Lifetime and intergenerational experiences of homelessness in Australia

Paul Flatau, Elizabeth Conroy, Catherine Spooner, Robyn Edwards, Tony Eardley, Catherine Forbes

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This study explores the prevalence and structure of intergenerational homelessness in Australia; examines lifetime experiences of homelessness; considers the role of key personal and parental background drivers of homelessness; and examines the implications of the research findings for policy and practice. Intergenerational homelessness occurs when homelessness is repeated across generations of the same family. In other words, it occurs when an individual, who experiences homelessness in their own right, has one or more parents who were also homeless at some point in their lives. In this study, homelessness is defined as a state of 'non-permanent accommodation' and includes the following states: → Living on the streets or sleeping in parks, caves, cars and makeshift dwellings. → Staying in crisis or transitional accommodation. → Temporarily living with other households because individuals have no accommodation of their own ('couch surfers'). → Living in boarding houses either on a short-term or medium to long-term basis. The study is restricted to a cohort of adult Australians (defined as those over 18) who, at the time of analysis, were currently homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness and receiving support in one form or another through specialist homelessness services. For this cohort, the study addressed the following four key research questions: 1. What is the prevalence and structure of intergenerational homelessness? 2. What is the pattern of childhood and teenage experiences of homelessness among adult clients of specialist homelessness services? 3. What is the pattern and extent of intergenerational homelessness and of lifetime experiences of homelessness among Indigenous clients of specialist homelessness services as compared with non-Indigenous clients of those services? 4. To what extent do those who are current clients of specialist homelessness support services experience individual-level 'risk' factors in the parental home? Is there an apparent association between specified individual risk factors and intergenerational homelessness? What role do parental forces play in generating future homelessness among offspring? Are those who meet the criteria of intergenerational homelessness more likely also to come from family backgrounds displaying a higher prevalence of individual risk factors of homelessness? The principal source of data on intergenerational and lifetime experiences of homelessness used in this report is a large representative national cross-sectional survey, the Intergenerational Homelessness Survey, the research team administered in 2009-10. The survey was administered to a cohort of adult Australians who, at the time of analysis, were currently homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness and receiving support in one form or another through specialist homelessness services. The Intergenerational Homelessness Survey elicited information on the homeless histories of current clients in homelessness services, their early-life backgrounds, current and lifetime issues faced, and their knowledge of the homelessness experiences and issues faced by their parents. The Intergenerational Homelessness Survey used a cross-sectional retrospective design and was restricted in scope to those who were currently receiving support from specialist homelessness services at the time of the study. The survey provides the most comprehensive record of the lifetime experiences of homelessness and of life in early childhood and teenage years for homeless Australians currently available. The retrospective nature of the Intergenerational Homelessness Survey means that the information collected on intergenerational homelessness and lifetime experiences of homelessness in this study is limited by the accuracy of the memories of respondents, and by their knowledge and awareness of their parents' lives. Furthermore, the scope of the survey means that rates of intergenerational homelessness can only be determined for one segment of the population; namely, those who are currently receiving support from homelessness services. Seventy agencies and 647 respondents from those agencies from across Australia participated in the Intergenerational Homelessness Survey. At the time we conducted the survey, it was one of the largest and most representative studies of homelessness carried out in Australia. The key findings of the study are as follows: 1. The rate of intergenerational homelessness among clients of homelessness services was relatively high among the cohort of those currently receiving support from specialist homelessness services. Around half of all respondents (48.5%) to the Intergenerational Homelessness Survey report that their parents were also homeless at some point in their lives. Given the self-report and retrospective nature of the study and associated imperfect knowledge or recall, it is probable that estimated rates of intergenerational homelessness for the target cohort may be lower than actual rates. 2. The intergenerational homelessness rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents is significantly higher than for non-Indigenous respondents. For Indigenous participants, the intergenerational homelessness rate is 69.0 per cent. This compares with an intergenerational homeless rate of 43.0 per cent among non-Indigenous participants. 3. In spite of a similar overall rate of lifetime-to-date primary homelessness, Indigenous respondents are much more likely than were non-Indigenous respondents to experience primary homelessness in childhood. It is not the form of homelessness experienced but the age of the first spell of homelessness that is the important difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous homeless people. Around half of all respondents experienced their first spell of homelessness prior to the age of 18. Early onset of homelessness is most prevalent in the case of couch surfing and use of crisis accommodation services. Primary homelessness as a lifetime experience is more evident for men than women. However, around half of all respondents had not experienced a spell of primary homelessness in their lifetime. This fact illustrates one of the key broader findings of the study - and that is that there are many different experiences of homelessness in Australia. 4. Indigenous respondents were more likely to have experienced primary homelessness prior to the age of 18, many before the age of 12, than non- Indigenous respondents were. Around a quarter of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents reported a spell of primary homelessness prior to the age of 12 as compared with half that percentage of non-Indigenous respondents. 5. In most cases where homelessness is experienced before the age of 18 it is a not a single episode but one of several episodes of homelessness. In some cases, very many spells of homelessness are experienced. For a majority, however, the cumulative time spent in homelessness is less than a year prior to the age of 18. 6. Many, but by no means all, respondents experienced significant issues in the home environment prior to the age of 18. The most striking single indicator of this was that around half of all respondents reported that they had run away from home at some point prior to the age of 18. 7. Significant inter-parental conflict in the home was also evident for many respondents as they grew up. Over half of respondents (58.8%) reported police intervention due to inter-parental conflict. Around 20 per cent of respondents reported that police came to their home six or more times because of interparental conflict. Childhood exposure to inter-parental conflict can be considered a proximal risk factor for homelessness and a key driver of homelessness among young people. 8. Close to half of all respondents who indicated that they had a father in their life reported that their father had a serious drinking problem. Incarceration rates for fathers were also high. Among Indigenous respondents, these problems were significantly more prominent. Likewise, there was a strong association between the prevalence of intergenerational homelessness and high family risk factors in the parental home. 9. Adult clients of homelessness services are significantly more likely to have been placed in foster care or residential care than those in the general population. The prevalence of such arrangements among Indigenous respondents is much higher than for non-Indigenous respondents - 30 per cent of Indigenous participants reported that they had been placed in foster care at some point before the age of 18. Seventy per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants lived with relatives prior to the age of 18 as compared with 42 per cent of non-Indigenous participants. These findings have important implications for our understanding of homelessness in Australia and of policy and practice settings. First, the findings point to relatively high rates of intergenerational homelessness and very early onset of homelessness for adult homeless people. From a service perspective, our study confirms that intergenerational homelessness is relevant for many adults experiencing and presenting at homeless specialist services. Second, the study's findings show that earlier occurrences of homelessness may be a predicator of subsequent adult homelessness and that the role of individual family risk factors appears critical to the experience of many adult homeless people irrespective of the significant influence of system-level responses and the availability of affordable accommodation. Third, the findings point to the fact that among homeless people, Indigenous homeless people have often experienced longer and more traumatic early life experiences than non-Indigenous respondents.

Original languageEnglish
JournalAHURI Final Report Series
Issue number200
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2013


  • Australia
  • Homelessness
  • Intergenerational

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