Skip to content
Skip to navigation

Housing & homelessness

About this topic

Everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living—this includes acceptable housing and the continuous improvement of living conditions (Hohmann 2020). Having a home provides safety, stability and security. Being homeless or living in unstable or crowded housing can be detrimental to a person’s wellbeing and development. It can also exacerbate mental health conditions (Brackertz et al. 2018).

Connection to Country and body

Connection to Country and connection to body are 2 of the 7 domains of social and emotional wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Indigenous Australians).

Social and emotional wellbeing is a holistic way of looking at relationships between individuals, family, kin and community in the context of land, culture, spirituality and ancestry. Cultural groups and individuals each have their own interpretation of social and emotional wellbeing (Gee et al. 2014).

Disconnection from Country can affect the connection to body, mind and emotions. Physical and mental health outcomes can be improved from being on and caring for Country (Burgess et al. 2009; PM&C 2017).

Having adequate housing and having a place to call home supports connection to body (PM&C 2017).

Housing

Housing circumstances—such as tenure, affordability, the amount of living space and location—are key determinants of physical and mental health. The relationship between housing and health is complex. It can be difficult to determine which is the cause and which is the symptom (AIHW & NIAA 2020).

A safe home with working facilities is a key factor supporting the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians. Living in a house with inadequate sanitation, food preparation and water facilities can lead to health problems, including poor mental health (Osborne et al. 2013). Overcrowding can result in limited access to facilities, lack of privacy and impaired sleep quality and quantity. This also affects mental health (Buergelt et al. 2017).

Homelessness

What is homelessness?

There is no single definition of homelessness. The Australian Bureau of Statistics considers a person to be experiencing homelessness when their current living arrangement is any of the following:

  • It is in a dwelling that is inadequate.
  • It has no tenure or the tenure is short and not extendable.
  • It does not allow them to have control of, and access to, space for social relations (ABS 2012).

What causes homelessness?

Homelessness can be the result or cause of many social, economic and health‑related factors. Limited access to affordable and available housing can contribute to homelessness (Johnson et al. 2015; Wood et al. 2015). Additionally, mental health conditions, family and domestic violence, trauma and substance misuse can make a person more at risk of becoming homeless (Fitzpatrick et al. 2013).

In addition to limited access to housing, homelessness can also be defined as losing one’s sense of control over, or legitimacy in, the place where one lives.

For Indigenous Australians, homelessness can be spiritual and is a result of being disconnected from one’s homeland, separated from family or kinship networks, or not being familiar with one’s cultural heritage (Brackertz et al. 2018; Memmott et al. 2004).

Under the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement, governments across Australia work together and fund a range of services to improve housing affordability and homelessness outcomes for low–moderate income households (CFFR 2019). Improving housing outcomes for Indigenous Australians is a specific goal under this national agreement.

Key statistics

Export

Some information is from survey data. Estimates are calculated using a sample selected from a population rather than all members of that population. See the downloadable excel workbook for notes related to this data and for alternative text.

Specialist homelessness agencies provide services to assist those experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of homelessness. Services range from general support and assistance to immediate crisis accommodation. From 2011–12 to 2019–20, the proportion of Indigenous clients of specialist homelessness services who reported a current mental health issue increased from 14% (6,219 clients) to 24% (17,185 clients) (AIHW 2020).

In 2019–20, mental health-related services or assistance (including psychological, psychiatric and mental health services) were some of the most common services required. However, these needs are increasingly unmet. From 2011–12 to 2019–20, the proportion of Indigenous clients of specialist homelessness services who required, but were not referred to, or provided with, mental health-related services or assistance increased from 21% to 35% (AIHW 2019; AIHW 2020).

In 2014–15, based on the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey responses, the proportion of Indigenous Australians who had ever experienced homelessness was:

  • 45% of those with a mental health condition (59,000 people)
  • 24% of those with other long-term health conditions (38,000 people)
  • 34% of those with mental health or long-term health conditions (97,200 people)
  • 20% of those with no mental health or long-term health conditions (31,600 people) (ABS 2016).

The proportion of Indigenous Australians who had experienced not having a permanent place to live was:

  • 55% of those with a mental health condition (71,600 people)
  • 39% of those with other long-term health conditions (62,200 people)
  • 47% of those with mental health or long-term health conditions (133,900 people)
  • 32% of those with no mental health or long-term health conditions (49,200 people) (ABS 2016).

Homelands and Country

Physical and mental health outcomes can be improved by being on and caring for Country (Burgess et al. 2009). In 2018–19:

  • most Indigenous Australians aged 18 and over recognised their homelands or traditional Country as an area of land with ancestral and cultural links (74% or an estimated 357,800)
  • more than a quarter (27% or 130,500) of Indigenous adults reported they lived on their homelands or traditional Country
  • almost half (45% or 218,000) lived elsewhere but were allowed to visit
  • few (0.4% or 1,900) were unable to visit their homelands or traditional Country (AIHW & NIAA 2020).

Overcrowding

Housing is defined as overcrowded if one or more additional bedrooms would be required to adequately house its inhabitants, given the number, age, sex and relationships of household members (AIHW 2014).

In 2018–19, almost one-fifth (18% or 145,336 people) of Indigenous Australians were living in overcrowded housing compared to 5% (1,102,899 people) of non-Indigenous Australians. One-fifth (20% or 69,454) of Indigenous households did not meet an acceptable standard of living—this is defined as households with 4 working facilities (for washing people, washing clothes/bedding, storing/preparing food, and sewerage) and not more than 2 major structural problems (AIHW & NIAA 2020).

