Journeys home: Ending the cycle of homelessness

As homelessness in Australia continues to rise, long term intervention strategies are required to combat the consistent churning in and out of homelessness that many front line organisations regard as one of their biggest challenges.

The Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research has released the largest and most comprehensive longitudinal survey of homelessness in Australia. The Journeys Home Survey, commissioned by the Department of Social Services, tracks movements of homeless Australians, and those deemed at high risk of becoming homeless, over a two and a half year period.

Most homelessness studies only include samples that are homeless, but Journeys Home also includes people identified as at risk through Centrelink. Detailed respondent information was collected at six monthly intervals. This unique data enables us to better understand the risk and protective factors associated with homelessness over time—vital in breaking the cycle of chronic homelessness.

The research has identified significant levels of cycling in and out of homelessness. Three in five of the Journeys Home participants experienced homelessness during the survey period. Although homeless spells are typically not very long—four month median duration according to research by Cobb-Clark et al—multiple spells are relatively common. Of those experiencing homelessness, almost 40% experienced more than one homeless spell. In fact, more than 90% of Journeys Home respondents had experienced homelessness prior to the commencement of the survey.

The prevalence of chronic homelessness cycles raises important policy concerns and serious implications for service providers. Understanding the factors that lead to homelessness and the supports required to exit will help inform comprehensive policy and effective service intervention.

Understanding movements in and out of homelessness

The most recent Journeys Home research report shows that those who experienced recent trauma, such as victims of physical or sexual violence, and those who experienced relationship breakdown or the death of a spouse or child, were more likely to enter homelessness in the next six months and less likely to exit if they were already homeless.

Substance use is also an important risk factor. Drug users, in particular regular cannabis users, and/or risky drinkers were more likely to enter homelessness and less likely to exit once they became homeless.

The relationship between criminality and homelessness is complicated. Those who have been in recent contact with the justice system—for example. held overnight by the police, on parole or recently in court—have quite low rates of exit. This is particularly striking compared with the recently incarcerated, who have demonstrated high levels of exit. The association between criminality and cycling in and out of homelessness could be related to moving between states of homelessness and incarceration over time.

Family support is an important factor in preventing homelessness, as well as in assisting individuals out of homelessness. There are also signs that support services are successful in assisting targeted groups out of homelessness. For example, women, in particular those with resident children, are much more likely to exit homelessness than men. People who were diagnosed with pressing health conditions also tend to exit homelessness faster than others.

In general, young people cycle in and out of homelessness most frequently but older respondents, once homeless, tend to remain homeless for longer periods.

The level of disadvantage, such as poor health, mental illness, low human capital and so on are distinguished by lifetime duration homelessness and require the highest level and longevity of support to break the cycle.

The complete findings from waves one to six of the Journeys Home Research Report No.6 is available for free download: