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What’s incredible when you look at those numbers is about 30% - it’s hard to tell often - about 30% of those homeless people have a job.
– Rebecca Huntley, social researcher and author, speaking on Q&A, April 23, 2018
Inequality, class and social mobility in Australia were key issues discussed on a recent episode of Q&A.
Social researcher and author Rebecca Huntley noted an uptick in the idea of “the undeserving poor” in Australia – particularly where homeless people are concerned.
Huntley noted the perception held by some that homeless Australians are simply “not working hard enough”.
Challenging that narrative, Huntley said “about 30% of those homeless people have a job”.
Is that right?
Checking the source
In response to The Conversation’s request for sources, Huntley provided data from the Census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness, 2016 report, published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in March 2018.
Huntley also pointed to the article: “The rise of homelessness and hunger”, written by Mike Seccombe and published in The Saturday Paper, and the website of “Everybody’s Home – A National Housing Campaign”.
The definition of homelessness in the Census is probably broader than community perceptions about homelessness – that is, that all homeless people are sleeping rough on the streets.
People who are couch surfing or living in their car or living in overcrowded accommodation may well fit into this definition. They may also be working in the gig economy or getting work here and there (the double whammy of insecure work and insecure housing is quite terrible).
What the Census 2016 data show is that there are people with post compulsory education, with various levels of work and hours worked across all categories of people living in insecure housing arrangements.
Based on the best available data, Rebecca Huntley’s statement that “about 30% of … homeless people have a job” is correct.
According to Census 2016 data, about 30% of people who were recorded as being homeless on Census night (using the Australian Bureau of Statistics definition of homeless) were also recorded as being in the work force.
What does it mean to be ‘homeless’?
When we talk about “homelessness”, many of us would think about people “sleeping rough” on the street. This is arguably the most severe and literal form of homelessness. But the state of being homeless is more complex than that.
Under the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) definition, a person can be 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.
The ABS presents its estimates of homelessness using these groupings:
- People living in improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out
- People in supported accommodation for the homeless
- People staying temporarily with other households
- People living in boarding houses
- People in other temporary lodgings, and
- People living in “severely” crowded dwellings.
On the night of the 2016 Census, more than 116,000 people were counted as being homeless. This includes both children and adults. The estimates of the employment rate include only those age 15 and over.
This may be a conservative count, because some groups of people may be under underenumerated (under counted) in the Census.
For example, the ABS notes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ are “more likely to be both underenumerated and over represented in the homeless population”, and that:
So called rough sleepers and people staying in supported accommodation for the homeless are also at risk of being underenumerated in the Census.
What constitutes ‘a job’?
In the Census data, people are counted as being employed if they are of working age (age 15 and over) and:
- employed and working full-time
- employed and working part-time, and/or
- employed but away from work.
However, not all people age 15 and over who were experiencing homelessness were counted in the Census labour force statistics. For some people, no information was recorded.
Known employment rates for homeless people
If we calculate the known employment rate for homeless people (using the ABS definition of homelessness outlined above), we find that around 30% are employed, as Rebecca Huntley said on Q&A.
But the employment rate among homeless people could be higher.
That’s because we don’t have employment information for all homeless people. In the Census statistics, there are large numbers of people for whom information on employment status is missing, or not stated.
Overall, we don’t have records of the employment status of about 18% of the total homeless population.
Also, many people experiencing homelessness could be in situations where they wouldn’t be expected to work. For example, full-time students or the elderly.
This makes 30% likely to be the lower bound.
If we assume that the employment rate of those with missing information is the same as those with recorded information, the employment rate would increase to 36%. If we also excluded full-time students and the elderly from these statistics, the rate would be even higher.
Employment rate for people ‘sleeping rough’
“Sleeping rough”, or sleeping on the street, is arguably the most severe form of homelessness.
People sleeping rough are the group with the highest proportion of missing information on labour force status. The known employment rate for people sleeping rough is 10%.
If about half of the people with missing information were employed, the rate would go up to 30%. My assumption for this group is that most of those people with missing information are not employed.
So for those sleeping rough, the employment rate is probably closer to 10-15%.
The employment rate for people in supported accommodation is also likely to be around 10-15%. These two groups are those usually considered when a more literal definition of homelessness is used.
But as outlined in this FactCheck, the state of being “homeless” is more complex and wide ranging than that.
‘Journeys Home’ survey
Another useful data set on homelessness and employment is the Melbourne Institute’s Journeys Home survey, of which I was the Deputy Director.
This longitudinal survey, which began in 2011 and concluded in 2014, included 1,682 people in Australia flagged by Centrelink as either “homeless” or “at-risk of homelessness”.
The survey also included a group of income support recipients who were not flagged as homeless, but who had characteristics similar to those who had been homeless.
The overall rate of employment among all respondents was 27%. Of those who were homeless, 19% were employed.
In our study, however, we did not include those in overcrowded accommodation as being homeless. (These people are identified as being homeless in the Census).
This highlights the importance of the definition of “homelessness” used when considering the characteristics of the homeless population.
It’s also important to remember that just because someone isn’t employed doesn’t mean they don’t want to be employed, or aren’t seeking employment. Being homeless is a significant barrier to gaining – and retaining – a job. – Rosanna Scutella
I agree with the verdict of this FactCheck that the overall rate of employment among people experiencing or being at-risk of homelessness is in the vicinity of 30%.
I would add that findings from my research using the Journeys Home data reveal that homelessness is more strongly associated with difficulty in retaining employment than with finding employment. – Neha Swami
The Conversation’s FactCheck unit was the first fact-checking team in Australia and one of the first worldwide to be accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network, an alliance of fact-checkers hosted at the Poynter Institute in the US. Read more here.
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Authors: Rosanna Scutella, Senior Research Fellow, Social and Global Studies Centre, RMIT University