Fighting homelessness

The challenge

The number of people experiencing homelessness in our cities is on the rise. How can the built environment and digital communities contribute to understanding and addressing this challenge?

In this article

  • The social, cultural and economic challenges of homelessness in Australia.
  • Practical contributions to improving and increasing emergency and low-income housing stock using built environment, structural acoustics and lighting expertise.
  • The potential for digital technologies to help us understand and address issues for people experiencing homelessness.

Each year, our Graduate Program brings ambitious new ideas into Arup. When we’re lucky, those ideas inspire unexpected research challenges. This project, which we're calling Safe as Houses, fits within that category. This research imagines how we might contribute our technical expertise to make a positive impact on the lives of people experiencing homelessness.

There are already many well-qualified and passionate people doing great work in this space. It's also a deeply complex issue. We believe our role is to support the people and organisations currently working towards addressing social and economic challenges in ways that are practical, meaningful and dignified.

“The challenge is finding the little opportunities within a big space where a built environment firm is equipped to do things” says Jack Clarke, an engineer with a background in environmental resources.

“What skills do we already have internally that can be turned to this problem?” adds Rebecca Chau, a planner working at the intersection of cities and digital.

Human Centred Design

To kick things off, the team interviewed people working in the sector to find out where we might fit. Jack and Rebecca spoke to housing providers as well as social workers who have worked with everyone from recently homeless youth to older people who had been homeless for years. 

Not only did this help the team develop a far more comprehensive picture of the challenges people experiencing homelessness face, it also allowed them to identify a number of thematic areas where our firm can help.

The first involves looking at how we can develop new business models for low-income housing. One key issues here is scale. There are currently over 100,000 people in Australia experiencing homelessness, of various ages, family sizes and cultural backgrounds.

“You need sustainable, flexible, long term and affordable housing solutions that are capable to meeting the needs of all sorts of people,” says Rebecca. “We see the possibility for us to work with developers who have a social lens and helping them to develop business models which are both viable and scaleable,”

Another opportunity is for Arup to work with governments to identify appropriate land packages for future long term housing developments. This could include less traditional lands parcels, such as areas under viaducts, which are often in central locations and can be transformed with a little acoustic, digital and built-environment knowhow. 

In fact, we recently completed another research project that highlighted the positive impacts that activating these neglected spaces can have on neighbouring communities.

Problems with multiple causes often need multiple solutions. The next step for this project is to begin speaking with experts to learn how we might deploy, test, and iterate upon these potential solutions together. It’s through collaboration that we’re best able to create more inclusive societies.

Translating Technology

Homelessness is not only a global problem, it’s one as old as housing itself. Today, we have a number of technologies that can be applied to homelessness that haven’t been available before.

Some of these tools can be implemented immediately. We now have access to better data and data processing than ever. Aerial imagery can be used to identify suitable parcels of land for new housing developments and we can feed census data into machine learning algorithms to determine where we can provide services more efficiently. In the longer term, additive manufacturing technologies like 3D printing will allow us to develop new housing solutions more quickly, more sustainable and at a lower cost than ever before.

While low-income individuals have traditionally been some of the least digitally engaged members of society, the decreasing cost of internet enabled technology means this no longer has to be the case. 

What if were to use environmental sensors to monitor and learn from the successes and failures of the existing housing models available to those experiencing homelessness? Could we then supplement this with qualitative data, gathered through a tool that allows the individuals using these services to give feedback and document their own stories?

By combining new streams of qualitative and quantitative data, we can exercise our empathy and enhance our understanding of the causes, scale and impacts that homelessness has on our communities.

A temporary bed, set beneath a viaduct in Melbourne.


  • The need for low-income and emergency housing stock currently outstrips existing capacity. The problem of homelessness needs support from the public, private and civic sectors.
  • People of all ages, family-sizes and backgrounds can face short or long-term homelessness. Therefore, we need to design flexible short and long term solutions.
  • For a built environmental specialist like Arup, there are opportunities to work with developers to shape new business models for low income housing, with governments to identify suitable land to build these developments and support tech solutions to enable people experiencing homelessness to have a greater voice.

This story was written by Jeff McAllister, as part of the Research Review. This series is produced by the Arup Australasia Research team; Alex Sinickas, Bree Trevena and Jeff McAllister with contributions from Sheda and Noel Smyth.

Lead Arup Researcher

(Former) Environment & Resources Engineer, Adelaide office – now external consultant

Ask Jack about

  1. Specific opportunities where digital and the built environment can provide assistance in the fight against homelessness
  2. How the team interviewed a number of stakeholders—from individuals experiencing homelessness to existing service providers—in order to tease out insights about experiencing homelessness in Australia
  3. The potential to use emerging technologies, like environmental sensors and user-directed data collection, in order to create new tools to fight homelessness


Research TEAM

Fire Engineer, Sydney office
(Former) Leader of Agribusiness and Energy teams, Adelaide office - now external consultant
Lucy is a designer working in our Buildings team in Melbourne.
Hannah is an environmental engineer working in sustainability and natural resources in Adelaide.
Jeff is our in house story-teller for the Arup Research team in Australasia.

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