Anyone can become homeless. It can happen because a person has lost their job and is struggling financially or because a relationship has ended. A person may become homeless because they are leaving a violent or abusive relationship. They may have just left prison or long-term care or have physical or mental health issues. They may find themselves unable to afford rising rents or mortgage payments or they may have a drug or alcohol problem. Some groups of people are more vulnerable to homelessness, such as young people leaving the care and protection system and Aboriginal people.
Homeless people are men and women, adults and children, from all cultural backgrounds and from all parts of the state. What all people who are homeless have in common is that they do not have access to safe, secure and affordable housing.
Homelessness also means a lack of connectedness with community. Often, people who are homeless do not have the opportunity to join in community life and activities and they can experience profound isolation and disengagement. Homelessness is also characterised by a lack of security, privacy and personal safety. Homelessness has an impact on people’s sense of belonging and value, and on their physical and mental health. It affects their ability to study, to find and keep a job, to provide a stable environment for their children, or to take advantage of the opportunities, rights and entitlements that other people in our community enjoy.
Defining homelessness can be challenging – people and organisations have diverse ideas about what constitutes homelessness and, over time, different definitions have been proposed to try to capture the range of circumstances that might be considered ‘homelessness’. The most common definition is the one used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and developed by Chamberlain and MacKenzie (2001). This definition identifies three types of homelessness.
Primary homelessness applies when a person lives on the street, sleeps in parks, squats in derelict buildings, or uses cars or railway carriages for temporary shelter.
Secondary homelessness is used to describe people who move frequently from one form of temporary shelter to another. Secondary homelessness applies to people using emergency accommodation, youth refuges or women’s refuges, people residing temporarily with relatives or with friends (because they have no accommodation of their own), and people using boarding houses on an occasional or intermittent basis (up to 12 weeks).
Tertiary homelessness is used to describe people who live in premises where they don’t have the security of a lease guaranteeing them accommodation, nor access to basic private facilities (such as a private bathroom, kitchen or living space). It can include people living in boarding houses on a medium to long-term basis (more than 13 weeks) or in caravan parks.
Whilst this definition provides a useful understanding of homelessness, research tells us that many people experience homelessness over a long period and move between different forms of accommodation – sometimes in crisis accommodations or refuges, sometimes staying with friends and sometimes in rented accommodation. It also tells us that some people may only experience homelessness once in their lives and may require only short-term or minimal assistance to resolve this situation. Others may move in and out of homelessness on a more regular basis and may become entrenched in a cycle of homelessness if they are not provided the support they need to get out and stay out of this cycle. It is for this reason that responding to homelessness requires a broad approach, focusing on preventing people who are at risk from ever becoming homeless, on resolving homelessness where it does occur as quickly as possible, and on supporting people who have been homeless to prevent them becoming homeless again.
For further information you can also view the Federal Government's white paper on homelessness 'The Road Home'.