• omeless Indian men wrapped in blankets waiting for food donations from a temple on a cold morning in New Delhi. ((DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images))Source: (DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
If the world were to accept Australia’s definition of ‘homelessness’ and include everyone with inadequate shelter, there would be over 1.6 billion homeless people scattered across the globe: that's around 20 per cent of the world's population.
Ruby Hamad

4 Jul 2017 - 12:50 PM  UPDATED 10 Oct 2017 - 2:41 PM

In 2005, the United Nations took on the daunting task of calculating the world’s homeless population, listing an estimated 100 million people.

However, since there’s no internationally accepted definition of what homelessness actually is, and, given there’ll always be a proportion of ‘hidden homelessness’, the true figure may be impossible to calculate: 100 million may be a significant underestimation.

Homelessness in Australia is more than lacking a roof over your head, it is also the absence of those features associated with “home”: permanence, security, and the freedom to come and go.

As well as the obvious harm done to those who experience it, homelessness impacts us all as a society. According to Homelessness Australia, while the federal government spends an average of $15,000 per person per year on services, this number doubles to $30,000 for people who need to access services to help them deal with their homelessness. This strain on government services means money is not being spent on communal needs elsewhere. 

Homeless in Australia

In Australia, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) determines who is homeless and who isn’t. It classes a person as homeless if they lack alternative accommodation and their current dwelling:

  • provides inadequate shelter; or
  • is not available long-term; or
  • doesn’t allow control of, and access to, the space for social relations

Homelessness then, in Australia, is more than lacking a roof over your head, it is also the absence of those features associated with “home”: permanence, security, and the freedom to come and go.

If the world were to accept Australia’s definition and include everyone with inadequate shelter, the number would exceed 1.6 billion – roughly 20 percent of the population. Also excluded from official figures are the world’s 65 million displaced refugees in temporary accommodation. 

Who will be homeless tonight in Australia?

On any given night one in 200 people will be homeless. Fifty-six percent are men, and, demonstrating the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents, almost 27,000 – one quarter – are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, who are just three percent of Australia’s population.

According to Mission Australia, domestic violence is the single biggest cause of homelessness, with poverty and income inequality also playing a large role. Mental illness and alcoholism are considered secondary factors, meaning treating the illness alone will not necessarily end the homelessness. 

A tragic reality: domestic violence is the main cause of homelessness for women
When a victim decides to leave a violent relationship, it often means leaving the family home.

What does homelessness look like across the globe? 


While the causes of homelessness in Australia are common across the globe, international approaches to tackling it vary.

Despite its rapidly growing economy, India has the world’s highest rate, with 78 million people classified as homeless.

Here, homelessness is defined as the inability to afford housing or access regular and safe shelter. Most homeless are concentrated in urban areas as the rural poor migrate seeking work, and, while one-in-100 city dwellers are considered homeless, this does not account for all those living on the streets.

Despite its rapidly growing economy, India has the world’s highest rate, with 78 million people classified as homeless.

The Indian government’s Housing For All scheme aims to make housing affordable for all Indians by 2022, primarily through tax incentives aimed at persuading the private sector to construct affordable housing.

This has attracted criticism from UN special rapporteur Leilina Farha, who argues for a human rights approach. She notes that most homeless are from historically marginalised groups – lower castes, Muslims, and women – and says the government must address this social discrimination as well as provide guaranteed shelter for all who need it.


Boasting the lowest official numbers in the world, Japanese government initiatives including temporary housing provision and employment advice are praised for reducing the incidence of homelessness.

Official statistics record 7,500 homeless living in Japan, a country of over 126 million people. Age discrimination is a primary driver of homelessness, and, according to sociologist Michael Marr, in a culture that still adheres to rigid “male breadwinner” stereotypes, social stigma often prevents many from revealing their situation even to their own families, leaving them to fall through the gaps.

This suggests official figures may be skewed by the large number of “invisible homeless” who fend for themselves, with some figures claiming 5,000 homeless in Tokyo alone.


The USA records its homeless population with a street count every two years, the most recent of which recorded an estimated 550,000 homeless. But, just as in Japan, there are concerns that poor recoding methods could mean the true figure is up to three times higher. When the number of people who have accessed emergency shelters is included, the official figure balloons to 1.56 million or 0.5% of the population.

When it comes to Native American populations, homelessness is a hidden crisis. Already overrepresented in official statistics (four percent of homeless compared to one percent of population), this would be higher if not for, as Juian Brave NoiseCat reveals, Native households “piling friends and relatives into small homes so loved ones aren’t left out in the cold.”

When it comes to Native American populations, homelessness is a hidden crisis.

According to a government report on the housing needs of Native populations, any as 85,000 Native people on tribal lands in the USA would be classed as homeless if not for these community efforts to shoulder the shortfall in government funding, a shortfall caused in part by the failure of the US to adopt a systemic approach to the crisis that sees more than half a million Americans without a home.

I was homeless at 17, and what I learned was that no one listens to our youth
“Delinquents,” “street kids,” “trouble-makers” and “runaways” are just same of the names young people experiencing homelessness are called. I’ve been called all four. But it wasn’t until I found myself homeless at 17 that I realised the term “kid” could also have a negative connotation.

Snapshot on asylum seekers in France

A 2016 report into the effects of the asylum seeker crisis on EU member states, by the European Observatory on Homelessness, found that of several countries struggling to accommodate the tens of thousands of new arrivals, which in turn placed a strain on services available to local citizens, France was among the worst affected. In 2014, only 36 percent of asylum seekers were housed in dedicated reception facilities, leaving 22,800 asylum seekers to fend for themselves on the streets.

In a case of catch 22, however, migrant populations are “not a group of people that governments are eager to count as ‘homeless’ and, by implication, in need of support, which might include being housed.”


And now for a success story. Finland is the only country in the European Union to boast a decline in homelessness in recent years. The tiny Scandinavian country is the pioneer of Housing First, a revolutionary approach adopted in 2008 that prioritises access to stable housing for the long-term homeless.

Finland is the only country in the European Union to boast a decline in homelessness in recent years. 

This model holds that it is safe, secure housing rather than immediate shelter, health access, and employment assistance that provides the most promising long-term outcomes. As Juha Kaakinen, chief executive of Finland’s Y-Foundation, explains, “Homeless people aren’t told they must conquer their addictions or secure a job before being given a home: instead it is accepted that having a home can make solving health and social problems much easier.”

Thanks to Housing First, Finland has all but eradicated “rough sleeping,” and at the end of 2015, there were less than 7,000 homeless from a population of more than five million. Countries that have followed Finland’s lead include Denmark, Canada, and, albeit in a much more limited capacity, Australia. 

If this article has raised issues for you and you would like to talk to someone, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website by clicking here. For information about services from St Vincent De Paul, click here or for services offered by Salvation Army, click here.  

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