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Research project captures most in-depth portrait of Australia's homeless men

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Date Published:
30 Aug 2010

Homeless men suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at 20 times the level of the general male population while males who are roughsleepers or in crisis accommodation have spent an average of four years living on the streets in their lifetime according to research carried out as part of a new initiative aimed at reducing homelessness among Sydney men.

The initiative – known as The Michael Project – provides homeless men with access to a range of supports (eg: dental and psychological health, personal grooming and hygiene, literacy and numeracy, self-esteem and personal fitness) in an effort to end their homelessness.

The three-year initiative of Mission Australia’s – made possible via a generous individual donation – tests the theory that access to a range of health, education and social supports can help homeless men improve their well-being and social and economic participation and improve their access to sustainable housing.

Mission Australia’s spokesperson, Anne Hampshire, said in order to measure the effectiveness of the Michael Project a major research project – led by Dr Paul Flatau of Murdoch University and Dr Lucy Burns of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre – has been carried out to gather a detailed profile of participants.
Around 250 homeless men – 40 per cent who were in crisis shelters or roughsleepers, 60 per cent from short- to medium-term accommodation – were involved in the survey.

“Getting an accurate picture of the men involved in this project – their homelessness history, their physical and mental health, their education and employment backgrounds, how many times they’d had contact with the justice system – was essential if we were going to be able to chart their progress,” said Ms Hampshire.

“As a result we now have the most in-depth and comprehensive snapshot of homeless men in Australia available."

The Michael Project’s portrait of homeless men includes:

  • 95 per cent have been exposed to one or more traumatic events (eg: experiencing or witnessing an assault) – often at adolescence – and exhibit Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at levels 20 times greater than the general male population.
  • Men who had ever slept rough and those in crisis accommodation had spent an average of four years living on the streets in their lifetime. Those in short- to medium-term accommodation had spent one and a half years.
  • 69 per cent reported that they had a diagnosed mental health or substance use disorder.
  • 69 per cent lacked supportive family members while 65 per cent had family-related problems.
  • Slightly more than 50 per cent of those from short- to medium-term accommodation had been in full-time work within the last two years.
  • 81 per cent had entered the program with “very high levels” of psychological distress compared to 3 per cent among males in the general population.

Murdoch University’s Paul Flatau said the data would be hugely significant for governments and other agencies that design support for homeless men.

“This unique and in-depth portrait of homeless men is fundamental if we’re going to have the right policies and programs to move them out of homelessness,” said Dr Flatau.

“Despite the scale of homelessness – and the fact that all Australian governments have agreed to targets for reducing it by 2020 – there is much we don’t know about homeless people.”

Ms Hampshire said that early evidence from the project – with final results due by early 2011 – was positive.

“While our aim is to look at how homeless men in the Michael Project compare with their original situation after one year, the results from just the first three months provide us with cause for cautious optimism,” said Ms Hampshire.

Those results include:

  • 71 per cent of short- to medium-term Michael Project clients were not in the labour force upon joining the program. After three months, this figure had dropped to 48 per cent. The number employed rose from 7 per cent to 20 per cent and those not employed but actively looking for work rose from 23 per cent to 32 per cent.
  • Among those in government-funded short- and medium-term accommodation at the start of the program, almost 20 per cent had moved into public/community housing or private rental within three months.
  • Family-related problems among the group of men in short- to medium-term accommodation declined from 65 per cent to 45 per cent.

“It can be extremely difficult for homeless people to reconnect with community life because of limited access to the help they need – not just accommodation, but also health, educational and social services,” said Ms Hampshire.

“When services are available they have long waiting lists and can be poorly co-ordinated – homeless people can fall through the cracks, becoming further entrenched in their situation.

“We hope to change that with the Michael Project – and at the end of the three years – be able to provide evidence that not only does this approach work but via a rigorous cost benefits analysis it also makes economic sense.

“That spending a little bit more now saves the community much larger expenses in the future through our health, justice and social systems,” said Ms Hampshire.

Media contact: Paul Andrews from Mission Australia (02) 9219 2080 or 0409 665 495