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Indigenous homelessness and colonisation – connecting the dots


On January 26, Indigenous communities rightfully call on Australia to reckon with and acknowledge the violence of Australia’s colonisation. It’s vital that we simultaneously acknowledge the ongoing reverberations of colonisation and invasion on First Nations people across the continent, including Australia’s shamefully high rates of Indigenous homelessness.

What do the numbers tell us?

On Census night in 2016, more than 23,000 (1 in 28) Indigenous people were counted as homeless. In 2019-20, more than a quarter (27 per cent) of all clients seeking specialist homelessness services were Indigenous.

In Victoria, the Aboriginal population is less than one per cent of the total population. And yet, nearly one in ten, 9.8 per cent, of people who seek specialist homelessness services in Victoria are Aboriginal.

The latest data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) on specialist homelessness services (SHS) show that the rate of Aboriginal clients in Victoria has grown twice as fast as that of non-Indigenous Victorians. Over the past five years, there has been a 34 per cent increase in the number of Indigenous clients of SHS, compared to a 15 per cent increase in non-Indigenous Victorians. From 2018-19 to 2019-20 alone, Indigenous clients increased at double the rate of non-Indigenous homelessness clients, increasing by six per cent and three per cent, respectively.

Disadvantage on multiple fronts

There are structural and systems barriers that contribute to the rise of Indigenous homelessness, many of which interact and intersect. Some of these barriers include (but are not limited to) overrepresentation in the criminal justice system, family violence, and inadequate and overcrowded housing options.

Criminal justice system

Indigenous people in Australia are the most incarcerated population in the world. Indigenous kids are 17 times more likely to go to jail when compared to non-Indigenous kids. Interacting with the criminal justice system at such a young age has impacts that extend well into adulthood.

The systemic racism in the criminal justice system that sees Aboriginal children and young people jailed at a much higher rate than other children, sealing the fate of many to a lifetime of institutions and disadvantage. Disruption to education, loss of connection to country, culture, family, and the systemic violence experienced at the hands of the justice system, are all contributing factors that lead to a lifetime of disadvantage including, but certainly not limited to, homelessness. Raising the age of criminal responsibility from ten to 14 years, would help reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous kids in custody and avoid early institutionalisation.

Family violence and women and children

Indigenous women and children are a large component of those seeking homelessness services. Family violence is the leading cause of homelessness for Indigenous women, who are six times more likely than non-Indigenous women to experience domestic violence, and 35 times more likely to be hospitalised because of violent assault.

In 2019-20, nearly 37 per cent of all Indigenous clients of SHS were under 18 years old, with more than a quarter (29.9 per cent) under 15. Over 24,000 Indigenous clients of SHS, or 34 per cent, were single parents presenting to homelessness services with children.

In the context of the legacy of colonisation and the Stolen Generations, many Aboriginal women are less likely to seek mainstream services. For many women fleeing violent homes with their children, there is a fear that child protection could intervene at any minute. The Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) that provide homelessness support, have far more demand for accommodation and support, than they have the capacity to provide.

Overcrowded and insufficient housing

Less Indigenous households own their own home compared to the broader population, and 57 per cent of Indigenous households are renting, compared to 30 per cent of the rest of the population. Continuing discrimination in employment, on top of historical policies that specifically excluded Indigenous people from free participation in the country’s economy, has resulted in a huge wealth deficit that continues to marginalise Indigenous households. As such Indigenous households are more likely to have low incomes, which makes it difficult to afford private rental – 22 per cent of Indigenous renters are in some form of social housing. For those who are left to find a place that is affordable in the private rental market, many face discrimination and racism.

The lack of social and affordable housing stock across Australia continues to be a problem that exacerbates homelessness. Overcrowded housing is the biggest form of homelessness for Indigenous households across the country. On Census night in 2016, 70 per cent of Indigenous households experiencing homelessness were in severely overcrowded housing, compared to 42 per cent of non-Indigenous households.

2020 highlighted how overcrowded housing can be devastating in a pandemic. Indigenous communities worked together and successfully kept the community safe and healthy during the pandemic, however others in overcrowded dwellings were not as lucky. A significant shortage of affordable rental properties in the private rental market means that for those families not living in social housing it’s common for households to double, or even triple up, in order to be able to afford private rental.

Towards better housing outcomes

In the context of the unique experiences of dispossession and colonisation, solutions to improve housing outcomes for Indigenous people across the country must be culturally specific. The solutions must be developed, and managed, by those communities. Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) must be well funded to deliver both housing and support for those without a home.

In Victoria, the Victorian Aboriginal Housing and Homelessness Framework centres self-determination throughout the strategy. It states that “the development of a highly capable, culturally fit Aboriginal housing and homelessness sector is essential to changing the trajectory away from housing stress and homelessness towards collective and individual ownership of land and housing”. This call is further reinforced by NACCHO’s Submission to the Inquiry into Homelessness (2020) which states that, “Future initiatives for increasing housing and reducing homelessness must be developed through formal partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative peak bodies”.

In order to genuinely close the gap between First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians, solutions must be developed by those communities, and funding must be provided to better resource ACCOs to administer housing and support.

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