Issue 1, 2006 | M. Beckerling


A decade since the election of the Howard government and, with an eighth successive Commonwealth budget surplus on the cards, it is an apt time to consider how Australia’s homeless have fared.

For middle class Australia, the greatest benefit of this sustained economic growth has been a 125 per cent increase in the value of their homes.1 For Australia’s homeless, the boom times have cost them dearly.

This paper aims to consider the current state of Australian homelessness generally and West Australian homelessness in particular, and to provide some insights into how policymakers might address this great Australian disgrace.

The most recent census, taken in 2001, counted 100,000 homeless Australians, 11,700 of whom were resident in Western Australia.2 The definition of “homeless” is significant here. Consistent with Australia’s international obligation to provide adequate housing, the definition employed in the census is informed by our cultural notions of “home”.3 The term is not synonymous with “rooflessness.”

The roofless ones, the “primary homeless” accounted for 14,158 people. About the same number again make up the ranks of the secondary homeless, who are typically accommodated in tenuous accommodation like refuges and hostels. The third and largest group, the tertiary homeless, number 71,500.4 This last group are the “couch surfers” who, like the other tiers of homeless, have no fixed address, no security of tenure and no place to call home.

To consider that there is any homeless problem at all in Australia, particularly in times of such prolific economic growth, is alarming. There is however reason to suspect that by the time the 2006 census data is published, and notwithstanding the intervening years of outstanding economic growth, the problem would have worsened.

It is anticipated that one of the major contributors to the predicted worsening of the homeless crisis in the intervening years will have been the insatiable real estate market, particularly in Western Australia. Data show that the median Perth house price has more than doubled since 2001 when the last census was taken, rising from $160,000 in 2001 to $335,000 in the final quarter of 2004.5 The median Perth rent rose 25 per cent to $220 per week during 2005.6 The effect of these rises has been to price people out of the private market altogether.

The impact of the new Work Choices Industrial Relations legislation on wages and employment conditions, and the effect of this on the ability of families to obtain and discharge mortgages, is also yet to be seen.

Because of these and other fundamental changes in the years since the last census, it is not possible to project with any accuracy the degree to which the problem will have worsened. We can however use current data collected by the 1,300 homeless agencies funded under the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (the “SAAP”) to determine the demography of Australia’s homeless population and to make an assessment of how the system is coping.

The SAAP was conceived as a transitional arrangement in terms of which human services and crisis accommodation could be provided to assist clients in identifying long term solutions to their homelessness. The object of the SAAP is:

“To provide transitional supported accommodation and related support services in order to help people who are homeless to achieve the maximum possible degree of self reliance and independence. Within this aim the goals are:
(a) to resolve crisis;
(b) to re-establish links where appropriate; and
(c) to re-establish a capacity to live independently of SAAP.7

An assessment of whether the SAAP is fulfilling this brief requires a parallel examination of an affiliate program, the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement (the “CSHA”), which establishes funding for public and community housing. This approach is necessary because the SAAP’s effectiveness as a conduit from homelessness and personal crisis to independence is dependent upon the availability of alternative, long term housing into which SAAP clients can ultimately be placed. Without that exit point, the SAAP can only ever be a revolving door that provides some brief sanctuary, and then returns clients to uncertainty, and continuing homelessness.

In the 2004 reporting year, for instance, over one third of all SAAP clients in Western Australia were women and children escaping domestic violence. The State government has addressed this issue in a range of ways, but most relevantly by means of comprehensive amendments to the Restraining Orders Act 1997. The amended legislation empowers police to issue on the spot restraining orders, effective for up to 72 hours, in domestic violence situations, and makes investigation of domestic violence incidents mandatory.

Before the amendments police typically escorted the victims of the violence, generally women and children, to refuges. The amendments arguably affect a fairer resolution by allowing the victims to remain in the home, and are likely to have the consequence of reducing the domestic violence related homelessness of women and children. Confirmation of that will need to await the release of last year’s data.

