The re­turn of mass home­less­ness is a stain on our na­tion

The fail­ure by the Tories to tackle the se­vere hous­ing short­age is part of an ide­ol­ogy to tar­get the vul­ner­a­ble

The Observer - - COMMENT - Lynsey Hanley

One night in 1967, Ron­nie Hughes, then a 12-year-old boy who lived with his fam­ily on a new es­tate at the edge of Liver­pool, was al­lowed to stay up late to watch Cathy

Come Home, Ken Loach’s TV film about home­less­ness in mod­ern Bri­tain.

Watch­ing it changed Ron­nie’s life, as it did many oth­ers who were shocked into ac­tion. On leav­ing school, he be­came a hous­ing of­fi­cer and has worked to pro­vide good hous­ing for peo­ple who need it ever since. Now, through the so­cial en­ter­prise Com­ing Home, he brings empty homes in Liver­pool back into use for se­cure ten­an­cies at low rents.

The hous­ing char­ity Shel­ter was also set up be­cause of Cathy Come Home and the film’s im­pact was such that its ti­tle and its theme – if not its lessons – have never been for­got­ten. So why, 50 years af­ter it was first broad­cast, is Bri­tain fac­ing a home­less­ness cri­sis on the same scale?

I could sum it up in one word – Tories – and that wouldn’t be egre­giously in­ac­cu­rate. As a teenager in 1990, I vis­ited Lon­don for the first time and saw the “card­board city” at Water­loo, scarcely able to be­lieve what I was see­ing, but per­fectly aware that it was there be­cause of the gov­ern­ment of the time. Around that time, see­ing peo­ple sleep­ing and beg­ging on the streets was a sad and anger-mak­ing part of liv­ing in a big city.

Once Labour en­tered power in 1997, vis­i­ble home­less­ness pretty much dis­ap­peared within a few years. Tories, again, would try and pin that on the “green shoots” of eco­nomic growth, but street home­less­ness was ended, if tem­po­rar­ily, by sus­tained and spe­cific gov­ern­ment fund­ing for the or­gan­i­sa­tions and in­di­vid­u­als who knew what needed to be done.

Now home­less­ness is back in all its forms. Ev­ery­where you go, peo­ple are back liv­ing on the streets, des­per­ate and di­shev­elled. One man in the sub­way be­neath Birm­ing­ham’s Ro­tunda sits with a sign say­ing: “I am a home­less per­son but I feel IN­VIS­I­BLE!” There are small tent cities in Manch­ester and those ter­ri­ble, fa­mil­iar card­board-box beds in door­ways.

It is no co­in­ci­dence that this phe­nom­e­non has re­turned in the last seven years – more in­tensely in the last two, since the Tories man­aged to shed the Lib Dems – al­though the wider hous­ing cri­sis has been decades long in the mak­ing. The wide­spread hous­ing in­se­cu­rity now ex­pe­ri­enced by mil­lions was avertable and re­versible at any point, but for lack of po­lit­i­cal will and pub­lic out­rage.

Through­out the 1960s, de­mog­ra­phers based pop­u­la­tion fore­casts on the birth rate dur­ing the post­war baby boom, pre­dict­ing that the pop­u­la­tion of Bri­tain would pass 70m be­fore the end of the 20th cen­tury. House­build­ing and slum clear­ance were al­ready close to the top of the po­lit­i­cal agenda when Cathy Come Home was broad­cast, with the com­ple­tion of new homes, mainly coun­cil houses and flats, based on those pop­u­la­tion projections, reach­ing 350,000 per year by the late 1960s.

By the mid-1970s, there was, tech­ni­cally speak­ing, a sur­plus of hous­ing in the UK, with coun­cil es­tates hous­ing a third of all house­holds. The Tories couldn’t be do­ing with a sit­u­a­tion in which, in crude terms, most peo­ple’s ba­sic needs were met with­out sig­nif­i­cant per­sonal sac­ri­fice. In 1980, they in­tro­duced the “right to buy” coun­cil homes, so that “de­serv­ing” work­ing-class peo­ple could sad­dle them­selves with a mort­gage and, over time, what was left could be fought for by the “un­de­serv­ing”.

