Every five years, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) counts every person and household in Australia. But if you are homeless, how does it count you?
In scrutiny of the process some service providers form the view that given the hidden nature of homelessness and the complexity and challenges inherent in counting this population group, it is far more likely homelessness in Australia is undercounted. Homelessness estimates have been developed using Census data since 1996. Changes along the way have been made to counting methodology, a revised definition of homelessness – which triggered a recast of homeless estimates in 2001 and 2006 – and a Homeless Enumeration Strategy.
Local Engagement Officers (LEOs)
The ABS has now gone a step further to make sure Tuesday, 10 August 2021 is the most accurate Census yet. Eleven Local Engagement Officers have been employed to cover Western Australia’s metropolitan and regional areas under a Homelessness Inclusion Strategy.
Meet Trish Owen, Allan ‘Big Al’ Connolly and Deborah Ralph who all have lived experience of homelessness. They, as LEO’s, raise awareness of the importance of the count within each of the communities they oversee educating community service providers, the public and the homeless on the approaches undertaken to count the homeless. It is the first time LEO’s have coordinated a count.
Counting the Homeless
There are three approaches to count the different types of homelessness.
The first approach is counting those not in a dwelling. They live in improvised dwellings such as tents or in parks. Commonly referred to as rough sleepers. Under the LEOs comes a team of Community Field Officers (CFOs) trained to talk to rough sleepers and ask Census questions.
The second approach are those in a non-private dwelling. These are people living in supported accommodation, boarding houses, and other temporary accommodation such as domestic violence refuges. It is the LEOs job to liaise with each of these to make sure forms are completed.
The final approach is for people experiencing homelessness who are in a private dwelling. Referred to as a couch surfer they participate as a part of the household they are staying in by answering a Census form with ‘NONE’ when answering the ‘Where does the person usually live?’ question. The ABS and LEOs have developed an education campaign to raise awareness of this response.
Trish, a member of the Shelter WA Lived Experience Project Team, is coordinating the Fremantle, Cockburn and Melville areas. She also manages South Perth. For her counting the “invisible homeless” resonates the most.
“With my lived experience of sleeping at my uncle’s or friends with my one-year-old daughter backwards and forwards I didn’t actually acknowledge that I was homeless,” Trish said. “We are raising awareness to those couch surfing or who are living in overcrowded accommodation. They write ‘NONE’ (on the usual place of residence question) on the night as they are not in stable accommodation. They are a harder cohort to capture, because of the way they fill out the Census Household Form.”
The importance of education is targeted not only at the couch surfer but at the homeowner who can assist on the night. Another area LEOs are educating are those in lodging or boarding houses. These places fall under the category of tertiary homeless. “Some people have been living in lodging premises for a decade so for them they are not seeing themselves as homeless,” Trish said.
“Some people have been living in lodging premises for a decade so for them they are not seeing themselves as homeless.”
When it comes to counting rough sleepers, Trish grew up in the Fremantle area and has been compiling a list of places where she will send her CFOs. With help from the sector who have been “very supportive” on sharing the known locations of where rough sleepers are present the counting is done over the course of a week. “I have plotted out where it is best that the CFOs should go. My house has maps and post-it notes all over it with colour coordination of the different areas I want to cover. As we are the first LEOs to do this we each have a bit of leeway, with accountability, on how we go about our planning.”
The timing of the Census coming a week after Homelessness Week (1 – 7 August) is not lost on Trish. “We will be putting ourselves out there in our bright orange t-shirts making sure we have a presence at each of these events to field questions. There will also be ABS Community Hubs positioned at shopping centres where the public can request Census forms or ask questions,” she said.
Allan ‘Big Al’ Connolly
For Allan Connolly, he says this Census will be “the most accurate to date”.
The Shelter WA Hear of My Experience representative is covering three local government areas, City of Joondalup, Wanneroo and Stirling.
“This Census is really across what homelessness means,” said Allan. “If you are putting up your niece or your nephew or your friends’ children then they do not have a roof over their head, and we need to include them as homeless. There is a lot more consideration in the way the questions have been asked,” he said. Drawing on a personal experience Allan recounted how even his own “family didn’t recognise” he was homeless per se, when he slept on their couch for three months.
“I did not realise how diligent they (the ABS) were in the privacy of this data until I undertook the undertaking as well.”
In terms of finding the rough sleepers Allan has dialled into the outreach services in his areas. “Rough sleepers are probably some of the easiest but some of the challenging to spot, however they must eat,” he said. CFOs will be dispatched to these locations to assist with the count. “They take on a massive undertaking in the mental capacity that is needed to deal with the suffering of some of these people.”
Allan also points to a CFOs ability to conduct enumeration by vision only making the data more robust. This is only done as a last resort. “As long as we have some of the core details of about seven of the eleven questions in the Census Short Form there’s a good chance it will be enumerated. This gives us a clearer indicator of the size of the challenge being faced everywhere.”
All three councils, which Allan acknowledges are some of the most progressive in acknowledging that “homelessness is growing”, have offered their libraries to be central ABS Community Hubs.
Despite it all being seamless in the northern suburbs there have been challenges especially in building rapport with outreach centres “hesitant” to the presence of the ABS. Another challenge has been privacy concerns. Citing a recent incident where Western Australian police accessed data gathered using the SafeWA app Allan points to the hesitancy it could create to “give data”. “It didn’t help. But I did not realise how diligent they (the ABS) were in the privacy of this data until I undertook the undertaking as well.”
Under the Census and Statistics Act 1905, information provided remains strictly confidential. All ABS staff are legally bound including the temporary staff working on the Census.
Despite these challenges and having to oversee the work of three of the largest councils in Western Australia as far as population goes ‘Big Al’ says the data will be interesting, especially when it comes to couch surfing and overcrowding.
Around the Midland area Deborah is known to the homeless population. She was a manager at Dreambuilders Care, an enterprise supporting the homeless and those with food insecurity in the Midland area. With experience on the ground, and her work in designing a toolkit outlining best practice for lived experience engagement as part of the Shelter WA Hear of My Experience team, she has responsibility as an LEO for the City of Swan and Kalamunda.
“I’ve noticed some services, initially, can be reluctant to engage but when you say you have lived experience they are completely relaxed as we understand how hard they work with limited resources,” she said. “They see we have empathy and compassion, and we know what it is like to struggle with homelessness and housing insecurity.”
“There is a huge feeling of responsibility to do this piece, and we passionately want to do it right.”
While sometimes it can be a challenge others welcome a collaboration with open arms. Mobile Midlas have asked an LEO to jump on board literally. With a fully mobile office as part of the work they do providing legal services and tenancy assistance, they will have an extra pair of hands along for the ride collecting census data.
Food services in the area are also helping particularly on Census night. “Organisations are encouraging people to come to food services, there will be barbeques where my team will be there to support anyone filling in a form.”
With so many Census firsts it can be difficult to keep up with it all, but Deborah knows what is most important for her. “My grandfather, coming back from World War Two was traumatised and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said. “I think it is fabulous there is a question in there, to know where former Australian Defence Force veterans are located, an emerging issue, and this will support veterans.
“There is a huge feeling of responsibility to do this piece, and we passionately want to do it right. We are not going to get all the count. The couch surfers and those in overcrowded accommodation are a big challenge.”
The ABS has created a Homelessness Sector Information Sheet to illustrate the various approaches and key messages to counting the different types of homelessness, and how people can support those experiencing homelessness to be counted. Read here. There are also extensive resources available here. There are also extensive resources available here.