Another group significantly over represented in the homeless population is the mentally ill. The 1993 Burdekin Report found that the “the absence of suitable supported accommodation is the single biggest obstacle to recovery and effective rehabilitation.” 8 A full thirteen years later the Senate Select Committee on Mental Health has heard that somewhere between 30 and 80 per cent of homeless people experience mental disorders.9

The SAAP accommodates about 20 per cent more clients today than it did about 10 years ago. It would be wrong however to assume that this growth has kept pace with demand from the homeless, including the two groups considered here. The 2001 census data found less than 15 per cent of all homeless people are accommodated by the SAAP. An equal number were sleeping rough and the balance were in tenuous housing, provided largely by relatives and friends. On this analysis, SAAP accommodation would have to double just to accommodate the most neglected category of Australia’s homeless population.

It is possible that the services offered by the SAAP are unknown to the other 85 per cent. The more likely explanation for the high rate of tertiary homelessness is that people in crisis turn to friends and family first, and consider crisis accommodation a last resort. Even so, it is clear that the SAAP is unable to cope with even the relatively limited demand from the known homeless population.

National data for the 2004 financial year show that on an average day there were 392 new applications for immediate SAAP accommodation. This figure represents five per cent of total demand for SAAP – the other 95 per cent being in continuing SAAP accommodation. Of the 392 new applications, 205 or just over half were turned away.

It is instructive too to bear in mind that those turned away are not the stereotypical, shambling old men. There were 6,750 homeless families counted in the 2001 census, one fifth of whom were primary homeless, or “sleeping rough” in parks or in cars. At the time the census was taken, only forty-one per cent of homeless families were in SAAP accommodation.11 Indeed, while families make up a relatively small proportion of total SAAP assistance seekers, they are the group most likely to be turned away. Eighty one per cent of couples with children and sixty four per cent of individuals with children were turned away from SAAP accommodation services in the 2004 financial year.12

Unfortunately, there is no data that tracks an individual’s or a family’s movement through states of homelessness over time, which means that getting a firm idea about the SAAP’s role and effectiveness in addressing cyclical homelessness is difficult. We do know however that about fifty-three per cent of all SAAP assistance seekers were in tenuous housing before finding SAAP accommodation and that roughly forty-five per cent return to tenuous housing of one kind or another, or are institutionalized, once their accommodation period ends.13 Only about eight per cent of SAAP clients not housed tenuously before SAAP, exit SAAP accommodation into secure housing.

This passivity of the SAAP in the cycle of homelessness is evident too in the regularity with which people return for further assistance in each reporting period. In the 2004/2005 financial year about 9,000 West Australians sought SAAP assistance a total of 14,500 times.14 This suggests that the support provided by the SAAP is not, in most cases, effective in the first support period, and that the process of moving from homelessness into secure housing is a daunting and difficult one for clients to manage.

The SAAP’s high turn away rates and the recurrent attention to the same clients is in part an issue of SAAP funding and the quantitative and qualitative sufficiency of SAAP services.

If SAAP is presently turning away about five per cent of its total capacity, a funding increase of about five per cent would appear to be the very minimum required. A more cogent response however would take into account the failure of the SAAP to provide any services at all to over eighty five per cent of the known homeless population, and to neglect entirely, about 15,000 primary homeless people. There have been repeated calls from a range of organisations for increases to the SAAP funding.

The Community Housing Coalition of Western Australia has recently called for SAAP funding to increase by at least twenty-five per cent.15 The United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari, noted in his December 2005 summary of Australian communications, the Australian Federation of Homeless Organizations’ call for a forty per cent increase in SAAP funding.16

Systemic change however will also require a fundamental shift in the way services are delivered to the homeless. In its comprehensive review of national mental health issues, the Senate Select Committee noted significant and ongoing discrimination against the homeless mentally ill. The Senate report cites evidence that over one half of SAAP agencies had policies allowing a potential client to be turned away on the grounds of their mental illness.17

The Committee noted too the special difficulties faced by homeless people generally, and the homeless mentally ill in particular, in finding accommodation and accessing basic services. The solution, recognized long ago by agencies at the coal face of homelessness, including the Victorian Homeless Person’s Legal Service and Centrelink, is to locate services and expertise within agencies already being accessed by the homeless, such as crisis accommodation services. This integration of services with crisis accommodation is the epitome of the integrated or linked-up approach to homeless service delivery, and it is a significant advance. The lesson for SAAP is to locate a range of rehabilitative services within existing accommodation providers, and to provide a continuity of these services through time.

