Cathy Come Home, the legacy. David Donnison on homelessness and poverty, 40 years on from Ken Loach’s film

Forty years since the BBC drama Cathy Come Home alerted us to the plight of the homeless, how far have we come in  eradicating the root causes, asks social policy thinker David Donnison

Looking back 40 years to the first showing of Cathy Come Home and the founding of Shelter, launched on the wave created by Ken Loach’s ground-breaking film – what should we make of this anniversary?

For reformers and radicals the 1960s were great years in which to be alive: a time of hope. We believed the world could be made a fairer and better place. We believed social workers, academics, artists and community activists could play a part in achieving that. Cathy and Shelter stood for those hopes, and, in time, showed they were not just an illusion.

The Child Poverty Action Group, founded the previous year, had led the way. But it was created by academics who believed they could bring child poverty to an end through reforms impelled by the sheer authority of their analysis – conveyed every week by Tony Lynes, the CPAG secretary, pedalling his bike-load of statistics to Westminster. They refused to waste time raising money or mobilising local groups of supporters. That was to come later under Frank Field’s leadership.

Although Shelter was supported by some of the same academics – Brian Abel Smith, London School of Economics professor, among them – it was an altogether different animal. It was led by Des Wilson, a brilliant young advertiser from New Zealand, who would start from a dramatic black-and-white photograph; then add the caption beneath; then turn to the academics for supporting argument. Before long he had the sixth formers of the nation on the march, and many others joined their demonstrations, demanding action for the homeless. These youngsters later went on to work for social justice on many other fronts, as older readers of this magazine can testify.

Shelter’s campaigns were not just marches and media glitz. They depended for their success on the practical help that its staff and volunteers gave to homeless people. They could not be dismissed by journalists and politicians because they plainly knew what they were talking about; and they could bring homeless families to tell their stories to the cameras, so the politicians had to come and answer them. And in time – 11 years and two governments later – it worked. The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 asserted that families and other vulnerable people had a right to a home; a right which had to be ranked alongside those they had already won – for a minimum income, medical care, education and legal aid – for none of these could be effective until people had a safe and secure home to live in.

What has been achieved since those heroic years? Not everything we hoped for; but quite a lot. Practice varies from place to place. It is easier to find homes for people in cities like Glasgow, which built a lot of social rented housing and has for years had a falling population, than in London where the population is increasing and housing scarcities are the norm. But general housing standards have greatly improved; and providing for the homeless has become a standard part of the housing job.

People with children and frail elderly people will be found a subsidised home of  some sort if they are in danger of becoming homeless. Meanwhile social work services have certainly expanded and most have improved. (Perhaps they never were quite as bad as the monster portrayed in Cathy.) But the work of anyone trying to help homeless people has become more daunting.

The most damaged people are no longer locked away in institutions. This is a good thing; but some of them are on the streets instead. The homeless “ordinary decent Londoners” – families like Cathy’s, described by so many of the witnesses to the Milner Holland Committee which reported on London housing the year before Loach’s film – have been replaced by teenagers,  homeless on the housing estates.

These, too, began as “ordinary decent youngsters”. But they have often come from violent homes, may have been in care, and may too easily graduate through addiction and increasingly chaotic lifestyles to city centres and incarceration.

The successors to Cathy – homeless families – are now found among asylum seekers and refugees whose problems originate in other parts of the world, and are then complicated by restrictions we impose on their access to citizenship, work and social security benefits. Neither the teenagers nor the refugees have Cathy’s capacity to evoke public sympathy. Homelessness is no longer a big political issue.

Even the best possible services for those already homeless will not reduce the numbers coming forward to join their ranks next year and the year after. To make a lasting difference we have to get back to the main causes of the problem which often lie in industrial change, unemployment, poverty and the disintegration of family life. That, as David Webster’s studies show, calls for the rebuilding of economies which have collapsed, and initiatives that will help excluded people into decent work.(1)

The loss of so many manufacturing jobs has driven younger, more skilled, two-parent families out of stricken cities and neighbourhoods, and imposed growing stresses on the more vulnerable folk who remain.

