Housing and homelessness


Infoxchange CEO David Spriggs says that data and technology could meaningfully improve the way we provide services to those experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness.

In 2018-19, Specialist Homelessness Services agencies provided support to over 290,000 clients in a variety of different circumstances.

A recent study from the University of Melbourne highlighted the economic, health and social costs associated with homelessness and the lack of service coordination. The report estimated that one person experiencing homelessness in Victoria costs $25,615 per year when considering health, crime and other factors. The need for digital solutions to support vulnerable community members has been cited repeatedly across government strategies including the WA Government Homelessness Strategy and the NSW Domestic and Family Violence Prevention and Early Intervention Strategy 2017 – 2021.

“People have to go to so many services, and they might not have any places, so they get sent back. Services need to communicate better with us to let us know how many beds are available. If there aren’t any beds available, we need to know on the spot, so we don’t waste our time, looking here, looking there and missing out.” – insights shared by a user of homelessness services during an Ask Izzy co-design session.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about countless changes to daily life in Australia, not the least of which is the acceleration of digital transformation across many industries.

It has also precipitated a move to the use of real time data as a way of measuring need and impact, as governments and the community sector increasingly rely on this information to plan their response.

Digital platforms like Ask Izzy have fundamentally changed how many Australians experiencing or at risk of homelessness access housing and support services. The mobile website developed by Infoxchange in partnership with Google, realestate.com.au and News Corp Australia now supports more than 200,000 requests for help every month.

The real time usage data from Ask Izzy has been providing valuable insights into how the needs of the public changed at the outset of the pandemic, with massive increases in people searching for food and Centrelink assistance.

Technology has also been a significant enabler for services in the homelessness sector. The Specialist Homelessness Information Platform (SHIP) developed by Infoxchange in partnership with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) supports over 1,500 homelessness services in Australia to manage client data, measure outcomes and report to funders.

Several jurisdictions have extended the use of SHIP to enable service coordination including consent-based sharing of client information between services, common assessment tools, electronic referrals and sharing of vacancy information.

SHIP has also been used to collect data specifically for COVID-19 by allowing case workers to record if clients’ health or finances have been affected by the pandemic. This data has been providing invaluable insights into what is happening within the sector during this crisis, and how it is affecting people accessing homelessness services.

Despite these advances there are still significant gaps that need to be addressed before we can break the cycle of homelessness. Technology and data can enable much-needed reforms in putting the person in need at the centre of the service system, enabling greater coordination between services and better understanding service demand across the sector.

What should be done?

Connection with a real person who can help will always play a crucial role in supporting people who are experiencing homelessness. Digital technology should not be used solely to reduce the cost of services or to replace the role of case workers, but to improve services for people in need and to inform data-driven decision making in the sector.

There needs to be a national approach to service coordination across the homelessness sector, so that services have a simple way to update and share bed vacancies, refer clients between services and with appropriate consent be able to view client information across services.

These capabilities already exist in the Specialist Homelessness Information Platform (SHIP) and have been leveraged by the Housing Connect program in Tasmania and the Going Home Staying Home reforms in New South Wales.

The Queensland Government has taken this a step further by implementing a client management system that is enabling a more person-centred, integrated approach across the housing continuum including homelessness, social housing, affordable and private market rentals.

We can take lessons and insights from a number of these jurisdiction-based initiatives. By sharing what state and territory governments are doing independently and working together based on those learnings, we can work towards a national approach with proven strategies that are known to deliver positive social outcomes.

We also need to enable case coordination and electronic referral that go beyond housing and homelessness services into the broader health and human services sector, as we know that people in need are often experiencing many challenges including financial distress, family violence and mental health issues.

Government can play a key role in unlocking data for the sector. The Housing Data Dashboard released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) is a good example of bringing together datasets from multiple sources to provide insights on housing and homelessness.

We need to build on these solutions to move towards a more real-time and predictive view of data, incorporating service demand from platforms like Ask Izzy and enabling a more responsive service system.

The value of real-time data has been shown during COVID-19. Government can now take a leadership role supported by the sector to build on this work and develop a national data sharing strategy to support a more responsive service system.

What will this achieve?

The ability to respond to the needs of people experiencing homelessness, across a well-coordinated community and health support system is essential to reaching our goal of functionally ending homelessness.

Digital innovation is long overdue in the service system, and the delivery of solutions designed with people with lived experience of homelessness and service providers is critical.

People experiencing homelessness would benefit from a system that truly puts them at the centre and responds to their needs without them having to repeat their story to multiple services.

This approach would bring more efficient use of resources in the homelessness sector, help people sooner and move us closer to ending homelessness in Australia.

This is a chapter in Digitising human services, a CEDA report in which six technology and services experts discuss how to build on the rapid digitisation brought on by COVID-19 to deliver better human services. Click here to read the other sections and an overview by CEDA Chief Economist Jarrod Ball.

Other recent CEDA research