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Homelessness has become a pervasive social problem in Australia, with one in two hundred Australians being devoid of roof over their heads. Homelessness, as a social problem, has a multiplier effect, impacting generations.  Most of the homeless people are concentrated in cities such as Sydney, Brisbane, and Perth. During the period of 2011 to 2016, the number of people not having access to secure housing in Australia increased by 14 000.  This unprecedented number of homeless people in Australia testifies to how key it is to consider the origins of this problem before developing a comprehensive and viable solution to solve it. There are three main sociological perspectives on the issue of homelessness: the interactionist, functionalist and conflict theories. To identify the origins of this serious social problem, the functionalism will be applied to the homelessness problem in Australia with a view of revealing the root causes of this serious social problem.

Social problem in an Australian context

ABS Census of Housing and Population (2010) provides that there are 105, 237 homeless people in Australia. The share of males in homelessness is 56%, while a female share of homelessness stands at 44%.  What is more interesting is that 30% of homeless people are born outside of Australia, testifying to how homeless has exerted the impact on immigrants also.

State breakdown

Statistics suggest that the majority of homeless individuals are concentrated in New South Wales, in which 28 190 homeless people resided.  The number of homeless people in New South Wales increased by almost 21% since 2006, suggesting the magnitude of the homelessness. New South Wales was followed by Victoria, where 22,789 homeless people resided. The number of homeless individuals also showed similar trends to that of NSW, increasing by almost 21% since 2006. Victoria, on the other hand, was succeeded by Queensland, in which 19,838 homeless people lived.  Unlike Victoria and New South Wales, Queensland experienced a decrease of 5% in the number of homeless people.  There has been an unprecedented increase in the number of homeless people in Australian Capital Territory, where the number of homelessness increased by over 70%. On the other hand, Northern Territory, in which 15, 479 homeless were living, experienced a pronounced decrease of 7.8% in the number of homeless people.

Age breakdown

Age is the key factor in homelessness. 18% of homeless individual fall within the 25-34 age bracket, while 15% of the homeless individuals in Australia are within the 19-25 age bracket. In addition, individuals under 12 constitute 17% of the homeless population. On the other hand, those over 75 constituted 2% of the homeless population.  The statistics suggest that younger Australians are the most susceptible to becoming homeless.


Homelessness people tend to resort to improvised dwellings, tents and sleeping, supported accommodation, residing temporality with other households, ‘severely’ overcrowded dwellings. Data indicates that the biggest share of homeless individuals reside in ‘severely’ overcrowded dwellings, with 20% of them residing in supported accommodation.

Impact of homelessness

The social problem of homelessness has a multiplier impact on the society, as a whole. Homeless inflicts significant costs on the social institutions and structure of any government.  Firstly, health care costs associated with caring for the homeless are higher. Furthermore, homelessness causes a number of health-related issues such as HIV/AIDS, addiction and etc. Secondly, Homeless people tend to be the most susceptible group to be incarcerated, and the incarceration cost is significant.  Thirdly, the prescience of homeless people living in tents can significantly compromise the attractiveness of city, retarding tourism and etc.  These costs corroborate that homelessness does not exist in a bubble and has implications on the society at large.


Functionalism adopts a view that each and every aspect of society are interrelated and intercepts, and that every aspect is essential to the society’s functionality as a whole. Functionalism is based on the seminal works of Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, and Talcott Parsons. Herbert Spencer postulates that society is, in fact, a system of interdependent parts that work in tandem to sustain stability, and social equilibrium (Stinchcombe, 1968). Functionalism also underlines the importance of the interconnectedness of each part of society and how each part is influenced by each other (Ryan, 1976.  The cases concerning women and families clearly substantiate this interconnectedness. The increased participation of women in the workforce has been conducive to the development of policies protecting women from sexual harassment and discrimination.  Technology has become more and more important and has resulted in more colleges teaching technical programs to accommodate the skills gap.  The increase in single-parent families has been detrimental to children’s performance in school as single-parents tend to work overtime, and not have available time to help their children with homework (Lorber, 2010).  During the financial crisis, and concomitant high rates of unemployment has been conducive to the elimination of the social program. These cases corroborate how each element in society has a multiplier effect on each other. The terms of functional and dysfunctional are used by functionalists to describe the impact of social elements in a given society (Lessnoff, 1968). Social elements contributing to the social stability are called functional, whole social elements which are detrimental to social stability are called dysfunctional. There can be social elements which are both functional and dysfunctional.

Crime, as a social element, is considered dysfunctional as it involves physical violence, damage to property and apprehension, contributing to instability in society. On the other hand, functionalists, including Durkheim, tend to assume even crime is functional as it is conducive to the increased awareness of mutual bonds and increased social cohesion.