Most of the social problems that obsess our governments and the Conservative press – not only homelessness but also lone parenthood, teenage pregnancies, disorder on the street, addictions and crime – owe a good deal to industrial decline and the concentrations of poverty it creates.

Our government is trying to tackle these problems – with some success – but rebuilding shattered communities is a complex task calling for close collaboration between just about every service we have. Encouraging mothers of young children into work, with child care arrangements to support them that are often inadequate, may reduce the statistics of child poverty. But it may not reduce the numbers of children who eventually become homeless.

Anniversaries should be about the future as well as the past. What strategic lessons can we learn from these reflections? Shelter and the CPAG were precursors of a steady growth in the groups campaigning on particular issues and for particular groups defined by their gender, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disabilities and so on. Good causes all, which have transformed our society for the better in many ways.

But something may have been lost. The radicals of previous generations had been more broadly concerned about less skilled working class people and the problems they faced. Led by Labour politicians and academics like Richard Tawney and Richard Titmuss, they challenged inequality and social injustice wherever they found them.

From the late 1960s their successors turned to fight on behalf of women, black people, gay people and the rest for fairer shares of the privileges offered by what became an increasingly unequal society. That kind of justice was richly deserved. But the pressure groups rarely questioned whether our society had to be so unequal. The equalities commissions now being set up in the UK still seem more concerned about rights than inequality.

No one should tolerate the squalid doctrines of parties of the far right; but we should not be surprised if they gain support from a lot of white working people who feel there is no one else who speaks up for them. These folk, whose parents belonged to a broad class of manual workers among whom there was a lot of solidarity, find that, today, the more fortunate children of that class have abandoned them – moving up into the amorphous, worried world of “middle England”.

“Middle Englanders” are an important group. In a country with our kind of electoral system, no political party can win power without their support. Because they are often in insecure jobs, worrying about interest rates as they try to pay off their mortgages, wondering if they can afford to send their children to universities, and anxious about their medical care and their pensions, these people have less sympathy than most for those who fall on hard times; more inclined to blame the victims.

Surveys suggest that willingness to pay more tax for better social services, which used to be inversely related to incomes, now takes a gentle U-shaped curve – “middle England” being least convinced that policies of this kind will benefit them.

Other factors doubtless play their part in the politics of social justice and social exclusion. The groups from whom our political leaders are recruited lack the training acquired by their predecessors who had fought in two world wars and knew that officers had to take care of their men.

Did the final collapse of communism also play a part? The victory of capitalism, which seemed to have been achieved with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, brought to an end a long century through which there had always been a threat from the East – the Prussians, the fascists, the Soviets – regimes to which the working class might turn if let down by their own rulers.

For whatever reason, there is no doubt that our society is more unequal in many ways than it was 40 years ago, and leaders of the left are less inclined to challenge its injustices than they used to be.

Grossly unequal societies may successfully manage their social problems, but they do not solve them. They chase them around the policy map. Homeless mothers who used to seek refuge on railway stations now have flats; but they worry about the dreary and intimidating neighbourhoods they often have to live in: their lack of shops and decent schools, the drug dealers, the violence. Neglected children may be taken more promptly into better public care than in the past. But how many of them leave school with any qualifications? How many can even read? How many go on to universities? Why do so many of them become homeless at some stage?

In many quarters it is now the smart thing to deride the “welfare state”. But did we ever have one? Have we got much further than an “ambulance state”? We still have a long way to go if we are to create a fair society.

● David Donnison is professor emeritus at Glasgow University’s Department of Urban Studies. He was professor of social  administration at the LSE from 1961-9 and chaired the Supplementary Benefits Commission from 1975–80.

(1) D Webster, “Welfare Reform: Facing up to the Geography of Worklessness”, Local Economy, Vol 21, No.2, May, pp107-116, 2006

This article appeared in the 14 December issue under the headline “After Cathy”

This weeks other feature articles
Children’s advocacy

Review of the year

Poverty and homelessness. The verdict 40 years after Cathy Come Home


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