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