Skip navigation

How to Avoid Becoming Homeless

Want to ensure you’ll always have a safe place to call home? Dr Meg Mundell shares some tips...

Meg Mundell


Want to ensure you’ll always have a safe place to call home? Dr Meg Mundell shares some tips…

To most of us, homelessness seems like a fate that befalls other people. We assume it could never happen to us, to our friends or loved ones. That if we make sensible life choices, we’ll never end up in that situation.

It’s a comforting thought. But is it accurate?

Chances are, you already know someone who’s been homeless, or come close. Every night, one in 200 Australians lacks a safe place to call home. That’s over 122,000 people – enough to fill every seat in the MCG, plus the playing field. And only a tiny fraction of those people are sleeping rough: most are couch-surfing, or staying in refuges, boarding houses, or other temporary forms of shelter.

So how can we avoid that fate ourselves?

Ask people what they think causes homelessness, and drug abuse usually tops the list. If that’s an accurate take, then avoiding drugs should reduce our risk, right?

Perhaps not. One major study found that using illicit drugs does not increase a person’s chances of becoming homeless, aside from one specific group: males under 30 who smoke cannabis daily. Unless that’s you, avoiding drugs is not the key to remaining safely housed.

If abstinence is no guarantee, what’s the best way to avoid homelessness? Based on the best research evidence, here are some important steps you can take:

Don’t grow up poor. Don’t be raised by parents who grew up poor. Don’t grow up with family conflict or emotional abuse. Don’t get sexually assaulted as a kid. Don’t get placed in foster care. Don’t fall in love with someone who becomes violent or controlling. Don’t have a serious accident, or become disabled, or mentally ill, or chronically ill (especially if you’re single).

Also: don’t struggle to find secure, well-paid employment. Don’t get made redundant. Don’t experience discrimination. Don’t have limited support networks. Don’t be an older single woman with scant superannuation. Don’t lose your house in a bushfire or flood. And whatever you do, don’t double up on any of these risk factors.

One final tip, the most important one: if you want to remain safely housed, don’t live in a country with unaffordable rents, astronomical house prices, a drastic shortage of social housing, and woefully inadequate income support payments.

That describes Australia today. Our broken housing system is forcing an increasingly diverse cross-section of people into financial stress and homelessness, and trapping them there.

Popular wisdom tells us that our destiny is in our hands, that making good decisions will keep us safe. These beliefs emerge strongly in studies exploring attitudes to homelessness. A big chunk of the Australian population – almost half, by some counts – believe homelessness is caused by lack of effort or poor decision-making. And around one-quarter of us believe homelessness is often a choice.

The evidence says otherwise. Last year, family and domestic violence was the leading cause of homelessness in Australia, followed by financial difficulties, housing affordability stress, and the housing crisis. As these triggers reflect, homelessness is not about bad decisions or lifestyle choices. It’s about lack of choice. Being hit by forces beyond your control. Running out of luck.

People with first-hand experience don’t paint homelessness as a choice, either. They describe it as traumatising:

Being homeless is a battle. You feel like you’re all alone. Like nobody can relate to you, nobody cares about you, nobody loves you. – Cristel

I never felt safe. To be homeless is to be completely vulnerable – a bashing victim in waiting. – Gregory

You don’t wake up one day and say, “I’m going to live on the street and get rained on every day. Sleep on the cold concrete and get spat on.” No one wants that. – Eric

[When I was homeless] I met many females who’d been assaulted, robbed or raped. A woman gets offered a bed for a night or two, and is expected to pay in other ways. – Cheryl

It’s reassuring to think we’re masters of our own destiny. That if we're good people, we’ll reap our just rewards. But that’s a comforting illusion. Because life is not inherently fair. Bad things happen to good people. And one-third of us are just two pay packets away from serious financial stress.

Feeling vulnerable is unsettling. Nobody likes to imagine they could end up without a home. But let’s be honest: nobody lands there by choice.

Enough doom and gloom. Here’s the good news: homelessness is avoidable.

In fact, as a society, we can choose to end it completely. How? By demanding that our political leaders commit to nailing this achievable goal. By voting for governments that recognise the huge financial and human costs of homelessness, set clear targets to eliminate it, and adopt internationally proven solutions.

Acting alone, there’s no guarantee that we can avoid becoming homeless. But if we choose to come together, we can end homelessness for good.


Dr Meg Mundell is a Melbourne-based writer, researcher and advocate. She curates the Big Thinkers series, and is the editor of We Are Here: Stories of Home, Place and Belonging, a collection of true stories by people who’ve experienced homelessness.


Add your voice to the Melbourne Zero campaign - be part of positive change today! We’re making Melbourne a world-leading city in ending homelessness, starting with ending rough sleeping by 2030.

Continue Reading

Read More

Add your voice today

From business leaders to your next-door neighbours, we're calling on every Melburnian to join the Melbourne Zero movement and help end homelessness in our city.