Researchers at the Centre for Social Impact at The University of Western Australia (CSI UWA) in partnership with the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness (AAEH) have for the first time analysed the data of the health and social outcomes of women sleeping rough in Australia. The team brought together 853 interviews with women around Australia, using the Vulnerability Index – Service Prioritisation Decision Tool. This is a subset of over 8,000 interviews, collected over 2010-2017.
There is very limited rough sleeping literature and what does exist has focused predominantly on men. This is one of the largest samples of women sleeping rough in Australian cities. From this sample and we are seeing that women who are sleeping rough have poorer health and social outcomes, when compared to women not sleeping rough, and different outcomes to males sleeping rough.
Report author and CSI UWA Director Professor Paul Flatau said: "What we found is that women sleeping in the streets, parks and other locations not designed for habitation are significantly younger and more vulnerable in multiple domains than men sleeping in similar locations.
"Furthermore, we saw that women identifying as Indigenous Australians were overrepresented in the sample, making up almost 40% of women sleeping rough. This was almost twice the proportion of men sleeping rough who identified as Indigenous. This is an alarming statistic."
Women who are sleeping rough are significantly more likely than men who are sleeping rough to present at hospital emergency departments. They were also significantly more likely to have been taken to hospital against their will for a mental health reason. This results in higher acute health service use translating in higher healthcare costs for women sleeping rough when compared to both men sleeping rough and women not sleeping rough.
A key part of the survey is the open ended question “What do you need to be safe and well?”. Unsurprisingly, almost all women who slept primarily in the streets and other places unsuitable for habitation referred to the need for a home or accommodation of some form. In addition to this they provided a range of responses from basic physiological needs to the desire to have custody of their children.
Zoe Callis, report author and researcher at CSI UWA said: “What was interesting about this question was that it was open-ended and the variety of responses really highlighted the things people felt were important to them. It’s important that we take what people consider important to them into account when we are developing strategies to end homelessness in Australia.
“The women that said they needed their children back, also mentioned needing stability and safety. It was clear that for these women, reconnecting with their children serves as a driver to improve their situation”."
It’s clear that women who are rough sleeping are experiencing differing health, mental health, alcohol and other drug and justice needs to men. Stable and permanent housing is of importance, as is a whole of public health response that involves wraparound services to address the complex needs of homeless women and their individual experiences.
Professor Flatau, Emily Box and Zoe Callis are due to present their findings at Spotlight: Living on the streets in Brisbane on Wednesday 14th November, which will feature Dr Jim O’Connell, Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), USA and Associate Professor Cameron Parson, UQ Fellow.