As long ago as 1993, re­searchers at the Joseph Rown­tree Foun­da­tion, in a re­port tellingly ti­tled Mak­ing It Hap­pen: Find­ing the Re­sources for So­cial Hous­ing, noted that 600,000 more homes would have been built in Bri­tain dur­ing the 1980s had we in­vested the same pro­por­tion of GDP in house­build­ing as West Ger­many did dur­ing the same pe­riod.

The Com­mis­sion on So­cial Jus­tice, set up by Labour leader John Smith be­fore his un­timely death in 1994, com­mented in its fi­nal re­port that “for the large num­ber of home­less peo­ple, hous­ing is an as­pi­ra­tion rather than a re­al­ity”, and rec­om­mended: “If we want to end the scan­dal of home­less­ness in all its forms, we need to build and re­fur­bish more homes for rent at af­ford­able rates.”

Just why do we need to re­peat this de­mand in 2017? We know that the calls of the com­mis­sion weren’t re­ally ful­filled by the Labour gov­ern­ment, which took the re­port’s more third way el­e­ments on “rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties” and the mar­ket “hav­ing an ac­tive role to play” to more pro­nounced ends than a gov­ern­ment led by Smith may have done.

Dur­ing Labour’s time in power, a sus­tained slump in house­build­ing oc­curred. When, in 2007, Gor­don Brown an­nounced a pro­gramme to build “200,000 new homes a year”, it sounded rad­i­cal and has sounded rad­i­cal ev­ery time a prime min­is­ter or party leader has an­nounced the same tar­get since then. In that time, the short­age of se­cure and af­ford­able hous­ing has spread far be­yond Lon­don and the south­east to in­clude most towns and cities.

So what is to be done? For one thing, work to bring about a change in gov­ern­ment as quickly as pos­si­ble. The ex­is­tence of ex­ten­sive and longterm home­less­ness is ide­o­log­i­cal. Aca­demics David Whyte and Vickie Cooper de­scribe aus­ter­ity as be­ing a cal­cu­lated pro­gramme of state vi­o­lence against the most vul­ner­a­ble and I don’t dis­agree with that.

The Tories cling to power be­cause they man­age to per­suade just enough peo­ple at any one time that liv­ing in shop door­ways, hos­tels or B&Bs is an in­di­vid­ual les­son in char­ac­ter-build­ing. They can­not af­ford to re­mind the pub­lic that peo­ple only do it be­cause they do not have a home of their own to sleep in at night. Get rid of them, then en­cour­age a Labour gov­ern­ment to build more, build well and en­cour­age com­mu­nity groups to build. (This is al­ready hap­pen­ing in Leeds and Liver­pool.)

It is bloody ex­pen­sive to treat peo­ple as badly as this gov­ern­ment does. The royal bor­ough of Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea has enough cash in re­serve to buy dwellings within its own bor­ough to per­ma­nently re­house ev­ery­one made home­less by the fire at Gren­fell Tower, but in­stead it ob­fus­cates the clear need for swift jus­tice and puts up sur­vivors in ho­tels, where they can’t set­tle.

Street home­less­ness could be ended within a year and other forms of home­less­ness caused by evic­tion, penury and struc­tural dis­ad­van­tage erad­i­cated in a sin­gle term of gov­ern­ment if it was made a po­lit­i­cal pri­or­ity over Brexit, Tri­dent re­newal or any other need­less di­ver­sion. Cathy

Come Home de­manded that we change the way we see “home”: to re­gard it as a right, not a treat. It’s time to make that de­mand again.

Street home­less­ness could be erad­i­cated in a sin­gle gov­ern­ment term if it was made a po­lit­i­cal pri­or­ity


A home­less woman sleeps rough in Mar­ket Street, Manch­ester.

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