A taste of homelessness helps keep the Census on track and inclusive

By Stephen Easton

Monday May 30, 2016

This year, 13 Australian Bureau of Statistics executives will experience a softer version of sleeping rough in the Vinnies CEO Sleepout to raise awareness of homelessness, one of many aspects of Australian society to be quantified in this year’s Census.

Among them is the head of the massive data collection project, Duncan Young, along with its state and territory directors. The ABS will have at least one senior staff member sleeping outside in each jurisdiction, which they hope will provide another gentle reminder of the value of the agency and its primary piece of work, as well as highlighting the issue itself and raising money for St Vincent de Paul’s support services.

Duncan Young
Duncan Young

“The Census is seen as being the most definitive national measure of homelessness, so it’s something that we take some pride in and work hard to try and get as accurate as possible,” said Young, who volunteered with Vinnies for over a decade up till 2004.

Attempting to count all the homeless people in Australia is pretty challenging, he told The Mandarin, even though the majority don’t actually sleep outside. “They’re living in a range of different settings and so in order to capture an accurate count, we need to work in close partnership with organisations across the country who provide services to people experiencing homelessness.”

Part of the job involves telling people at the margins of society that the Census is happening, what they are being asked to do, why, and how their personal information will be collected. Participating in the Sleepout event is one way the ABS maintains its links with these service providers, without whom the effort would surely fail.

“Certainly it’s a way for us to connect and work with the sector and the event, overall, raises the public awareness of the importance of government responses to homelessness,” said Young. “And it’s really important to have accurate statistics and information to then support those government responses.”

Service providers help the ABS collect the information, which they will later use in their own planning and decision making, and when communicating with government and the public over the next four years until the Census rolls around again.

“The providers help communicate about the Census and we also work with them to employ the appropriate people to work as collectors,” Young explained.

“There was about 6000 people sleeping rough last Census night, and to count those people we send out our people to actually interview and collect the information for each individual person who’s sleeping rough, so we’ll work with providers to employ appropriate people who have a connection with a community and understand where homeless people are likely to be on Census night.”

The ABS is one of the many government agencies that has begun to make increasing effort to promote its own work, through efforts like its occasionally humorous Twitter account, its mobile app and a computer game called Run That Town. To do that, it helps to focus on specific examples, such as the unique set of comprehensive nationwide data on homelessness that comes out of the giant survey.

“One of the things that’s clear from the Census is that of the 24 million people in Australia, we’ve got a very diverse nation in terms of age, country of birth, education, occupation and so on,” said Young. “Different messages appeal to different people so we try and communicate a lot of different aspects of what the Census can help with.”

Some people might see the value of the Census in planning decisions about schools, transport and public infrastructure, or data about the changing demographic make-up of the Australian population. The value of the data that informs support for disadvantaged people is another particularly powerful example for a certain audience.

“We try and put out a lot of different messages and engage with different communities and help them understand, from their perspective, some of the things that the Census can do, and also help them have access to the data,” said Young.

While charity groups often report information that hints at the scale of homelessness in Australia, the Census is the only complete national picture. In 2011, it showed the problem was growing and it’s likely the 2016 Census will find a similarly sad state of affairs.

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