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National survey shows that community perceptions don’t reflect the diverse reality of homelessness in Australia

21 May 2018 Media releases

Are community perceptions a true indicator of the experience of homelessness in Australia in 2018?

A national survey of 1002 people conducted by McCrindle Research for Wesley Mission reveals that the vast majority of Australians believe that people experiencing homelessness do so only on the streets.

However the recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (2011-16) figures show that only six per cent of the total homeless population are rough sleepers. The majority are living in over-crowded dwellings, couch surfing or dossing down with family members or friends in a garage or caravan.

Nine out of ten (92 per cent) of those surveyed believe a person experiencing homelessness was someone living on the streets or someone living in a car (76 per cent).

Only 20 per cent believed that sleeping on the floor at friend’s home was a form of homelessness, families living in a shed or garage (15 per cent), or people staying in a shed medium to long term (9 per cent), staying in hotels medium to long term (3 per cent) or a boarding house (3 per cent).

“The survey indicates that there are some pervasive misconceptions about homelessness in NSW,” the Wesley Report states.

“The 2016 Census data reveals that homelessness is more prevalent with more than 116,000 people now homeless in Australia, but there is clearly a lack of public awareness as to what homelessness really looks like and that of the hidden homeless.”

Overwhelmingly people believe that the major causes of homelessness are:

  • Drug and alcohol addiction (49 per cent)
  • Unemployment (44 per cent)
  • Mental Health issues (43 per cent)

However housing and rental affordability (29 per cent) and household debt (16 per cent), rank lower.

“Where there does seem to be a correlation between policy and perception is when it comes to solutions for homelessness,” the Report states.

“NSW residents were most likely to indicate that providing more permanent, public or social housing would be a highly effective way to help people overcome homelessness. However, the survey also revealed that providing financial support/counselling is considered to be the least effective solution, which suggests a lack of awareness of the complexities of homelessness.”

Wesley Mission CEO the Rev Dr Keith Garner said was essential for Australia to have a housing first strategy.

“However the answer is more than just a bed,” Dr Garner said. “To address homelessness in the long-term we need to change our perceptions of both who is experiencing homelessness and the causes.

“The Wesley Report indicates that there’s a well-entrenched stereotype which perpetuates the idea that the only people truly experiencing homelessness are those who are living on the streets.

“However, rough sleepers only make up about six per cent of the homeless population or about 8,200 people of the 116,000 national homeless population.

“Stereotypes can define and calibrate how we respond as a community rather than address the underlying long-term causes of homelessness.”

The latest ABS figures shows that the overall recent increase was driven by a surge in the number of people living in severely crowded dwellings. The number of people in this category grew by almost 10,000 to 51,000 nationally, and in NSW it increased by 74 per cent.

For each person who finds themselves homeless there are many more who are impacted–extended family, friends, health and allied health workers, emergency service workers, community and social workers. The economic cost of this roundabout is enormous.

“More social and affordable housing are key solutions. In some countries homelessness has been overcome and not just ‘managed away’ because the government and community have seen the efficacy of a housing first priority,” Dr Garner said. “It costs governments and taxpayers less in the long-run to immediately provide people with secure long term accommodation than to continue the ad hoc and piecemeal approach which currently characterises much of the funding process.

“We are now dealing with a nationwide problem that requires not only an economic but an integrated social response across all arms and tiers of government. A practical and symbolic step would be for the Commonwealth Government to reinstitute a stand-alone Department of Housing and Homelessness with a dedicated Minister.

“The media also has a responsibility. People living on the streets are accessible and high profile, especially around our inner-cities where most mainstream media are located. The inner-city is also a place where crisis homeless services are concentrated.

“However while this easy accessibility helps journalists meet deadline and provides them with a dramatic ‘on the street’ story, it belies the reality of the total experience of homelessness in Australia in 2018.

“There is no doubt that Australians want to see an end to homelessness but we must get our fundamental considerations right if we want our compassion and sense of justice to be effective in the long-term.”

  • Improved media reporting of people experiencing homelessness: too often newsrooms use video footage or photographic images of people sleeping rough to depict homelessness. Rough sleepers only comprise six per cent of Australia’s homeless population and do not give a true indication of the complex experiences of homelessness. Media stereotypes can therefore calibrate heartfelt public responses to the issue that subsequently define what is and what is not a worthy cause requiring public support.
  • The development of practical media guidelines for covering the issue of homelessness and people experiencing homelessness, such as the use of imagery, language, discourse, and terminology relating to concepts, people and resources. These guidelines could be formed in conjunction with the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.
  • A more nuanced approach by the media to the social and economic causes of homelessness: by perpetuating rough sleeping as the face of homelessness this stereotype inevitably distances the public from the real and underlying issues that need to be addressed.
  • solutions that take into account the prevalence of domestic violence and family breakdown which accounts for a high rate of homelessness
  • flexible and sensitive housing facilities to meet the needs of all families and individuals
  • homeless services staff to support clients throughout and post the establishment of stable accommodation
  • assistance to include a long-term recovery plan with quick access to counselling and support
  • implementation of a ‘tell us once’ policy and information sharing between government and community organisations to minimise trauma and produce better co-ordinated and holistic outcomes. It also empowers community service staff to make the necessary links to help individuals and families recover from their crises.