No room to breathe; why severe overcrowding is a form of homelessness

Over 51,000 Australians now suffer from severe overcrowding – 10,000 more people than just five years ago.  According to the recently released 2016 Census data, it’s mainly families that are affected.

Severe overcrowding is much more serious than two siblings sharing a bedroom. The ABS defines severe overcrowding as a home in which at least four extra bedrooms would be needed to adequately accommodate the residents.

It isn’t well known that severe overcrowding is a type of homelessness, nor is it well known that it’s mainly families who are suffering from it. Perhaps least well understood are the debilitating day-to-day realities of people who live in these households. We’re talking about a family of four sleeping in one bedroom together; multiple families renting a small house together in order to afford rent; large families with six or seven children living in small apartments; houses in which people are sleeping in the dining room and living areas. 

In households that are severely overcrowded, the privacy, health, mental health and safety of occupants are all at risk, as is the ability for them to meaningfully engage in; work, job-hunting, education, relaxation and social activities or any number of normal or necessary activities. In the worst cases, overcrowding can exacerbate domestic violence, depression, and the spreading of diseases.

People who fall into the category make up 44% of the homeless population – making overcrowding the largest, but perhaps the least well-understood form of homelessness.



The number of families living in severe overcrowding has risen by 10,000 in just 5 years #homelessness Click To Tweet


What are the effects of overcrowding?

A lack of space and privacy

Living and dining areas, and sometimes garages and storage areas, are re-purposed as sleeping spaces for multiple people, sometimes including extended family. Children living in severely overcrowded homes often have no space to play, study and develop. With multiple people of different ages bedding down in limited spaces, children are also forced to be witness to the stressors of the adults’ world.

Newborn babies and adults sleeping in the same room as teenagers who are completing high school can lead to challenges on a number of levels. Living in a severely overcrowded dwelling means a young person has no quiet space to read or study. Sharing a room with five or six people, including adults, leads to disrupted sleep, and in turn poor concentration at school and non-attendance.


 “It is so appalling that the children have to dress and undress in the toilet, due to lack of privacy” – an overcrowding study participant


When five or six brothers and sisters, or step-siblings, with significant age gaps, are forced to share a room, there may be an increased risk of sexual abuse and problematic sexual behaviour.



Impaired social development

As with all forms of homelessness, severe overcrowding makes it almost impossible to conduct normal social relations. It is difficult for a child to have friends over when there is no space to play, a reluctance often compounded by feelings of shame about their living situation.  Adults are also deprived of the simple pleasure of hosting friends or family.

Impaired health and wellbeing

Chronic lack of sleep caused by dysfunctional living arrangements leads to fatigue and stress affecting work, job-seeking or study.  For everyone, it results in tension and fractious relationships. 

A UK study from Shelter found that 77% of people living with overcrowding said that it harmed their family relationships.  86% said that depression, anxiety or stress in the home was caused by the overcrowding. 



What’s the definition of ‘severely overcrowded’?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines overcrowding as ‘living in a dwelling which requires 4 or more extra bedrooms to accommodate the people who usually live there.’ 

The category of overcrowding does not include people living in rooming houses or other forms of temporary homelessness accommodation – these are separate categories unto themselves.

Homelessness is not 'rooflessness'. A home means security, stability, privacy, safety and the ability to control your space Click To Tweet

Overcrowding is a continuum. Short periods of overcrowding or slight overcrowding may not have any serious impacts upon people who live through it. But, overcrowding that is severe and/or continues for a long period can have serious consequences.


Who is affected by overcrowding?

There can be a misconception that overcrowding is mainly experienced by students living away from home, however, the data tells a very different story. 

Of the 51,000 people living in severe overcrowding at the time of the 2016 Census, only 13% were enrolled in tertiary education, either part-time or full-time.

While students are definitely one of the demographics bearing the brunt of the housing affordability crisis, the numbers tell us that bulk of overcrowding is happening to families, Indigenous Australians and recent migrants.  


Overcrowding in families

Even within same-family households, restricted access to space and utilities and, lack of privacy can be seriously detrimental to people’s ability to participate in work, study and socialising. It can also give rise to conflict.  This is why overcrowding that isn’t ‘severe’ by definition is also precarious, and, can give rise to other forms of homelessness.  

Joal, who experienced homelessness for many years, was forced out of home at the age of 16 because of an overcrowded living situation. 

When Joal’s mother lost her home due to mental health issues, she, Joal and Joal’s three teenage siblings found themselves living together in a small unit. 

‘We were all teenagers so we would fight a lot.  Mum slept on the couch because she felt bad so she gave us the rooms,’ says Joal.

The family conflicts sometimes became physical and eventually, the stifling living arrangements forced Joal out. 

‘It just got too chaotic and I left.  I had to go, I had to leave.’

After leaving the unit, Joal began to couch-surf, which triggered the beginning of years of homelessness.



Indigenous Australians and overcrowding

As well as being over-represented in the general homelessness population at large, Indigenous Australians are disproportionately affected by severe overcrowding.  32% of people living in such dwellings are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. 

The issue of overcrowding in Aboriginal communities has persisted for decades. In 2007, A UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing reported that the overcrowding he witnessed in remote Indigenous communities were some of the worst he’d seen in the world.

In her article for Parity magazine, Frances Every explored the prevalent issue of older Indigenous issue women who’s tenancies are threatened by overcrowding and are ‘forced to choose between telling families to leave or being evicted’

Cultural obligations to take care of extended family, combined with entrenched disadvantage and chronic housing shortages remote region, contribute to a cycle of overcrowding, homelessness and vulnerability for many older Indigenous women.  


The cycle of overcrowding, homelessness and vulnerability. Frances Every, Parity magazine, 2018


Homelessness Australia says there is currently a shortage of more than 20,000 properties across Australia ‘that are affordable and appropriate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’.


Recent migrants and overcrowding

In five years, there has been a doubling of the number of people living in overcrowded dwellings who were born overseas.

At the last Census, of people who had migrated to Australia in 2011 or earlier, just under 6000 were counted as living in severely overcrowded dwellings. But in 2016, 9,500 people who had arrived in 2011 or earlier were recorded – a rise of 61%.

Of those who had arrived after 2011, 13,088 people were recorded as living in overcrowded dwellings.

There are several reasons why migrants are more likely to experience overcrowding.

Some migrant groups are more likely to have larger families and find it difficult to find private rentals with sufficient space for more than 3-4 children and public housing of this size is also scarce.

Recent migrants are more likely to earn lower incomes and also have limited access to some Government support payments

Migrant families with limited incomes may choose to move with other families so that they can share the costs of private rental.


Students and overcrowding

While international students aren’t responsible for the rise in overcrowding, what is true is that both local and international students are one of the demographics bearing the brunt of the shortage of affordable rentals in Australia.

International students, who usually pay very high study fees, find it very difficult to find affordable accommodation and it is well documented that many are winding up in housing that is both overcrowded and exploitative.  

Local students too, are increasingly finding themselves living in precarious arrangements, forgoing basic necessities and experiencing homeless as a result of the housing affordability crisis.


While largely hidden from the public eye, overcrowding has the same negative impacts upon those who live through it as does other forms of homelessness.  It affects people’s health, mental health and their ability to participate in normal and necessary parts of life, like work and study. 

The dramatic rise in overcrowding in Australia is another symptom of our broken housing system and the failure of state and federal governments to address the housing affordability crisis.

It’s yet another wake-up call that the time to reset our housing system and enact a national plan to address homelessness is long overdue.