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Couch-surfers are the hidden homeless

A homeless woman sits on a street corner in central Brisbane Source: AAP/Dan Peled

The number of Australians seeking homelessness services is rising, with new figures revealing almost 35,000 more people asked for shelter last year when compared with four years ago.

A report, from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, focuses on so-called 'couch surfers' - people asking friends or others for a bed for a night or two - a category which has turned out to be the single biggest group in the country seeking homeless services.

A new report has found among every 85 Australians, one of them sought help from homeless services in the last year.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare ((AIHW)) has released a report emphasising the rising number of homeless Australians.

The data reveals almost 300,000 ((288,800)) people asked for assistance from specialist homeless services agencies in 2017-18.

That's almost 35,000 more people asking for shelter in the last year when compared with four years ago. ((That is an increase from 110 people per 100,000 population in 2013–14, to 117 in 2017–18.))

Of all the people who sought homeless services, 61 per cent were female, and close to three in 10 were aged under 18.

Homelessness Australia Chair Jenny Smith says the report reveals a deeply gendered problem - which does not surprise her.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare  Deputy CEO Mathew James says family violence and mental health issues were the major drivers of people seeking special services.

Mr James also says about 90 per cent of those who present as at-risk remain at-risk for a long time.


The report gives an in-depth analysis of 'couch-surfers' in Australia.

Couch-surfers are people who don’t have stable housing, but don't have to sleep on the streets because they often seek help from friends, relatives and strangers.


Mathew James  says 'couch-surfers' are the most hidden of people experiencing homelessness.

He says the age profile of 'couch-surfers' is much younger than for other types of clients.

Jenny Smith, with Homelessness Australia, says there is no end in sight to this problem as such arrangements are not sustainable.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare  followed 16,300 adult and teenage 'couch-surfers' who sought help from specialist homeless services over a period of four years from 2011.


It found for most 'couch-surfers' supported by homelessness agencies, accessing the support service was not a once-off occurrence.

In 2 or 3 years of the 4-year study period, 44 per cent used services, with a further 12 per cent accessing services in all four years.

Around the country, the Northern Territory recorded the highest number of people seeking housing support, while New South Wales has seen annual growth of seven per cent in demand for housing services during the past four years.

NT Shelter Executive Officer Peter McMillan says the Northern Territory has 12 times the rate of homelessness when compared to the rest of Australia - but the funding provided by the government is not adequate.


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