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It's not all bleak, unless you're Cathy

There's a sense of optimism in the fight against homelessness.
However, for those alrady trapped in temporary accommodation the situation remains bleak. Welcome to the anniversary of a drama that detonated tha nation's social conscience.

Forty years on from the broadcast of Cathy Come Home, the world of housing, together with its dark underbelly of homelessness, has changed beyond recognition. For one thing it has got worse – but today homeless parents can at least keep the kids. The Government has invoked the drama as a banner for its successes. Figures released in September showed that new cases of households accepted as homeless had dropped to their lowest levels since the early 1980s. Just under 19,500 cases were recorded up to June this year, 30 per cent lower than the same time in 2005, and the largest percentage drop ever recorded according to the DCLG. The drop continued a downward trend that began in early 2004.

Meanwhile, the figures for households living in temporary accommodation had fallen by seven per cent between January and June to a level of 93,910. The statistics also showed that on any given night, there were only around 500 people sleeping rough in England. Housing minister Yvette Cooper welcomed these figures: “We’ve made great progress in preventing and tackling homelessness with numbers falling to a 23 year low. As we approach the 40th anniversary of Cathy Come Home, this Government has introduced a safety net which is amongst the strongest in the world and provides protection for families with hildren like Cathy.”

Though real, and welcomed by campaigning groups such as Shelter and risis, such gains are nevertheless still wamped by the scale of homelessness. "Any drop in new cases of homelessness is to be welcomed,” said Shelter’s chief executive Adam Sampson. “However, despite the drop, the scale of the housing crisis remains virtually unchanged with almost 100,000 homeless people and families currently trapped in temporary accommodation – more than double the number in 1997. Across Britain, more than 130,000 homeless children are having their health, education and future chances ruined by the lack of a safe, permanent home.”

According to Shelter, over 260,000 households are stuck on waiting lists for family-sized homes. Over a million homes in Britain are unfit for human ihabitation, but some 90 per cent are occupied. Furthermore, the number of households living in temporary accommodation in 1976 was a ‘mere’ ,700. The latest figure of 93,910 that so excited Cooper is roughly double the number recorded in 1997, when the New Labour Government promised ‘things can only get better’. In that respect, there is a certain tragic irony in the reference to Cathy.

Meanwhile, for the modern-day families stuck in the limbo of temporary accommodation, or those struggling to make ends meet, while languishing on waiting lists for social housing, the situation is as bleak as it ever was – and the self-congratulation of ministers must seem a hollow exercise in political spin. More appropriate is a comment from Sampson: “So much has changed in the last 40 years but, tragically, Cathy has much less chance of coming home than she would have done back then. With more than one million children in bad housing it is a national scandal that even more families are suffering the kind of long-term damage and insecurity witnessed in that heartbreaking film about homelessness.”

Shelter was launched two days after the drama’s first showing in November 1966 as part of BBC 1’s ‘The Wednesday Play’ series. Though the two were not connected, the former provided a significant boost to the latter’s profile. Written and directed by Ken Loach, from a story by Jeremy Sandford, it outraged the nation, established Loach as a politically committed filmmaker, and – more importantly – triggered a groundswell of public indignation that forced politicians to not only sit up and take notice, but to actually do something. It focused on Cathy, wife and mother, and followed her journey that led through the breakdown of her relationship caused by debt and poverty towards destitution after an injury left her husband Reg out of work The journey ended in homelessness and saw the authorities taking her children into care.

That is something that would no longer happen, thanks to reforms made in the wake of its broadcast, such as the Rent Act and Homelessness Act that were groundbreaking in their day. In today’s world, the Government made a major commitment to tackle rough sleeping and promised to halve the numbers trapped in temporary accommodation by 2010. The Housing Act 2002 required local authorities to formulate a homelessness strategy, with a strong element on prevention wherever possible. The use of Bed and Breakfast accommodation has also been addressed, with use limited to a period of six-weeks while something more appropriate – though still alas temporary – can be provided.

“Many local authorities have good schemes, but at the end of the day without the housing available there’s a limited amount that they can do. Literally, if they don’t have enough homes then they can be the best local authority in the world, but they can’t house everyone,” said Shelter’s deputy director of policy Caroline Davey. “In terms of a comparison with 40 years ago, there has been a shift in the kind of homelessness we see. Cathy Come Home was very much about slums and showed families literally being torn apart. Today, we see an awful lot of people living in temporary accommodation because there is not enough to go around. It’s a historic failure to build enough social housing.”

Despite the stated plans for thousands of new homes to be built in the south east and across the country, across all tenures, and the Government’s added promise to up the numbers of social housing by 10,000 a year by 2008, Shelter says that still will not cover what is needed – not just to house homeless families, but also to liberate many more from overcrowded and unfit housing. Davey added: “One of the big problems has been around the soaring house prices over the last decade. There’s a growing wealth gap, which means that many more people are unable to either rent or buy in the private sector. Tie this in with the right to buy, introduced in 1980, which saw a haemorrhaging of social housing from the national stock that hasn’t been replaced, so there are more people who need to live in social housing but it just isn’t there for them.”

Shelter believes society is at a turning point on the issue, and is calling not for 10,000 additional social homes to be built – but an extra 20,000 a hear. To that end, it is urging the Government to make the commitment in next year’s Comprehensive Spending Review. The nature of homelessness has changed over forty years, as have the measures to tackle it, but it is no longer a threat only for the bottom end of the social scale. More and more, people from all walks of life can be affected. The reasons are legion, but the issue is intimately tied into the very modern housing crisis. The lack of genuinely affordable homes, compounded by a shortage of social housing, has combined to put more and more people at risk of becoming the 21st Century Cathy.

Ultimately, the solution lies in the provision of more homes. Meanwhile, perhaps it’s time for Ken Loach to consider making a sequel.

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