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Homelessness Halved: It’s the Methodology, Stupid.

October 13, 2011

What is the most likely cause of a sudden spike in some social pathology? If, for example, the diagnosis of child mental illness rises 35-fold between 1987 and 2007?

The most likely explanation is a new methodology used to measure the problem.

According to Gary Johns in today’s Australian, this has been the case with homelessness. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has been inflating the calculation of the number of homeless Australians. It has done this by its methodology. It has included in the number of homeless those who are potentially homeless, and defines those as people “staying with friends and family…living in boarding houses and…in supported accommodation.” Apparently, the social work fraternity specialising in this area of government policy refers to such people as fitting a “cultural” definition of homelessness.

When I was Premier, I had some encounter with employees of the State Government who thought it their job to raid boarding houses and close them, forcing residents onto public housing waiting lists. These zealots were passionate advocates of more public housing. They believed privately owned boarding houses were illegitimate. All housing for low income people should come from the state.

This psychology, it seems, had seeped into the calculation of homelessness.

Now, the ABS is adapting the methodology used in 2001 and 2006 census estimates. It has announced there are only half the number of homeless in Australia as previously believed.

There. If you see a sudden spike in some social pathology, always check the methodology.

Under the Wran government, the disability lobby started arguing that one in 10 children in school were children with a disability. But then Education Minister Rod Cavalier made enquiries. There was no statistical basis for this estimate whatsoever. No study, no overseas consensus. Nothing. He peeled back the figure and it had no foundation.

Policymakers should always suspect the dramatic statistic and ask for its underpinning.

Always interrogate the methodology.

9 Comments
  1. Eamon Waterford permalink
    October 13, 2011 11:18 am

    Bob, in this case, the methodology at fault is more likely the ABS methodology than a shifting definition of homelessness.

    In fact, while the ABS has revised its figures down, they maintain that the definition is still vaild.

    Gary Johns is wrong to suggest that the ‘homelessness lobby’ has somehow caused an inflated number – extremely talented academics defined ‘cultural homelessness’ based on decades of work. For example, a 17 year old mother living in an unsafe squat without running water with her 2 children would be defined as secondary homelessness – outside of Gary’s strict definition of homelessness as rough sleeping.

    In fact, young people rarely sleep rough, but that isn’t to say they don’t experience homelessness. Hope this helps with the issue.

  2. Patrick permalink
    October 13, 2011 1:49 pm

    Lobby groups in general are not interested in good methodology good governments have to.

  3. October 13, 2011 8:01 pm

    Bob – have a read of this report on the homeless:

    http://www.aihw.gov.au/publications/hou/hou-204-10755/hou-204-10755.pdf

    Here are the stats that breakdown the homeless categories (from last year)

    Boarding houses – 7626 persons, 28% of total
    SAAP* accommodation – 5110 persons, 19%
    Friends and relatives – 10,923 persons, 40%
    Sleeping rough – 3715 persons, 13%

    Total of 27,374 in NSW, or 104,676 across Australia.

    *Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP)

    The report notes:

    “it is important to recognise that most people do not sleep rough on a permanent basis. …. only two per cent… was consistently without shelter”

    87% of the “homeless” actually have a roof over their head. It’s just that a group of bureaucrats (or members of the homeless-industrial complex) have decided to define some categories of people that sleep in a warm, weatherproof building with hot and cold water etc as “homeless”.

    “Always interrogate the methodology.” – Absolutely. Spot on.

  4. Grace Rowans permalink
    October 14, 2011 12:09 pm

    Bob have you read the response that the peak youth homelessness body of NSW just posted? Seems like they disagree with your article’s assumption…and I must say they make a pretty good case. http://bit.ly/oo6xZw

  5. Eamon Waterford permalink
    October 14, 2011 1:03 pm

    Hi Boy on a bike – your methodology is flawed. The numbers you are quoting are from the 2006 census – a point in time count. The number of people that experience homelessness over a year is much higher – indeed AIHW estimates it at a minimum of 170,000 (look to the numbers of people seeking support through the SAAP program).

    While it may be true that only 2% of the homeless population are long-term rough sleeping, this confuses the issue. Many may move to a refuge one night, to the streets the next, back to a boarding house for a week and then back onto the streets for another week. To suggest these people aren’t homeless is ridiculous.

    Almost as ridiculous as the concept of a homeless-industrial complex. Secretly taking over government through the cunning use of not have a home! Those dastardly homeless folks.

    • October 16, 2011 11:37 am

      That was a tongue in cheek reference to the proclivity of vested interests to talk up the numbers, no matter what the situation.

    • October 16, 2011 11:56 am

      Oh, and by the way, after the release of a report in 2009/2010, the Federal Government announced a $6.6 billion program to build 20,000 more public housing units. The plan was to reduce our 100,000 homeless by 20% by 2013.

      So why are you saying that the numbers are going up?

  6. Travis permalink
    October 14, 2011 1:04 pm

    Bob just because a young person is temporarily accommodated, has a roof over their head for a week or two and is helped out by friends for a while as they ‘couch surf’, this does not mean they are housed and should be excluded from a homelessness count. Likewise if a woman (and possibly her kids) are accommodated for a few weeks in a women’s refuge but the only place they can return to is a home where an escalation of violence is likely this does not mean they have a safe place to call home.

    Marginalising homelessness by confining it purely to rough sleeping, the ‘actual homeless’ as Gary Johns put it, ignores the complex reality of homelessness. I’ve worked in homelessness voluntarily and in paid roles for a number of years now and I can tell you that people frequently cycle between supported accommodation, boarding houses, ‘couch surfing’, rough sleeping and back again. Simply having a roof over your head is not the same thing as having a place to call home. Homelessness is not houselessness. I was deeply offended by the claim yesterday that the work that I do is nothing more than ‘srewing the taxpayer’. Really, I thought I was helping people to re-access stable housing.

    As for boarding houses, many are sites of criminal activity, violence and standover tactics, occupants have no access to private kitchen and bathroom facilities and no security of tenure. That’s why many of us belioeve occupants should be included in the homelessness count. It may not be fashionable particularly amongst members of the ALP’s Unity faction to believe that Government has a role to play in the direct funding and provision of public housing but too bad, as a worker in the homelessness sector I believe that it does.

    Interrogate the methodology sure but please do not seek to denigrate the good work done by the homelessness sector by referring to it as “screwing the taxpayer” as your Labor mate Gary Johns did yesterday. Most of us are in this sector because we actually want to make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged people. Believe me you don’t go into the community sector for the money!

    • Andie permalink
      October 14, 2011 2:11 pm

      Well said Travis, Bob shame ! Shame on you! Try walking a minute in those others shoes !

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