Merton (1980) has compartmentalized two types of functions: manifest and latent. Manifest functions are outcomes that have been planned and intended. Latent functions, on the other hand, are those which are inadvertent and not calculated.  The manifest function of school and colleges are to impart knowledge and equip young people with the requisite skills.  The latent functions of school are that they can also be the babysitter for young children’s parents, and colleges can be places for socialization for young adults, and meet their future partners.  Functions of schools and colleges such as babysitting and partner-selection are not intended, as such these functions are latent functions of the social institutions.  Durkheim has drawn parallels between an organism and functionalism. An organism cannot be sustained without the functioning of each organ. The same is applicable to functionalism theory, which maintains that each part of society is key.  For instance, Gans (1972) asserts that poverty can be functional to the society as it ensures that there are people who will perform physically perilous, and blue-collar work for little remuneration. Functionalists espouse that society invariably finds a balance point (equilibrium point) in terms of a social problem (Mills, 1959).  Overall, functionalism is predicated upon the doctrine that each part of society contributes to the society as a whole, and how each part is indispensable.

There is the number of controversies regarding functionalism. Critics advocate that functionalist support the status quo (i.e. ensuring that the number of homeless people remains static) rather than evaluating solutions which can change the status quo. The status quo can be detrimental, in some case.

Theory application

As mention in theory description above, functionalism posits that there are not fundamental flaws in the society even if social problems such as homelessness undermine its stability. This part concerns the application of functionalism to the social problem of homeless in Australia. The first dysfunction of homelessness is that its subject’s the society’s institutions to high costs in terms of health care and supported accommodation. Operating and maintaining services for homeless supported accommodations, day centers, and medical services can be burdensome in terms of cost. On the other hand, homelessness as it creates jobs in supported accommodation and organizations delegated with a responsibility of alleviating the problem. Like crime which creates jobs and revenue in terms of police, courts, home security, homelessness also can also be a job-creating function, suggesting how it functional it is.

The second latent function of homeless is that by scrutinizing homeless people, young children can become more aware of the consequences of not working hard at school.  This experience can give students an impetus to keep working on themselves and get a college degree.  The majority of homeless people do not have a territory degree. Therefore, youngsters can be encouraged to work hard as to avoid the unfortunate lives of the homelessness.

The third latent function of homelessness is that it encourages the society to have compassion for those in need, and ensures that people do not neglect the needs of the people in need.  Being aware of the social problem is conducive to middle-class people feeling that they are in fact in a better place in their lives, reducing their stress levels and making them feel content. Homelessness, therefore, can be both functional and dysfunctional in the context of functionalism. Regarding its functions, homeless has a number of positive functions for the whole society.

Overall, functionalism suggests that homelessness is a social problem, but not necessarily reflecting the faults in the structure of the society.  Unlike conflict theory which considers poverty as the concomitant of capitalism, the functionalism takes a different approach to the social problems by concentrating on how they can actually be functional to the functionality of the society. Thus, the solution to alleviate homelessness has to be gradual in the form of a social reform, rather than quick. Despite how it undermines the societal structure and institutions, homelessness serves essential latent functions within a society.


Overall, the fact that homelessness is a signification social problem in Australia is unassailable, with almost 105, 300 people being homeless, according to ABS (2010).  The functionalism theory advocates that the status quo is contingent upon each element of the system and that as elements are interrelated, the functionality is contingent upon that of each other.  The functionalism also suggests that social problems have both functional and dysfunctional elements.  Functionalism considers that homeless is a serious social problem with both functional and dysfunctional elements, as has job-creation, increased awareness, and compassion elements even though it is subject the societal institutions to burdensome costs relating to supported housing, day centers and medical services for the homeless.  Therefore, the solution to solving homelessness should be gradual, as opposed to sudden and far-reaching, as society finds its own balance.


  • Stinchcombe A (1968) Constructing Social Theories. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press
  • Lessnoff A, (1968) Functionalism and Explanation in Science, The Sociological Review
  • Ryan, W. (1976). Blaming the victim (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: Vintage Books
  • Lorber, J. (2010). Gender Inequality: Feminist Theories and Politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Mills, C. W. (1959). The sociological imagination. London, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press
  • Gans, H. J. (1972). The positive functions of poverty. American Journal of Sociology, 78, 275–289
  • Tumin, M (1965) The Functionalist Approach to Social Problems, Social Problems, 12, No. 4
  • Merton R K (1980) Social theory and social structure. New York , Columbia University Press
  • ABS (2010), Census statistical products and services. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/ViewContent?readform&view=productsbyCatalogue&Action=Expand&Num=2.1

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