Counting the homeless on Census night

homelessOn 9 August, Australians will take part in the 2016 Census. The largest statistical collection in the country will provide a snapshot of how the Australian population has changed over the past five years.

The Census comes a week after Homelessness Week, which adopted the theme ‘homelessness counts’. Homelessness agencies are sending a message that every person, whether they have a home, live in crisis accommodation or sleep rough on the streets, deserves to be counted.

Jax Roan is coordinator of the Grampians Homelessness Network. This is a network of all funded homelessness agencies in the region, of which UnitingCare Ballarat is the auspice agency.

Ms Roan said the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has worked for a number of years to introduce systems that enable an accurate representation of people experiencing homelessness.

“The only other method to count people who are experiencing homelessness is through the data systems of those services who work with homeless clients. Unfortunately that will only ever count those people we are working with, not everyone who experiences homelessness,” Ms Roan said.

Historically, people who ‘couch surf’ tend to be underrepresented in the Census as many do not consider themselves homeless. Participation in the Census is therefore essential in capturing the different dimensions of homelessness.

“The Census count of the homeless population can be used by government and services to analyse where support is needed and what those support should look like,” Ms Roan said.

“As part of facilitating accurate reporting, the ABS engages with services to assist in counting people who experience homelessness. This is done by assisting our clients to accurately fill in the Census forms. Homelessness services will also assist people who are rough sleeping to access and complete the form.

“Across the country, services will go to where homeless people gather and ask whether they have completed a Census form. If not, we will assist people to do so, if they are willing.

“We know we can’t reach everyone but we try and reach as many people as we can, so that they don’t remain forgotten and left behind.”

According to the 2011 Census, people who sleep rough in the streets or in improvised dwellings make up only 6 per cent of Australia’s homeless population. The majority live in severely crowded dwellings (39 per cent of the homeless population) or stay in supported accommodation (20 per cent).

More than 105,000 Australians were counted as homeless in the 2011 Census, an increase of 17 per cent from the 2006 Census. Many agencies are expecting another increase in this year’s Census. The City of Melbourne’s Street Count this year revealed a 74 per cent increase in rough sleepers in the Melbourne CBD.

UnitingCare Australia Chairman Peter Bicknell said UnitingCare agencies throughout the country have experienced an increased demand for their services.

“We are not optimistic that the figures will have fallen in this last Census period, but we are confident that if the Australian government commits to action now, we can see a real reduction in the number of Australians without safe and affordable accommodation come 2021,” Peter Bicknell said.

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