However, even if properly funded and restructured to accommodate this cultural shift, the SAAP is designed to be a transitory scheme. Ultimately the SAAP’s success in providing longer term solutions to homelessness depends upon the availability of appropriately subsidized public and community housing that SAAP clients can move into.

An analysis of this issue reveals the true homelessness crisis. In the 2004/2005 financial year there were 13,125 West Australians on the waiting list for public housing and the average wait in that year was 73 weeks, up eight weeks on the previous year.18 With opportunities in the private market moving increasingly out of reach and a better than even chance of being turned away by SAAP, the question this begs is on whose mercy should these applicants throw themselves in the meantime?

It is no wonder that the SAAP is overcrowded and turning people away and that 95% of its clients are in continuing accommodation. It is also no wonder that those lucky enough to make it into the SAAP are more likely, once their accommodation is over, to return to a state homelessness than to move into secure housing.

The cause of this bottleneck is the chronic underfunding of public housing as well as, in the last decade, the significant and sustained reductions in real terms in the already inadequate funding levels.

At a Commonwealth level, total government investment in current price terms in new public housing units fell from above $1 billion in the mid 1990’s to less than half that amount at the end of 2004. Expressed as a ratio of GDP, this represents a more than five-fold decline in relative terms from 0.33 per cent of GDP to 0.06 per cent in funding of new public housing stock.19

The SAAP cannot be expected to act as a panacea for homelessness or to ameliorate, in a relatively brief time, its many and varied causes. There are however practical measures that can be taken in order to assist the SAAP fulfill its brief as an effective conduit out of homelessness. The first and most important is to affect a substantial increase in funding to the SAAP itself, and to public and community housing, so that SAAP can actually fulfill its transitory role. In tandem with this rebuilding of homeless infrastructure, policy makers must conjure up the political will to treat homelessness not only as a soluble problem but one that, until solved, is truly Australia’s most shameful failure.


1 Australian Bureau of Statistics Cat. No. 6416.0, Table 10; House Price Indexes, Established Houses – Index Numbers Quarterly, September 2005.
2 Chamberlain, C & MacKenzie, D “Counting the Homeless 2001” Australian Bureau of Statistics, Report No 2050.0, p46.
3 Article 11, International Covenant on Economic Social & Cultural Rights. Australia signed the ICESCR on 18 December 1972, without reservation.
4 Op Cit p 46.
5 Real Estate Institute of Western Australia revised figures April 2006.
6 Real Estate Institute of Western Australia figures.
7 s5(2) and (3) SAAP Act 1994.
8 HREOC, Human Rights & Mental Illness: Report of the National Inquiry into the Human Rights of People with Mental Illness, AGPS, Canberra, 1993 p919.
9 Senate Select Committee on Mental Health A National Approach to Mental Health – from Crisis to Community, p 241.
10 Australian Institute of Health & Welfare Demand for SAAP Accommodation by Homeless People 2003-04, Bulletin 34 pp 8,9.
11 Chamberlain & MacKenzie Op Cit, p 35.
12 Australian Institute of Health & Welfare Op Cit, p8
13 Australian Institute of Health & Welfare Demand for SAAP Accommodation by Homeless People 2003-04, Bulletin 34 Western Australian Supplementary Tables, Table 8.1.
14 Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, Homeless People in SAAP 2004-2005, Table 3.1
15 Community Housing Coalition of Western Australia, More than a Bed Campaign, November 2004.
16 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, 23 December 2005.
17 Senate Select Committee on Mental Health “A National Approach to Mental Health – From Crisis to Community, p 244
18 Department of Housing & Works Western Australia, Annual Report, p51.
19 Commonwealth Budget Papers 2003/2004