Preventing homelessness by understanding the population at-risk in Australia

Homelessness is traumatic.

People who experience it not only struggle to meet their basic needs of food, shelter and safety, but to keep their connection to family, friends and their community. The combined impacts of homelessness can cause significant physical and mental health issues which persist even when people find stable housing. The costs of homelessness to individuals, the community and governments are high.

Homelessness is estimated to be taking a toll on more than 116,000 Australians on any given night, and 11% of our population over 15 years old have experienced homelessness in their lifetime (ABS, 2020).

If we are to substantially reduce or end homelessness – we need to understand how to prevent it.

To date we have had a good understanding on who is imminently about to become homeless – people with a notice to vacate (eviction notice), people exiting institutions (prisons, mental health facilities, hospitals) to no fixed address, and young people exiting state care.

But until recently, we haven’t known enough about Australians who are at-risk.


Defining risk of homelessness

In our study, people were considered at-risk of homelessness if they were living in rental housing and were experiencing at least two of the following: low income; vulnerability to discrimination; low social resources and supports; needing support to access or maintain a living situation (due to significant ill health, disability, mental health issues or problematic use of alcohol and other drugs); and rental stress.

From here additional misfortunes, experiences and losses can then mean people move from being at-risk to experiencing actual homelessness.

To estimate the number, profile and geography of the Australian population at-risk of homelessness we combined data from two sources: the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey (waves 16 and 17), from which national-level estimates and a population profile were derived; and the 2016 Census of Population and Housing, which, among other things, was used to estimate those at-risk at the small area level.


How many are at risk?

At the national level we found that between 8.5% and 11.7% of the total population aged 15 years and over were at-risk of homelessness in Australia. This range equates to between 1.5 and 2 million people. While large, these numbers are not surprising in the context of homelessness in Australia.

Over the 2019-20 financial year, 290,500 Australians sought assistance from a Specialist Homeless Service (SHS) (AIHW, 2020). In the eight years between July 2011 and July 2020, some 1.3 million people received assistance from SHSs (AIHW, 2020).


Who are they?

Compared to the national population, those at-risk are more likely to be: women, Indigenous, and living in a lone person or lone parent household. They are more likely to identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, and report fair or poor health. They are more likely to be low income, unemployed or outside the labour force, and in receipt of income support payments.

Those at-risk have lower levels of educational attainment and are more likely to report difficulty paying bills and rent on time. They are also more likely to experience rental stress and material deprivation such as skipping meals and being unable to heat their home.


Where are they?

The highest rates of homelessness risk are typically found in remote areas and small pockets of capital cities. However, the greatest numbers of people at-risk are located in capital cities on the eastern coast of Australia. These high numbers extend well beyond inner city areas and into the suburbs.

In several states (QLD, NSW, WA, SA), high rates of homelessness risk are spread across greater capital cities and rest of state areas, whereas in Victoria, risk is concentrated in inner Melbourne. In the NT risk is highly concentrated in remote areas.

In Melbourne, we estimated that around 350,000 Victorian’s were at-risk of homelessness.

Pockets where lots of people at are at risk include inner Melbourne, such as Carlton, Flemington and Footscray. And further out there is Broadmeadows Dandenong, Frankston, and a number of suburbs in the outer West. There are also pockets in regional Victoria too – in Ballarat, Mildura, and Corio-Norlane in the Geelong area.


Preventing homelessness in Australia

Findings from our study can be used to guide the allocation of resources across the country – in particular, affordable rental housing, homeless early intervention initiatives and health and disability services. If collated in an ongoing way, small area estimates of homelessness risk can also be used to monitor the effectiveness of prevention initiatives.

There is a need for greater provision of rental housing that is specifically targeted to those on low incomes and/or those at-risk of homelessness. Scaling up the provision of social and affordable housing options (with income tied requirements) provides one option for achieving this. Our estimates of homelessness risk at the small area level can help governments decide where this stock will be most effective in reducing risk of homelessness.

The profile of those at-risk also suggests opportunities for enhancing existing early intervention initiatives. This includes private rental access programs that provide ongoing rent subsidies as well as the payment of rent arrears and advocacy with landlords.


Targeting support

Indigenous Australians are over represented in the population at-risk, especially in remote areas, and are also overrepresented in the homelessness population. Targeted support for this group, developed in consultation with the communities themselves, is warranted.

Those at-risk are more likely to report living with a disability and fair or poor health. There is a clear role for state and territory governments here in ensuring access to health and disability supports across areas, especially for those on low incomes.

Lower levels of educational attainment and the fact that many of those at-risk have children living with them suggests that state/territory governments’ investments in supporting educational engagement for disadvantaged students could pay off in-terms of reducing future risk of homelessness.


Key action needed from the Commonwealth

In terms of Commonwealth levers for primary prevention of homelessness risk, key priority areas include:

  • increasing the levels of income support payments and commonwealth rent assistance (CRA)
  • increasing the labour market earnings of the lowest paid
  • increasing funding for construction of social housing
  • playing a coordinating role in primary prevention policy through a national housing and homelessness policy.

The capacity to say how many people are at at-risk, who they are, and where they are is critical for designing successful interventions to address, reduce, and prevent homelessness. While preliminary, we hope that this research will form part of a growing body of scholarship on homelessness risk that will elevate the status of homelessness prevention, help secure greater commitment and funding for primary prevention initiatives, and most importantly reduce homelessness in Australia.

Read the full report.



Batterham, D., Nygaard, C., Reynolds, M. and de Vries, J. (2021) Estimating the population at-risk of homelessness in small areas, AHURI Final Report No. 370, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited, Melbourne,, doi: 10.18408/ahuri5123501.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2020) General Social Survey, Summary Results, Australia, 2019, Table 12, ABS, Canberra,, accessed 27 April 2021.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020) Specialist Homelessness Services 2019-2020, Cat. No: HOU 322, AIHW, Canberra, contents/clients-services-and-outcomes, accessed 12 June 2020.