Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Homelessness in NSW

Homelessness in NSW

Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Briefing Paper No. 3/2009

This Briefing Paper considers the issue of Homelessness in NSW. It provides a brief overview of the key changes to homelessness policy that were introduced in December 2008 by the Federal Government’s White Paper. The White Paper sets two key goals, namely halving homelessness by 2020 and offering supported accommodation to all “rough sleepers” who require it by 2020. The response to the White Paper has been generally positive. Representatives of the NGO sector have commented that the strategy is based on a realistic assessment of the causes of homelessness, sets long terms goals and allocates resources accordingly. Comments have also been made that the White Paper’s focus on the prevention of homelessness mirrors best practice developments overseas in countries such as the USA and UK. [1]

The NSW Government is also developing a Strategic Framework to guide the future of NSW policy with respect to homelessness. The Draft Strategic Framework into Homelessness was released in May 2008 and the Final Action Plan is due to be finalized later this year. The Draft Strategic Framework responds to the NSW Auditor-General’s “Responding to Homelessness” Report, tabled in Parliament in May 2007. The NSW Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee also recently released a report in March 2009 examining the responses to the 2007 Auditor-General’s report. The Legislative Council’s Social Issues Committee is also considering the issue through its Inquiry into homelessness and low-cost rental accommodation. [1]

The second section of the Briefing Paper provides a brief discussion about the different definitions of homelessness. For example, it considers the cultural definition of homelessness that has been developed by Chamberlain and MacKenzie, which defines homelessness in terms of primary, secondary and tertiary homelessness. According to Chamberlain and MacKenzie’s definition, primary homelessness refers to being roofless and includes “rough sleeping”. Secondary homelessness includes people moving between different forms of shelter, including people staying with friends, relatives, in emergency or transitional accommodation or boarding houses. Tertiary homelessness refers to people who live in boarding houses on a medium to long-term basis. The other well recognized definition of homelessness in Australia is the definition in the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act 1994 (Cth). [2]

The third section of the Briefing Paper considers the number and location of homeless people in Australia and NSW. Data from the last Census in 2006 published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in its “Counting the Homeless Report”, indicated that at the time of the last Census, there were approximately 104,676 people who were counted as homelessness, with approximately 27,374 people counted as homeless in NSW. There were also approximately 16,375 people who were “sleeping rough” in Australia on the night of the Census and approximately 3,715 people “sleeping rough” in NSW. The City of Sydney also recently conducted a street count of people “sleeping rough” on 17 February 2009. It found that there were 340 people “sleeping rough” in the CBD and surrounding suburbs, including Woolloomooloo, Kings Cross, Paddington, Glebe, Surry Hills, Ultimo and Redfern. The highest numbers of “rough sleepers” were located in the suburb of Woolloomooloo, followed by Kings Cross. The City of Sydney “Winter Street Count” in August 2008 counted 354 “rough sleepers”. Homelessness also impacts on people in the outer suburbs as well as rural and regional areas. For example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has highlighted that only 26% of “rough sleepers” live in capital cities. Recent statistics released by the Homeless Persons Information Centre have indicated an increase in the number of calls on their service from people living in suburbs such as Campbelltown and Liverpool. Recent media reports have also commented on the number of homeless people in suburbs such as Hornsby, where a new Homelessness Taskforce has been established to address the problem. [3]

The fourth section of the Briefing Paper provides an overview of some of the characteristics of homeless people. The age of the homeless population is much younger than it was 40 to 50 years ago and a significant proportion of the homeless population is 18 years and under. The problem of youth homelessness has become an increasingly important issue, which was considered in the 2008 National Youth Commission Report. Even though the homeless population appears to have become younger over recent years, older people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness have specific needs for housing and support. Research has also suggested that there will be increasing demand for housing assistance for older people in future years, particularly services that assist older people with independent living. Furthermore, a significant number of homeless people are female. Statistics also indicate that there are a large number of single parent families who are homeless. Commentators have suggested that one of the causes of an increase in the number of women who are homeless may include domestic violence. Furthermore, Indigenous people are over-represented in the homeless population and their experience of homelessness is often different to Non-Indigenous people due to their understanding of what constitutes “home”. [4]

