An estimated 424 people experiencing homelessness died on Australia’s streets over the past 12 months. The true number, however, is expected to be much higher. 

As there is no consistent data collected or recorded on the deaths of people experiencing homelessness across Australia, this already vulnerable group is rendered further “invisible” to governments.

This has prompted advocates to call on the Australian government to show leadership and commission a framework to better measure these deaths.

It comes after research from the University of Western Australia’s (UWA) Home2Health, in collaboration with the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness (AAEH), identified 56 people who were sleeping rough or had a long-term experience of rough sleeping, who died in Perth alone last year.

David Pearson is CEO of AAEH. He worked with Lisa Wood, associate professor at the School of Population and Global Health at UWA and lead of the Home2Health team, on the research.

“We worked with communities in WA to create what we call a by-name list — a list of everyone who’s sleeping rough,” Pearson told Pro Bono News.

“Because the WA communities had that list, Lisa was able to cross-check with hospital departments, the coroner’s office etc. to identify those that died in WA last year.”

Pearson and Wood were then able to extrapolate the number of deaths against the national homelessness figures and calculate an estimate of people who died sleeping rough across Australia in the past 12 months.

“It’s the first time this national estimate has been able to be calculated because it’s the first time we’ve really got detailed data,” Pearson said.

“What we’re saying is that you can’t change what you don’t measure, and we don’t measure homeless deaths in Australia.”

Pearson is calling for a national approach to the issue and thinks the Commonwealth should be in charge.

“We want the Commonwealth to ask the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) to put together a framework so we can better measure these deaths,” he said.

“It’s much the same as when the AIHW created a framework for better reporting on suicides in Australia. It’s not perfect but at least we now have a better understanding of how many people are dying every year by suicide.”

For Pearson it’s simple — you can’t change what you don’t measure but getting government to take responsibility is something he says isn’t so easy.

“The Commonwealth says it’s a state responsibility but we know people with a disability are dying on the streets, the Commonwealth is responsible for [Australian’s living with] disability. The same goes for veterans,” he said.

“We have a housing and homelessness minister at the federal government level for a reason. What we’d like is for them to show some leadership and commission the AIHW to create this framework.”