Breaking Down Homelessness Myths

By Rick Morton

Research is giving a voice to Australians living on the streets, in shelters, couch-surfing and in other forms of unstable housing. And, it’s busting some serious myths.

Studying Australia’s homeless is a bit like sending a research satellite into space. Misinformed assumptions and limited data interfere with the signal and the resulting interventions only address part of the problem.

So much about Australia’s homeless population is invisible — their lives, where they sleep, and even basic data about the animating forces behind their movements into and out of housing.

For three years, the Journeys Home project, funded by the Department of Social Services and administered by the University of Melbourne’s Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, surveyed almost 1700 Australians who were either homeless or at risk of being so.

Homeless man
The Journeys Home data is unique in that it provides information of those who are homeless but also those at risk of homelessness over time. Image: Saeed Khan, Getty Images

Journeys Home sheds some light on the complexities of homelessness by tracking the same people over time to deliver a unique data source, one of the richest in the world. And, according to the Institute’s Deputy Director, Professor David Ribar, it still has a “tremendous” amount of information to give up.

The survey has transformed the nation’s understanding of homeless people, illuminating the differences between how men and women and the young and old experience housing insecurity, elevating “health shocks” as the primary driver of homelessness above long-term poor health, exploring links between drug and alcohol dependence and housing, and showing how violence triggers changes in housing tenure.

We have learned that people’s experiences with homelessness are of a much more complex and dynamic nature than we had imagined and this has huge implications for policymakers Professor David Ribar, Melbourne Institute

Journeys Home paints, at first, a picture that many might think they know.

Homelessness is more common among men, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and single people. Of the at risk group, those without children are more likely to drop out of secure housing, and young people are more likely to cycle in and out of this state; they are less likely to become homeless in the first place and, when they do, more likely to leave.

The recent Homelessness and Housing Insecurity Workshop, hosted by the Melbourne Institute, and the Homelessness Policy Forum, hosted by RMIT in partnership with the University of Melbourne and the Council to Homeless Persons, brought together policymakers, service providers and researchers from across the globe to discuss the data and explore the complex interplay of factors affecting homelessness, providing nuance in an otherwise alien environment.

Health shocks a tipping point

University of Melbourne senior research fellow Dr Yi-Ping Tseng has been instrumental in the study from the start. Her work on health “shocks” has identified a crucial focal point for social policy.

Poor health, after controlling for financial and other circumstances, does not increase the likelihood of becoming homeless in the short run. But, Dr Tseng found sudden health shocks such as developing mental or physical illness or recent hospitalisation can push people into homelessness.

“Health shock has a more immediate short-term and significant impact because when people experience sudden health change it can tip them over into homeless,” Dr Tseng says.

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Dr Yi-Ping Tseng analyses the impact of health shocks on homelessness. Image: UA Creative

“People in poor health, over time work out how to maintain housing, possibly with more assistance and other social support.

“However, if they suddenly experience a big change in their health, and with no immediate (public) assistance, they find themselves not knowing how to respond.”

The people in Journeys Home are a disadvantaged group, and whether homeless or in tenuous housing, they share common features: they do not have the social or economic resources to handle the turbulence of even small shocks.

“Shocks that a normal household might be able to respond to, these people, who are very vulnerable, have limited resources and cannot do that,” Dr Tseng says.

Her findings do not eliminate poor health as a cause. But its effects are not significant and, whatever impact it does have, it happens over time.

There is a catch, however.

If the insulation of both public housing and the Disability Support Pension (DSP) are removed from the equation, poor health becomes a significant predictor of homelessness in the cohort.

The conclusions are clear and have lessons for public policy.

Those who suffer health shocks need short, immediate interventions at the moment of vulnerability to prevent their falling into homelessness. Those with long-term health problems need long-term government assistance, like the DSP.

Failure to provide either of those supports can lead to increased tax expenditure elsewhere even if savings are made, for example, in the welfare portfolio.

“Interventions need to be more responsive. Collaboration with the health service sector is vital to quickly identify the people who need immediate additional support,” Dr Tseng says.

“Sometimes they just need a responsive and short-term intervention. Support services that entail lengthy application processes may miss the critical timing to keep them housed."

Carmel was already living on the breadline when she developed a mysterious infection that required a battery of tests. At the same time she had to give up her casual shifts as a cleaner.  The two-fold financial and health shocks forced her to live with a relative, who also had little money.

“The line is so thin when all you can do is survive, the line between having a home and being destitute,” she says. “I think this research is telling us something really important about how a little help at the right time can change worlds. It goes a long way.”

The links between homelessness and mental health are clear, but when Dr Tseng looked at the data from Journeys Home came across a finding that, at first, surprised her.

“When we look at whether people had a diagnosed mental illness in Journeys Home, we always see they are less likely to enter homelessness,” she says.

It didn’t make sense. What about the myriad links in the literature?

When she started digging into the results, however, a distinction became apparent. People with diagnosed mental health problems were more likely to qualify for the support pension and other health services. They were more protected. Others who showed high levels of psychological distress on the Kessler-6 measure, but who did not have a formal diagnosis, were the ones most likely to end up homeless.