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey 2014–15 and National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey 2018–19 used the following definitions:

Acceptable standard of living refers to households with 4 separate working facilities for:

  • washing people
  • washing clothes and bedding
  • storing and preparing food
  • sewerage

Households must not have more than 2 major structural problems to meet acceptable standards of living (ABS 2019).

Homelessness refers to people who had previously been without ‘a permanent place to live’ if it were for the following reasons:

  • family or relationship breakdowns
  • tight housing or rental market
  • violence, abuse or neglect
  • alcohol or drug use
  • financial problems
  • mental illness
  • job loss
  • gambling
  • eviction
  • natural disaster or other damage to house
  • health issues (ABS 2016).

Not having a permanent place to live refers to whether a person has ever been without a 'permanent place to live' for reasons other than 1 of the following:

  • saving money
  • work related reasons
  • building or renovating their home
  • travelling or on holidays
  • house sitting
  • having just moved back to the area.

This information was compiled from the following data sources: Specialist Homelessness Services Collection (SHSC), the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) 2014–15 and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (NATSIHS) 2018–19. More information about these data sources and their data quality is available in Data sources.

For more information about the housing and homelessness of Indigenous Australians, see the AIHW reports: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: a focus report on housing and homelessness or Specialist Homelessness Services annual report 2019–20.

For more information about the use of specialist homelessness services for clients with a mental health issue, see the AIHW report: Mental health services in Australia 2020.

For more information about access to traditional land, see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework.

Care has been taken to ensure that the results of survey data presented above are as accurate as possible. However, the following factors should be considered when interpreting these estimates:

  • Data are collected from a self-report survey, and responses may differ from information available from other sources.
  • Accuracy of responses may be affected by the length of time between events experienced and participation in the survey.
  • Some people may have provided responses they felt were expected, rather than those that accurately reflect their own situation (ABS 2019).

See ABS NATSIHS 2019 Methodology for more information.

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2012. Information paper—a statistical definition of homelessness, ABS cat. no. 4922.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2016. National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social survey, 2014–15. ABS cat. no. 4714.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019. National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health survey, 2018–19. ABS cat. no. 4715.0. Canberra: ABS.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2014. Housing circumstances of Indigenous households: tenure and overcrowding. Cat. no. IHW 132. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019. Specialist Homelessness Services annual report 2018–19. Cat. no. HOU 318. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 04 September 2020,

AIHW 2020. Specialist homelessness services annual report. Cat. no. HOU 322. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 11 February 2021.

AIHW & NIAA (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and National Indigenous Australians Agency) 2020. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework 2020 web report. Viewed 09 June 2021, https://indigenoushpf.gov.au/measures

Brackertz N, Wilkinson A & Davison J 2018. Housing, homelessness and mental health: towards systems change. AHURI Research Paper. Melbourne: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited.

Buergelt PT, Maypilama EL, McPhee J, Dhurrkay G, Nirrpuranydji S, Mänydjurrpuy S et al. 2017. Housing and overcrowding in remote Indigenous communities: impacts and solutions from a holistic perspective. Energy Procedia 121:270–277. doi:10.1016/j.egypro.2017.08.027.

Burgess C, Johnston F, Berry H, McDonnell J, Yibarbuk D et al. 2009. Healthy country, healthy people: The relationship between Indigenous health status and caring for country. Medical Journal of Australia 190(10):567–572.

CFFR (Council on Federal Financial Relations) 2019. National Housing and Homelessness Agreement. Viewed 09 June 2021, https://www.federalfinancialrelations.gov.au/content/housing_homelessness_agreement.aspx

Fitzpatrick S, Bramley G & Johnsen S 2013. Pathways into multiple exclusion homelessness in seven UK cities. Urban Studies 50:1.

Gee G, Dudgeon P, Schultz C, Hart A & Kelly K 2014. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social and emotional wellbeing. In: Dudgeon P, Milroy H & Walker R (eds). Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing principles and practice. 2nd edn. Canberra: Australian Government, pp. 55-68.

Hohmann J 2020. Toward a right to housing for Australia: Reframing affordability debates through article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Australian Journal of Human Rights. 
doi:10.1080/1323238X.2020.1813378

Johnson G, Scutella R, Tseng Y & Wood G 2015. Entries and exits from homelessness: a dynamic analysis of the relationship between structural conditions and individual characteristics. Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) final report no. 248. Melbourne: AHURI.

Memmott P, Long S, Chambers C & Spring F 2004. Re-thinking Indigenous homelessness. AHURI Research and Policy Bulletin 42:1–6.

Osborne K, Baum F & Brown L 2013. What works? A review of actions addressing the social and economic determinants of Indigenous health. Cat. no. IHW 113. Canberra: AIHW.

PM&C (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet) 2017. National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing. Canberra: Australian Government.

Wood G, Batterham D, Cigdem M & Mallet S 2015. The structural drivers of homelessness in Australia 2001–11. Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) final report no. 238. Melbourne: AHURI.

Download data

Data tables: Housing & homelessness
XLSX, 85 KB

Related publications

  • Beyond evidence-deficit narratives in Indigenous suicide prevention
    Author: Pat Dudgeon, Abigail Bray, Ian Ring and Rob McPhee
    Published: 14/07/2021
  • All related publications