Census reveals shocking homeless numbers for older Australians

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A crisis doesn’t get more shameful than this. The latest Census figures paint a stark picture of the reality of homelessness among those over age 55 in Australia.[i] Of the almost 125,000 Australians defined as homeless on Census night 2021, almost 20,000 were over 55.

  • One in seven people (15.8%) experiencing homelessness was over 55
  • Of homeless women aged over 55, 26.7% were living temporarily in other households and 30.5% were living in severely crowded dwellings
  • Of homeless men aged over 55, 37% were living in boarding houses and 12.4% were living in tents and other improvised dwellings.

The rate of homelessness amongst older Australians has been fairly consistent in each Census since 2006. This is not a problem that is going away.

Older smiling man

What do we mean by homelessness? The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines[ii] homelessness as a person not having “suitable accommodation alternatives” and their current living arrangement:

  • Is a dwelling that is inadequate
  • Has no tenure (there’s no permanence, longevity or security to the arrangement)
  • Does not allow them to have control of, and access to space for, social relations.

At Advocare, we see the reality of this crisis every day. Here’s how one of our care finders, Supportive Outreach Coordinator Ebru Yildiz, describes what she sees helping clients who are experiencing homelessness.

“Our most frail and vulnerable are invisible,” she says. “I see people walk past my clients all the time, never seeing, never hearing. (People think) it’s their own fault they’re homeless. No-one chooses to be homeless. No-one chooses whether to pay their rent or pay their pharmacy for medications. No-one chooses to go hungry just to cover their bills. No-one chooses to be sick or to live with a disability.

“I find my clients living in places no-one wants to venture. If it’s a public place, so they can access toilets, the ranger is called by concerned citizens and they are moved on. To where, you ask? Nowhere, because they are invisible.

“The most basic psychological necessities that we all take for granted—food, water and shelter—are not experienced by my clients. Every day is a constant battle to find food, clean water and a safe place to sleep for the night.”

When we hear the word ‘homeless’ we probably imagine a situation like Ebru describes—someone sleeping rough outside Perth Train Station. But it’s a much more complicated picture than that. To some extent, homelessness among older Australians is a hidden problem. Many of the homeless over 55s aren’t sleeping rough but, rather, they’re living in caravan parks or couch surfing. They may have a roof over their heads, but there’s no permanence to the arrangement, no security.

As advocates for older Australians, this is exactly why we’re calling for a coordinated Government approach to providing housing security for the over 55s.

We know housing security plays a critical role in the health and wellbeing of older Australians.[iii] Not only does a secure home provide the basic human need for shelter but, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), it “contributes to physical, psychological, health and emotional security”.

“Homeownership, in particular, provides older people with security of housing tenure and long-term social and economic benefits,” the AIHW states. “It can be a key determinant of wealth and financial security in retirement.”

Yet housing insecurity among the over 55s is increasing. A 2023 report[iv] by the Housing for the Aged Action Group (HAAG) and various universities, including Curtin, found:

  • In 2021, 58% of people aged over 55 owned their own home, down from 62% in 2011
  • In 2021, 23% of people over 55 had a mortgage, up from 19% in 2011
  • In 2021, 11% of people over 55 rented from a private landlord, up from 8% in 2011 (only 44% were paying affordable rents)
  • Nearly 230,000 over 55s were living in very low and low income households paying unaffordable rents in the private sector (up 52% in a decade)
  • More than 14,000 over 55s are living in marginal housing, 52% of which are overcrowded (39% live in caravan parks).

As you can see, there’s a steady attrition of housing security.

How do older Australians find themselves either homeless or at risk of homelessness? According to the AIHW’s analysis, the main reasons older people seek assistance from homelessness support services are a housing crisis (such as eviction) (24%) or inadequate dwelling conditions (23%). The main reasons those at risk of homelessness sought help were financial difficulties (20%) and family and domestic violence (18%).

Housing insecurity is only made worse by the limited income-earning potential of older Australians, especially as they face rising costs and perhaps additional challenges like illness and caring responsibilities. The situation is even more dire if you’re a woman,[v] Indigenous, or experiencing a mental health issue, or you have a disability.[vi]

Cart full of belongings

Add to this the fact that the Australian population as a whole is getting older and it’s little wonder HAAG, like Advocare, is calling for urgent action to ensure older Australians can access secure, affordable housing.

“It is time for a national housing plan that proactively addresses housing insecurity and ensures access to affordable, secure housing across the life span,” HAAG states in its report.

Specifically, HAAG wants to see:[vii]

  • An adequate social housing supply with age-specific options (including reducing the age at which social housing applicants are given priority to 45-55 years)
  • Stronger tenancy regulations to prioritise homes over profit
  • Dedicated marginal and specialist homelessness services designed for older people
  • Support for people to remain in their own homes across all tenure types.

We’d go one step further and add to this list extra support to deal with the trauma of homelessness. As Ebru says, “it doesn’t end with just finding accommodation: the biggest challenges start when the client has their forever home”.

Over 55s who have experienced homelessness need help readjusting to “normal” life.

“Without adequate wraparound supports, placing someone in between four walls is just like a jail sentence,” Ebru said.

With its 10-year strategy for tackling housing and homelessness currently in development,[viii] the Federal Government has an opportunity to create real change for older Australians experiencing housing insecurity and facing homelessness.

At Advocare, our hope is that next Census night no West Australian over age 55 meets the definition of homeless. Advocare is calling on government, the public sector and individuals to commit to working together to solve this crisis as a priority.

If you’re facing homelessness, My Aged Care may be able to help. Visit their website at https://www.myagedcare.gov.au/support-people-facing-homelessness.


[i] https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/housing/estimating-homelessness-census/2021

[ii] https://www.abs.gov.au/methodologies/estimating-homelessness-census-methodology/2021

[iii] https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/older-people/older-australians/contents/housing-and-living-arrangements

[iv] https://researchbank.swinburne.edu.au/file/82884003-dbcd-4bd2-8933-c3e91a0c7413/1/2023-stone-ageing_homelessness_final.pdf

[v] https://humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/document/publication/ahrc_ow_

[vi] https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/older-people/older-australians/contents/housing-and-living-arrangements

[vii] https://theconversation.com/ageing-in-a-housing-crisis-growing-numbers-of-older-australians-are-facing-a-bleak-future-209237

[viii] https://www.dss.gov.au/housing-support-programs-services-housing/developing-the-national-housing-and-homelessness-plan