Sunday, November 19, 2006

Gimme shelter: 40 years on from Cathy Come Home

A tutor of mine from years ago gave a graphic account of being made homeless when her marriage broke down during the mid 1960s. She struggled to find accomodation with her three kids under 10 years. She struggled to hold down a job as a part/time teacher. She didn't tell anyone really of her plight. Then the play Cathy Come Home was shown one night and millions watched. She said there was an actual change in attitudes overnight towards homelessness and housing as she listened to her work colleagues discuss what they had watched and their surprise that people can fall through the cracks. They were shocked when she told them about her plight and that it never occurred to them that someone in their profession could become homeless. Her response was, "Anyone can become homeless"!

Reading this stark report about housing depressed me especially in the context that it is 40 years on from Ken Loach's film Cathy Come Home. The report is part of the Observer in conjunction with Crisis and the Housing Corporation special report on homelessness (can't find a link unfortunately). There was a massive outcry about housing after the first showing of Loach's film (11.8 million people watched it) and the organisation Shelter was set up.

But what has been achieved 40 years on. Well, the number of homeless households now stands at 95,000, including 130,000 kids. That tally has doubled over the last ten years. A combination of Thatcherism and the Blarite project has ultimately attacked and marginalised the poor. Would there be such a public outcry now if Cathy Come Home was shown? I very much doubt it.

During the mid-1960s, 400,000 homes a year had been built. Only 170,000 get built a year now. The average price of a home increased by £12,000 to £170,000.

People who are in vulnerable and powerless positions in society are finding it ever difficult to find housing. An example of this is a woman escaping domestic violence (bloody red tape, bureaucracy and the "intentionally homeless" rule) increases the obstacles for her to access social housing.

The number of homeless people with mental distress has almost doubled in 15 years. When I was a teenager in and out of the psychiatric system I was homeless and that experience still haunts me as I worry that I could one day find myself in that situation again. Housing is so precarious and not seen as an absolute right. Having a roof over your head isn't a sodding luxury. It is never simple, straightforward or easy to get access to housing whether you are a private tenant with limited rights, trying to buy somewhere is a joke especially if you are on a meagre salary and forget council housing....

Gordon Brown has stated that social housing will be a priority in next year's comprehensive spending review. I will see that to believe it. Shelter estimates that Brown will have to find £1.25bn. The Barker Review, published in 2004, recommended that 23,000 extra homes were built a year yet the Government has only committed itself to 10,000.

At the end of Cathy Come Home, Cathy had her kids taken off her. Now she would at least receive support and advice and a place in temporary accomodation. But getting access to a proper home will be very difficult. Things may have moved on but getting access to adequate social housing is still an impossible reality.

And think of all those 300,000 empty homes which exist around the UK going begging!