There is extensive evidence that health promotion routinely benefits those who are already most socioeconomically advantaged. While the government's healthy ageing policy recognizes that improving health outcomes will require a range of strategies involving different target groups, recommendations focus on the issues and needs of the comfortable majority. This paper examines the scope and relevance of health promotion for one disadvantaged minority with extensive health needs: homeless older men. In an ethnographic study of older men (> or = 50 years of age) living alone in the inner city (Sydney), 32 men were identified as homeless and are the focus of this paper. Face to face semi-structured interviews were used to record the men's accounts of their everyday lives, including their health and use of services. The conditions in which these men were living were observed and recorded, and the researchers were aware of health and other services available in the geographic area. All informants were living on or below the poverty line. They reported a range of health conditions, for which many accessed available mainstream and specialist health services. Some obstacles to accessing services were noted. Information relevant to widely endorsed prescriptions for 'healthy ageing' also emerged. These included physical activity (especially walking), healthy eating, social activity and adopting healthy lifestyle habits. Findings highlight the extent to which these men lack the basic requirements for healthy ageing, notably adequate incomes and housing. At the same time, within the constraints of the lifestyle they lead, they are motivated to maintain their health and independence. While there are limits to what can be achieved for such people at a local level of service delivery, it is possible to identify feasible health promotion goals and service strategies.