The next section of the Briefing Paper discusses the causes of homelessness. As stated by the Prime Minister: “Homelessness is not just the result of too few houses - its causes are many and varied. Domestic violence, a shortage of affordable housing, unemployment, mental illness, family breakdown and drug and alcohol abuse all contribute to the level of homelessness in Australia”. The Mental Health Council of Australia also released a report in March 2009 that highlighted that mental illness is a significant issue impacting on homeless people. Research has also suggested that out of these people who had reported as being homeless at least once in their lives, more than half had experienced a mental disorder in the previous twelve months. Commentators have highlighted that it is important to understand the process by which people become homeless in order to effectively address the issue. Furthermore, a number of typologies have been developed to understand the process by which people become homeless. For example, Chamberlain and MacKenzie have developed a “pathways” or “careers” approach in order to understand this process. [5]

Homelessness is also not a problem that is confined to NSW. Policies and programs developed overseas have informed the development of those in NSW. Accordingly, the sixth section of the Briefing Paper considers homelessness in comparative perspective, drawing from case studies in the USA, UK and Scotland. For example, an organization called the Common Ground in New York developed a project to assist homeless people who had been homeless for more than nine months move into stable housing with services such as mental health counselling, job training and financial management. The initial “Street-to-Home” project involved creating self contained units near Times Square to house homeless people in stable accommodation as an alternative to temporary or transitional housing. The project was based on the assumption that people need stability and support to address the issues that contribute to their situation of homelessness. Similar initiatives have been developed in South Australia and more recently NSW, through a partnership between Mercy Foundation, Housing NSW, The City of Sydney, KPMG and others. This model of supported housing aims to provide permanent, socially integrated housing to the chronically homeless through stable housing as well as the provision of services. Other developments in countries such as Scotland and the UK indicate a shift in focus towards the prevention of homelessness. [6]

The next section of the Briefing Paper discusses the White Paper (December 2008) and Green Paper (May 2008). This section of the Briefing Paper provides an overview of the three strategic directions for homelessness policy and the ten key principles that will guide the future direction of policy making with respect to homelessness until 2020. This section of the Briefing Paper also discusses the NSW Auditor-General’s report about homelessness, which was tabled in 2007. The Report found that despite the establishment of initiatives such as the Partnership Against Homelessness, it could not determine how the NSW Government was responding to homelessness because there were no statewide performance indicators or targets on homelessness. The Auditor-General noted that while there were a number of local initiatives where government and community agencies work together to deliver services to homeless people, they were not supported by central policies. Accordingly, the Auditor-General recommended that agencies adopt a more strategic, collaborative and comprehensive approach to homelessness. As already mentioned, subsequent to the Auditor-General’s Report, the NSW Government released its Draft Strategic Framework into Homelessness in May 2008. The Final Action Plan, which is the second and final stage of the two-stage process of developing a NSW Strategic Framework into Homelessness is due to be finalized later this year. Furthermore, in March 2009 the NSW Legislative Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee released its “Report on the Examination of the Auditor-General’s Performance Audits Tabled March to August 2007”, which included the “Responding to Homelessness” report. In its report, the Committee noted that many of the Auditor-General’s comments have been incorporated into the NSW Draft Strategic Framework. However, the Committee specifically recommended that the Area Health Services and Local Courts review the extent to which homeless people access their services, develop new ways of delivering services to the homeless, and consider homeless people when planning new services. [7]
The Briefing Paper concludes with some general comments about the impact of the current economic situation on homelessness and the Federal Government’s economic stimulus package with respect to social housing in NSW. It also makes a general observation about the need to understand the complex and interrelated causes of homelessness in order to develop effective strategies to address the issue. For example, the importance of developing programs to address issues such as domestic violence and mental illness, which are closely linked to experiences of homelessness. [8]