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Data is key to understanding drivers of homelessness

By Glenn King - 1 September 2022

Data is key to understanding drivers of homelessness

Governments devote enormous amounts of time, effort and money helping Australians live the dream of buying their own home. There is another group of forgotten Australians who have far more modest ambitions – all they want is a roof over their heads.

Amid the noise and heat of recent political debate, the critical social issue of homelessness has taken a backseat. A cynic might suggest that’s because the homeless don’t have political influence. Frankly, the many Australians experiencing homelessness, or at risk of homelessness, deserve better.

Homelessness has been and remains a major issue in Australia. Homelessness Australia estimates over 115,000 Australians are experiencing homelessness and almost 300,000 people will seek the support of homelessness services this year as they escape violence and the shortage of social and affordable housing. Those figures have remained stubbornly high over the past five years. But with rents increasing by 9.7 per cent in the past 12 months, and house prices continuing to spiral higher, the problem is likely to get worse.

Certain demographics are also more vulnerable than others. Of the 278,300 people who sought homeless services in 2020-21, 60 per cent were women, 42 per cent were experiencing family and domestic violence, 32 per cent had current mental health issues, 26 per cent were indigenous Australians and 24 per cent were aged between 12-24 years.

Numerous factors can trigger homelessness – including sudden job loss, illness or injury – and it can happen to anyone. By definition, it is not only those sleeping rough (7 per cent) but those who couch surf, move between accommodation, or are forced to sleep in cars.

Homelessness has challenged federal and state governments for generations. Too often policy-making is not coordinated between the Commonwealth and the states, leaving each tier of government to tackle the issues independently and, in many cases, ineffectually. Much of the responsibility rests with the states, who are on the frontline of service delivery in areas like mental health and justice, but there are opportunities for more coordinated whole-of-government policies.

We know that addressing social issues such as domestic violence, family breakdown, mental health and youth unemployment – frequently the causes of homelessness – can help.

Equally, we know that reducing homelessness can have significant social upside in addressing those root causes of disadvantage. Having a roof over your head is not only a basic right but has enormous flow-on benefits. That is why PEXA is a major supporter of the Homes for Homes social enterprise, which seeks to help end homelessness in Australia by asking property owners to donate 0.1% of the sale price of their property, which is then pooled and disbursed to community housing providers. We also support those who strive to build awareness of the issue through other mediums, such as the team, including writer, director and producer Catherine Hill, behind a recent Australian indie feature film Some Happy Day.

There are no easy answers to homelessness, particularly in indigenous communities. These are wicked problems that need to be untangled thoughtfully, not simply by throwing more money at the market. We cannot keep trying the same solutions and coming up with same poor results.

There are measures the Commonwealth could consider that would not simply pump housing market demand. For example, it could create a template for long-term residential leases to improve tenant rights and make renting a more attractive alternative to home ownership – something we see in other countries, including across Europe.

We believe that one of the reasons governments have struggled to design effective policy is the lack of accurate data. High-level unsophisticated data produces high-level unsophisticated policy. A recent actuarial study commissioned by the NSW Department of Communities and Justice – Pathways to Homelessness – found that people who use homelessness services cost governments $186,000 on average, nearly four times more than the general NSW population. It shows that homelessness prevention not only helps those in need, but also reduces the cost to the government as well.

But policymakers need an even greater level of granularity of data, showing trends and impacts at a demographic level, not at a state or national level. We need research based on people, not property. The buying and selling behaviour of demographic segments – the young, families, the vulnerable, women, Indigenous Australians, immigrants and so on – will help determine the root causes of housing disadvantage and help governments to design more refined policies to tackle homelessness.

Clearly more timely and accurate data would help future governments better understand the problems and drivers, enabling them to formulate better policy responses and measure their effectiveness.

PEXA Group Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, Glenn King.

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