (20%)
  • Staying temporarily with other households (18%)
  • Staying in boarding houses (14%)
  • Living in improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out (6%) and
  • Staying in other temporary lodging (3%)

Why are they homeless?

Asking why someone is homeless is not an easy to question to answer nor is there ever one particular reason why someone may find themselves without a home. In fact YOU or anyone else could be one pay away from finding yourself homeless. Below are some factors that can lead to homelessness:

  • Lack of affordable and available rental housing
  • Domestic and family violence (family breakdown)
  • Intergenerational poverty (family history, can often be a learnt experience)
  • Financial crisis, difficulties or income security
  • Employment, education and training issues
  • Economic and social exclusion (a minority group/feeling different from others, feeling misplaced).
  • Severe and persistent mental illness and psychological distress (mental health concerns).
  • Young people exiting state care (foster care/under guardianship of the Minister/parents rights are removed).
  • People exiting prison (institutional care e.g. detention centre, disability group home).
  • Health (physical, mental, psychological)
  • Grief and loss
  • Poverty
  • Addiction issues such as drug and alcohol use, gambling
  • Legal issues
  • Natural disasters
  • Abuse (physical, sexual and emotional)

What are the most common reasons people find themselves facing homelessness?

  • 54% have experienced family or relationship breakdown

  • 53% of people become homeless after losing their accommodation, like the end of a lease agreement

  • 39% are facing financial difficulties

  • 39% have experienced family and domestic violence

  • 34% are suffering from mental health issues

(Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2020-2021 Annual Report)


Myths about people facing homelessness

(Homeless in the City, Exploring Myths and Facts, Adelaide City Council)

Homeless people are responsible for their own predicament

False! Homelessness is a multidimensional and complex problem. It is the product of a variety of interwoven structural and individual factors such as lack of adequate and affordable accommodation, loss of employment, sexual abuse, hazardous drug and alcohol use, grief and loss, domestic violence, family breakdown and mental health. No one chooses to be homeless.

Homeless people are “bludgers” who leech off the system

False! Many of those affected by homelessness go on to resume productive employment, become stabilised in housing once secured and enter into voluntary work.

Homeless people have no skills

False! Homeless people come from all walks of life and many have worked in highly paid professions and careers prior to becoming homeless. A lot of homeless people possess untapped artistic and creative talents. George Orwell, very famous writer, experienced homelessness. 

There is already plenty of affordable accommodation available for homeless people

False! Numerous reports and reviews across both government and non-government sectors have highlighted an alarming decrease in the availability of low cost accommodation. For example, between 1977 and 1990, the overall stock of boarding and rooming house accommodation in Adelaide declined by 27% (Young, 1990) and has continued to decline since then.

The amount of beds has reduced from over 1000 in 1990 to currently 201. Recently there have also been historically low vacancy rates in the private market (down to 1% and even lower at the cheaper end of the market).

This situation is exacerbated by huge waiting lists for public and community housing (most people wait years). There is a clear and demonstrable linkage between the reduction of appropriate and affordable housing and the visible increase in the numbers of those experiencing homelessness in Adelaide.


Useful links & resources

Further information on homelessness

Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census of Population and Housing:
Estimating Homelessness 2016:

Homelessness in Australia: 2016 Census:

Homelessness Australia:

Australian Government Department of Social Services:

Government of South Australia, Department of Human Services:

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare:

Housing Data Australia:

Shelter SA, peak body for housing in South Australia