How are the homeless counted during the Census?

This post is an edited extract of an article first published in the May 2017 edition of Parity – Revisiting Homelessness Data. Back copies of Parity can be ordered by contacting the Parity Editor, Noel Murray ( or subscribe today to ensure you never miss an edition.

The Collection of Homelessness Statistics in the Census by Phillip Lau, Australian Bureau of Statistics

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) runs a Census of Population and Housing every five years, with Census night, 9 August 2016, being the most recent.

Every Census, the ABS uses a range of targeted approaches to enable the best possible coverage of all groups in the Australian population. The Homeless Enumeration Strategy targeted people who were experiencing homelessness.

As homelessness is not a characteristic that is directly collected, estimates of homelessness are derived by using analytical techniques based on both the characteristics observed in the Census and assumptions about the way people may respond to the Census questions. These estimates enable the scale of homelessness in Australia to be measured.

Data on the location and characteristics of homeless people can be used to report trends and to target services to prevent or ameliorate the circumstances.

In the 2011 Census there were over 100,000 homeless people in Australia, 25 per cent of whom were Aboriginal and or Torres Strait Islander peoples and many of whom were youth (aged 12 to 24 years).

The most common form of homelessness was persons staying in severely crowded dwellings. Homelessness estimates from the 2016 Census are expected in 2018.

How Does ABS Define Homelessness?

According to the ABS’ statistical definition, 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.

ABS data collectors are specially trained to engage appropriately Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders This population may interpret ‘homelessness’ differently to ‘rooflessness’ due to their cultural and spiritual understanding that ‘home’ may mean staying on spiritual land, even though they may be without a roof, or are staying with family or community.

How Does the ABS Produce Homelessness Estimates from the Census?

The Homeless Enumeration Strategy complements the mainstream Census and other special strategies to ensure that everyone is enumerated on Census night. For the 2016 Census, people who were rough sleeping, couch surfing or staying in supported accommodation for the homeless were the focus of the strategy.

Leading up to and during the enumeration period, the ABS worked closely with service and accommodation providers. Many people who had, or were currently experiencing homelessness, were recruited to assist with the homeless count.

For rough sleepers, the collectors targeted known hot-spots using a shorter personal form called a ‘Special Short Form’, while the household form was used largely for those in northern Australia.

To correctly identify supported accommodation for the homeless, an address list strategy was used.

Couch surfers and other people experiencing homelessness who are enumerated on mainstream forms were encouraged to report ‘None’ in the Census question that asks about a person’s usual place of residence. People turned away from supported accommodation with vouchers or brokerage to stay at other temporary lodgings (such as a motel, hotel, or bed and breakfast), were encouraged to report ‘None — Crisis’.

Final estimates of the homeless population are calculated from the Census using a methodology which translates these responses into estimates where people, on balance, were most likely to have been homeless on Census night.

For example, usual place of residence, employment status, income and tenure type are considered when calculating the number of homeless persons in ‘improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out’. The purpose is to exclude remote construction and road workers, grey nomads, other travellers, home-owner builders and hobby farmers.

Who are Considered Homeless?

As for the previous Census, the results from the 2016 Census will be released in the Census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness, 2016 (ABS cat. no. 2049.0). The homeless groups are:

• persons who are in improvised dwellings, tents or sleepers out

• persons in supported accommodation for the homeless (for example, crisis accommodation, hostels, women’s refuges)

• persons staying temporarily with other households (for example, homeless couch surfers

• persons staying in boarding houses

• persons in other temporary lodging • persons living in ‘severely’ crowded dwellings.

The publication also includes other categories for people who are staying in marginal housing and are therefore ‘at risk’ of homelessness.

• persons living in other crowded

• persons in other improvised dwellings

• persons who are marginally housed in caravan parks.

The ABS is continuing to undertake research and development to improve the estimation of homelessness. There are limitations currently in how some key groups are counted when estimating those likely to be homeless.

These groups include homeless youth, homeless Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and people fleeing domestic and/or family violence. The ABS has a series of homelessness factsheets that describe these groups in greater detail.

Who Uses the Homelessness Estimates?

The Census data is primarily used as the baseline measure in the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness (NPAH), National Affordable Housing Agreement (NAHA), and the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing (NPARIH).

It is also used to determine the distribution of funding for homeless services across States and Territories. Other uses include policy and service delivery purposes at State, Territory and local government level.

Key users of the data include the Department of Social Services, the Productivity Commission, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, and State/Territory housing authorities, as well as researchers (for example, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI)), service providers, and advocacy organisations (for example, Homelessness Australia, Council to Homeless Persons).