Australian couch surfers are generally young, female and without a job.

That’s the findings from the first in-depth analysis of couch surfers by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare as the nation grapples with its growing number of homeless people.

The AIHW followed 16,300 adult and teenage couch surfers who sought help from specialist homeless services over a period of four years from 2011.

It described couch surfers as being among the most hidden groups of people experiencing homelessness, mainly because they often move between the homes of friends, relatives and strangers.

Almost half of the couch surfers were aged between 15 and 24, while 60 per cent were female.

Fewer than one in 10 had a job and more than a third had either experienced family violence or mental health problems.

More than five in 10 sought help from specialist homeless services more than once during the four-year period.

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“Couch surfers most frequently sought help with accommodation, followed by assistance with interpersonal relationships and financial difficulties,” AIHW spokesman Matthew James said.

Overall, the AIHW found that there’s a rising number of Australians turning to specialist homeless services.

Almost 288,800 people – or one in 85 Australians – sought help last financial year, 13 per cent more than four years ago.

Nearly two thirds were female, more than one third were single parents, and close to three in 10 were under 18.

The number of people over 45 needing help has continued to rise, particularly those who are 65 and older.

“It’s important to note that most – close to six in 10 – clients were not homeless when they sought assistance but were at risk of becoming homeless,” Mr James said.

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For many, the main reasons they needed help was because they were fleeing family violence or facing eviction.

Around the country, the Northern Territory recorded the highest rate of people seeking housing support, while NSW has seen annual growth of seven per cent in demand for housing services during the past four years.

Homelessness Australia chair Jenny Smith said a lack of affordable accommodation for people on low incomes was driving demand for help from homeless services.

“The waiting list for social housing has blown out to 200,000 and rising rents in the private rental market are pushing low income earners into rooming houses, motels and caravans,” she said.

‘Families on low incomes have simply run out of options when it comes to finding a home they can afford.”

PROFILE OF AUSSIE COUCH SURFERS

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* Six in 10 are female

* 49 per cent are aged 15-24

* Nine in 10 are unemployed or not in the labour force

* 15 per cent are enrolled in some form of education

* 37 per cent have experienced mental health issues

* One third have experienced domestic/family violence

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(Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare)

WSFM 101.7 Sydney