In short, mental illness had an impact on housing security, but only where the usual support systems failed or were not in play.

Violence and the path to homelessness

Professor Ribar’s work on violence and the homeless has similarly shifted the ground, expanding on a rough understanding to show how violence affects men and women differently.

His research revealed that while both are affected by violence during homelessness and when at risk, the way they experience this is very different.

“The level of violence that men experience is much higher than the level that women experience,” he says.

“Women in Journeys Home were much more likely to suffer from intimate partner violence, while men were much more likely to suffer violence from strangers and from other people known to them who are not intimate partners. But the rates of experiencing violence were higher among the men than the women. And violence was more strongly associated with homelessness for men than for women.

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Image: Saeed Kahn, Getty Images

“If women were suffering housing problems and suffered violence then they were more likely to get back into secure housing.”

We now know two things based on these findings. Domestic violence housing programs for women appear to be working and, as Professor Ribar says, policy has largely ignored the effect of violence on male homelessness.

“The strange thing for men is that you almost never hear of violence as a source of men’s homelessness,” he says.

“We read through government policy documents and you would occasionally see things about homelessness putting men and women at risk of violence, but there was nothing about violence being a cause of men’s homelessness.”

Brenda and her partner, David, have both experienced the gendered role of violence and its connection to homelessness. David first ran away from home to escape an abusive father while Brenda has fled other partners who hit her, often ending up on the street or sleeping on friends’ couches while trying to find new accommodation.

“You run from it and you always find more, no matter where you end up,” David says.

Brenda has been able to find some support but it often takes time, especially given the urgency of her past attempts to escape a violent partner. “The waiting, being scared. That’s what I remember,” she says.

Drug and alcohol abuse just part of the story

Adding nuance to traditional assumptions, Dr Julie Moschion’s look at substance abuse found no significant causal links between homelessness and the use of drugs and alcohol, although where homelessness and drug use did overlap it tended to be for other, unobserved reasons, save for the risky consumption of alcohol.

People who use substances and who are also homeless, therefore, demonstrate other characteristics that have put them in this position. The two are not linked. Only very heavy drinking is a predictor of homelessness, according to Dr Moschion’s research. Those who drank more than 21 standard drinks a week were more likely to be homeless.

Paul, 45, sleeps rough in the Melbourne’s inner-northern suburb Collingwood. He has been homeless on and off for 10 years as he battles heavy drinking, which began after a relationship breakdown.

“I’m not out here because I drink, it’s bigger than that and to be honest it just became easier to be here than try and put things back together again,” he says.

“A lot of us use cannabis and some other stuff but I don’t know anyone who found themselves out of a house because of it. There is always something else going on, that’s what people can’t see.”

Where to from here?

Speaking at the Melbourne policy forum, Council to Homeless Persons chief executive Jenny Smith said the data coming out of Journeys Home is very exciting and vital to effecting change .

“I think we have always tended to look at these issues in chunks and silos and not look at how these join together and how fundamental good housing is to each of these problem silos like mental health and drugs and alcohol,” she says.

The forum provided insights from the United States. Dr Stephen Metraux, of the University of the Sciences, outlined how America is moving toward data integration across the human services sector.

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Yi-Ping Tseng works closely with Rosanna Scutella and Guy Johnson.

“With that they have been able to show just how much money we waste,” Ms Smith says. “Instead of giving people housing we have them go on this merry-go-round of prisons and psych wards and emergency departments.”

But Dr Metraux, who has done extensive research on homelessness and housing, is clear: we should not overstate the savings that might be achieved from such an approach.

“It is clear though, at worst, this approach is not any more expensive than our current way of doing things,” Ms Smith said.

Professor Ribar gives a glimpse of what is still to come. The data has many more stories to tell.

At each survey wave, for instance, researchers asked people where they were living in the previous year. A caravan? What date did they move in? Sleeping on the street? When?

This accommodation calendar offers clear insight into the patterns of moving into and out of certain housing and, when combined with other information such as welfare receipt, can tell the most detailed story about what drives people into certain living situations.

“There is a tremendous amount left for us to look at in the data,” Professor Ribar says.

The message from Journeys Home is loud and clear: we must listen to the people living with housing insecurity. The voices of the people surveyed are breaking down assumptions and enabling us to deliver more targeted and effective policies and interventions to help end the cycle of homelessness. The journey isn’t over yet.

The people featured here were interviewed independently for this article and are not part of the Journey’s Home sample. Participant details and personal data collected as part of Journey’s Home are confidential.

  • Yi Ping Headshot
    Yi-Ping Tseng, is a Senior Fellow in labour economics and social policy at the Melbourne Institute. Her research is centred around program evaluation, housing and homelessness, human capital investment, and policies to assist disadvantaged population.
  • David Ribar
    David Ribar, is Professorial Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Melbourne Institute, and Director of the Economic and Social Disadvantage Program. David’s research considers homelessness, family structure, assistance programs, children’s well-being and food insecurity.
  • Moschion
    Julie Moschion, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Melbourne Institute. Julie was part of the team which designed the Journeys Home Survey and her research investigates disadvantage in education, housing, health and labour economics.