Homelessness and mental health Image

October 10th was World Homelessness Day, a time to raise awareness about the impact of homelessness on Australia and its people, the importance of housing as a solution, and to educate communities on how they can make a difference…

According to the Australian Census (2016), over 116,000 people experience homelessness on any given night. While there is no official definition of homelessness, for the purpose of the census, the Australian Bureau of Statistics defines it as: “When a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives they are considered homeless if their current living arrangement:

  • is in a dwelling that is inadequate;
  • has no tenure, or if their initial tenure is short and not extendable; or
  • does not allow them to have control of, and access to space for social relations.”

On Census night in 2016, of the 116,000 people that were estimated to be homeless in Australia, 58% were male, 21% were aged 25–34 and 20% identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians (ABS 2018). Around 51,000 (44%) were living in severely crowded dwellings. Over 21,000 (18%) were living in supported accommodation for the homeless and 8,200 (7%) were rough sleepers.

What causes homelessness?

There are numerous causes of homelessness. Some of the most common reasons are:

  • Stagnant wages— While the cost-of-living increases, wages do not keep up with inflation.
  • Unemployment— Once a person is unemployed for a time, they can easily slip into homelessness. Research shows that most unhoused people want to work but face obstacles, such as not having a permanent address.
  • Lack of affordable housing— As the cost of housing increases, more people are priced out of buying or renting a property.
  • Domestic violence— Women and children are especially vulnerable to violence-triggered homelessness. To escape domestic violence, people will flee their homes without a plan.
  • Family conflict— Closely related to domestic violence, family conflict can also lead to homelessness. This is especially true for the LGBTQI+ community.
  • Societal failures— Homelessness occurs when society fails to identify and support people at risk of becoming unhoused. Failures in areas like correctional services, healthcare services, and child welfare are very common.
  • Discrimination— Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face many barriers in the housing market, including discrimination.
  • Addiction— Whether it’s a gambling or drug addiction, these can drain both the financial and mental wellbeing of a person, making it harder for them to hold down a job and/or maintain appropriate accommodation.

However, one of the fastest-growing causes of homelessness across the globe is poor mental health. A study cited by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) found that 31% of homeless people experienced a mental health problem. Of these, about half had a mental health problem before they became homeless, and the remainder developed mental health problems following homelessness.

Homelessness and mental health

Homelessness and mental health often go hand in hand. Having a mental health problem (which currently affects up to 20% of the Australian population) can create circumstances which can cause a person to become homeless in the first place. Yet poor housing or homelessness can also increase the chances of developing a mental health problem or exacerbate an existing condition. In turn, this can make it even harder for that person to recover – to improve their mental health, secure stable housing, find and maintain a job, stay physically healthy and maintain relationships.

In 2019-20, 88,338 people with mental health issues sought homelessness assistance across Australia, almost double the number needing assistance in 2011-12. The rate of homeless people with a mental health issue was also 7 times as high for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People than non-Indigenous Australians.

According to recent statistics, this number continues to worsen, with a 6% increase of all Australians with mental health issues seeking out homelessness assistance between June 2020 and June 2021.

According to Homelessness Australia Chair Jenny Smith, the ever-growing numbers highlights the gaps in the safety net, as well as inadequate support for people with mental ill health. Following the Covid-19 lockdowns and with rising inflation, many people are still struggling to find work and afford the basics. Smith notes that if someone is struggling and unable to work it is basically impossible to afford rent on the inadequate JobSeeker payment, and people who need social housing can’t get it.

“Many also can’t access the mental health care they need, as they can’t afford it or face long queues through Medicare or hospitals,” she adds. “More people are becoming homeless because they are falling through the gaping holes in the income security, housing and health care safety nets.”

How to help and raise awareness

There are five things you can do right now to help the homeless in Australia. They are:

1) Donate money or food  
By donating to charities like the Salvos or to St Vincent de Paul, you can help them fund shelters and support for the homeless. While some agencies receive government funding, it never goes far enough. If you can’t donate money, donate canned goods.

2) Volunteer  
Whether it be serving meals or talking to rough sleepers to provide them with company, look online or call your local homelessness charity to learn how you can help.

3) Be an advocate  
Contact your MP (who may be new to office) to increase funding to homelessness services.

4) Donate something big 
For example, if you’ve got a rental or investment property that you’re currently leasing, offer it to Vincentcare. The agency runs a program called head leasing, in which it rents houses at commercial rates using its own donations.

5) Offer food, not spare change  
If you really want to help unhoused people on the streets, give them something to eat. And then refer them to one of the housing agencies working in the city.


For more ways to participate, visit the Homelessness Australia website: https://homelessnessaustralia.org.au/