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Internationally, poverty is recognised as a common denominator in the experience of the homeless and while not all these people are in poverty, many are experiencing circumstances that, if left unchecked, have the potential to drive them into poverty. (1) In Australia people experiencing homelessness or those at risk of becoming homeless are assisted through Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS). Trends across 10 years of the SHS collection provide an insight into some social and economic indicators of poverty.

By the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

This article was originally published in Parity magazine. Learn more about Parity magazine including how to access full editions.

People can experience multiple episodes of insecure housing

Over 1.6 million Australians have been assisted by SHS agencies between July 2011 and June 2022. Of the 273,000 people assisted in 2021–22, around three in five (63 per cent) had previously received assistance. For some people, a period of insecure housing can be short; for others, ongoing or chronic homelessness can be a feature of their lives. The number of people experiencing persistent homelessness (more than seven out of 24-months homeless while a client of an SHS agency) increased from 29,500 clients in 2018–19 to 35,200 in 2021–22.

Income support is very high

In 2021–22, 77 per cent of people assisted (aged 15 and over) received an income support payment. The most common benefit received was Jobseeker (about two in five of those on income support), followed by parenting payment (about one in five). The proportion of SHS clients with no income has remained steady over time between seven per cent and 10 per cent.

Employment is low

The proportion of SHS clients employed (aged 15 to 64) when seeking assistance was low but has increased over time (12 per cent in 2011–12 to 16 per cent in 2021–22). Over time, a greater proportion of SHS clients were unemployed at the start of support (39 per cent up to 53 per cent).

Are the needs of people seeking homelessness services being met?

Clients receiving support from SHS agencies can receive a wide range of services depending on their individual circumstances. Unmet need is an SHS client’s need for a particular service that the agency could not provide. In 2021–22, 40 per cent (109,000) of SHS clients identified a need for accommodation services. This service was provided to 59 per cent of clients, 9.5 per cent were referred to another agency and 32 per cent were not provided or referred.

What characteristics are associated with SHS support over many years?

Data over long periods of time can be used to understand risk factors associated with repeat or ongoing SHS support. Among clients aged 15 years and over receiving support in 2018–19, factors associated with SHS support in the following two years include:

  • transitioning from custody (39 per cent more likely)
  • financial difficulties (19 per cent more likely)
  • not employed during 2018–19 (39 per cent more likely)
Why are people seeking homelessness support services?

Issues with housing such as housing affordability stress and housing crisis are growing as the main reasons why people seek SHS assistance. Financial difficulties (around 40 per cent) was the most common reason for seeking assistance throughout the period from 2011–12 to 2021–22, although was less commonly nominated as the main reason for seeking assistance (six to 10 per cent).

Young people presenting alone are experiencing high levels of homelessness

In 2021–22, around 201,000 clients finished support during the year. Of these, around 44 per cent were experiencing homelessness at the start of support. By the end of support, fewer clients (around 34 per cent) were experiencing homelessness, but this includes around 9,500 clients who were at risk of homelessness at the start of support that ended support homeless.

Around 21 per cent of younger clients (aged 15 to 24) had no income when they first started support in 2021–22. Clients aged 15 to 24 presenting alone to SHS agencies in 2021-22 were the group most likely to be experiencing homelessness at the start and end of support.

Pathways out of homelessness

The experiences of repeat homelessness and long‑term ongoing SHS support described on the previous page highlight the challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness in securing long-term housing. Broadly, housing in Australia consists of homes owned by the people living in them (with or without a mortgage), private rental accommodation and social housing. There are four main government‑funded social housing programs in Australia: public housing, state owned and managed Indigenous housing (SOMIH), community housing and Indigenous community housing. Housing insecurity is faced by hundreds of thousands of people in Australia every year. Tens of thousands of Australians have no place to call home. When rental accommodation costs increase rapidly, and rental vacancies are scarce, many people face housing uncertainty, especially people on low incomes.(2) Pathways out of homelessness become more difficult when rents are high and repeat homelessness becomes a feature of the daily lives of tens of thousands of Australians.(3)

The relative amount of social housing is declining

Social housing has not kept pace with growth in the overall number of households in Australia. The number of households increased from around 8.08 million households in 2008 to 10.1 million in 2022. Since 2008, the proportion of households living in social housing steadily declined, from a peak of 4.8 per cent in 2011 to 4.1 per cent in 2022.

More people are waiting for social housing

Among Australia’s social housing programs, the number of households on the social housing waiting list are increasing, particularly greatest needs households. For public housing, around 68,000 households were considered to be in greatest need on the waiting list at the end of June 2022, an increase from 43,200 households at the end of June 2014.

Housing affordability has worsened over recent times, especially for Australia’s low- to moderate-income households.(4) High housing costs can have an impact on the household budget —for example, making less money available for food and health care. Rising housing costs, such as increases to rent, can result in people becoming at risk of or experiencing homelessness. Equally, high housing costs can be a barrier to securing a home for people experiencing homelessness.(5)

SHS clients are increasingly relying on the private housing market

The decline in the proportion of social housing stock relative to the population and growing social housing waiting lists mean that the housing pathway for people experiencing homelessness is more likely to be into a home in the private housing market than into social housing.

From the SHS data, from 2013–14 onwards, more clients ended support housed in private housing than in social housing. The number of clients in public or community housing at the end of support has remained relatively stable, despite fluctuations in the total number of homeless clients.

These observations may reflect the limited number of social housing dwellings available for clients experiencing homelessness. This is important since ending support in public housing has been shown to be a protective factor against the need for future SHS support.

Rental stress among CRA recipients is common

Commonwealth Rent Assistance (CRA) is the most common form of housing assistance received by Australian households to assist with the cost of housing. In June 2022, 1.3 million income units (people or related groups of people) received CRA. More than two-fifths (44 per cent or around 582,000 income units) of CRA recipients were in rental stress after receiving CRA; around one in six (16 per cent) were paying more than 50 per cent of their income on rent after receiving CRA.


(1) UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) 2009, ‘Fact Sheet No. 21, The Human Right to Adequate Housing’ OHCHR, accessed 24 October 2023

(2) Liu E, Valentine K, Batterham D, Stone W, Martin C, Parkinson, S and Hynes D 2023, Poverty and Australian housing: findings from an AHURI Investigative Panel, AHURI Final Report No. 410, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited, Melbourne, http://www. ahuri.edu.au/research/final-reports/410, doi: 10.18408/ahuri7130501.

(3) Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2023, Australia’s welfare 2023: data insights, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 24 October 2023. doi:10.25816/43wp-h749

(4) Pawson H, Milligan V and Yates J 2019, Housing policy in Australia: a case for system reform, Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.

(5) Baker E, Mason K and Bentley R 2015, ‘Measuring housing affordability: a longitudinal approach’, Urban Policy and Research, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 275–290, do i:10/1080/08111146.2015.1034853.

Further reading

Housing assistance in Australia

Specialist homelessness services annual report.

Specialist homelessness services client pathways: analysis insights

Specialist Homelessness Services: monthly data

Specialist Homelessness Services Collection data cubes

Housing Data Dashboard

National Social Housing Survey

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