Next year it will be 50 years since this ‘Wednesday Play’ was first shown, preceding the launch of Shelter in 1966 by 2 weeks – I believe it was a coincidence. Nowadays, it is hard to imagine that a single play could have such an impact, but there was little competition on the ‘box’ in those days. Controversial plays could get huge audiences and become the main topic of conversation for weeks to follow, without being drowned out by the cacophony of channels and 24-hour news. I was 16 when it was shown and it had a profound effect on my life and attitudes. After all this time, homelessness is still the issue that gets me worked up more than any other.
The film itself, directed by Ken Loach and written by Jeremy Sandford, propelled the issue to the top of the public’s attention. It followed a young couple, Cathy and Reg (Carol White and Ray Brooks) from the optimism of their early married life, through a spiral of misfortune following Reg’s accident at work, to poverty, eviction and separation, culminating in a hysterical Cathy having her children forcibly taken away from her by the State. No happy ending.
On the 40th anniversary of the film, in 2006, Chris Holmes, a former Director of Shelter, wrote:
“The film showed graphically how losing your home and not being able to find somewhere to go could have such a traumatic effect on the whole family. Most people in Britain didn’t understand what people like those in the film were going through.
“What really struck people was the harshness of the treatment by council officials, housing departments and the landlords. It wasn’t a caricature….. And there seemed to be a sense among officials that if you’d been sensible, if you’d behaved better, you wouldn’t have got into these difficulties. So it was a true and very accurate portrayal of what could and did happen to people.”
Then as now.
From the high point and optimism of the passage of the 2002 Homelessness Act, homelessness as an issue has almost disappeared off the bottom of the political agenda. The rights of individuals have been seriously eroded, especially since the Coalition came in, the experience of homeless people has become much worse, public and media attitudes have hardened seriously, and much of the bureaucracy has regressed to 1966 mode.
The mutation of many of the good ideas from 2002 – for example, that more priority should be given to trying to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place and that people presenting as homeless should have all of their housing options reviewed with them – has combined with a growing shortage of social housing to create a new monster which has come to be known as ‘gatekeeping’. To a greater or lesser extent, all councils, egged on and channeled by the government, have placed more barriers in front of homeless people to reduce their ability to access social housing.
Despite all the false protestations of concern for the homeless, the real policy of the Coalition was exposed in its full glory by a former Government adviser, Andy Gale, a couple of years ago. After the Government launched a new set of rules governing homelessness, Gale said: ‘The overall conclusion of introducing this framework is inevitably that new statutory homelessness applications will become minimal.’ Red Brick’s view at the time – ‘hypocrisy and double-speak’ – can be read here.
Many of the bad, and indeed illegal, practices that have come to characterise the treatment of homeless people were exposed in a Court case involving Southwark Council last week (see the excellent discussion of the case by Giles Peaker of the Nearly Legal website. Southwark, and they are not remotely alone, admitted to employing a series of sometimes illegal tactics to stop people making homelessness applications, even to the extent of putting unlawful and misleading policies on leaflets and their website. Issues included treating people as ‘housing options’ clients rather than ‘homeless applicants’, sending people away on spurious bureaucratic grounds, and providing false and incorrect information about legal rights. Giles explains how these practices were not only illegal but could not be put down to misunderstandings of the law or the actions of poorly trained officers. They were quite deliberate. Southwark says it has reformed; we can only hope so.
The statistics of homelessness show a rapid increase since 2010 after many years of decline under Labour. In some ways this is surprising because, as we have seen, so many people are now prevented or discouraged from presenting to their council as homeless and, once they have applied, the ‘solution’ offered is unattractive. No-one except the most desperate would go through the mill of the homelessness acceptance process. Certainly in London, a long period in temporary accommodation awaits, often years, almost certainly the accommodation will be inadequate to the needs of the family and increasingly often it will be a long way from home.
After many months if not years of disruption, uncertainty and poor conditions, rehousing in a private rented flat is increasingly the outcome – expensive and insecure. As the ending of a private tenancy is now the biggest cause of homelessness, the expression the revolving door seems particularly apt. Far from being spongers jumping the housing queue, as they are portrayed, it is a real statement on the depths of the housing crisis that families feel that they have to put up with such appalling treatment. The biggest losers are often the children caught up in this, just like those of Cathy in the film.
The mitigation for Councils is that they are under such enormous pressures, with huge demands (not just from homeless households) and an extremely limited supply of social housing. In lettings policy, attitudes and guidance have also moved strongly against giving high priority to homeless households. But even for households lucky enough to eventually be offered a social home, the accommodation that is coming through the social housing pipeline is at high rents and is let on fixed term insecure tenancies. What is the point of that?
One of the measures of civilization is how a society treats its homeless people. It seems to me that we have regressed a long way.
Cathy Come Home is available at the BBC Shop.