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

We invited three social care figures to watch Cathy Come Home again and discuss its impact on the UK’s poor in the light of today’s social landscape

According to Shelter, 1.6 million children are growing up homeless or in  bad housing. This is why Cathy Come Home continues to be relevant 40 years after it was first shown, not least to social work. So we asked three people, for whom the film was particularly influential, to watch the play when it was shown again recently and discuss the contemporary lessons of a drama which traces the descent of Cathy and her family into homelessness with the eventual removal of her children into care.

That the housing and homelessness crisis is still with us is clear from Shelter’s new report, Against the Odds, which reveals the damaging impact on children’s health and education. Children in bad housing are twice as likely to be persistently bullied, almost twice as likely to suffer from poor health, and twice as likely to have been excluded from school. The housing charity is urging the government to fund 20,000 new social homes a year in addition to the 30,000 already planned.

The film’s director, Ken Loach, said recently that the stigma of homelessness had not diminished. “Sometimes I get quite depressed about how things haven’t moved on. There are still issues around families that are homeless and young people who can’t get permanent accommodation. The destruction of a family touches everybody, a recent example being the imprisonment of asylum seekers in Dungavel.”

Loach thinks that the shock value of Cathy Come Home would have been much less today. “The images of Abu Ghraib are more shocking, but do we have the same level of outrage? It’s not only to do with the medium but the level of cynicism with the system and our leaders.”

Ken Kanu, national children’s service co-ordinator, Shelter
Cathy Come Home provoked emotion, as it vividly displayed the impact of homelessness on an ordinary family’s stability, on their physical and mental health and their children’s education.

It also provoked anger, as Cathy and her family were failed by a lack of affordable housing coupled with housing policy that failed to provide adequate safety. All of this is still happening today. And it is happening to more families.

As well as repeating Cathy Come Home, the BBC screened Evicted which showed the true realities of being homeless in temporary accommodation today.

It told a story that those of us working with homeless families are all too familiar with – children missing out on their schooling because of frequent moves, of them living with anxiety and stigma and suffering the consequences of unhealthy physical environments.

Evicted also displayed how homeless parents are still scared that their children will be taken into care – as Cathy’s were at the end of her story. While this is no longer widespread, Shelter has heard from many families judged to be intentionally homeless who have been told by council officers that the local authority would take their children into care rather than accommodate them. Many parents will not risk this and so stop their pursuit of social housing. Instead, they return to unacceptable living conditions, distancing themselves from vital support services for their children and themselves.

An increase in the supply of affordable social housing is the key to ending the damage that homelessness does to families. It was the underlying problem in 1966 and it is the underlying problem now. There is also an urgent need to address the way that families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness are supported by giving statutory services the resources to deal with issues such as health, emotional well-being and education.

There is also a lot of work needed to bring about the integration and shared accountability of housing services and children’s services. Until this happens, the stories of Cathy Come Home and Evicted will continue to be played out with a 21st century backdrop.

Ruth Stark, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers Scotland
When I first saw Cathy Come Home I was a teenager in the swinging sixties. It was pivotal in the development of my thinking about inequality – and influenced my decision to become a social worker. I decided I wanted to make a difference – just like the young people joining our profession today.

The line that had most impact on me watching it 40 years on was where the social worker says “you’ve had your turn with the children, we are concerned about what happens to them. We are not interested in you anymore”. This came across as a very hard-hearted statement.

I now realise it is a very complex statement and one that I  can still hear being said to parents – often in different words and maybe in softer tones, but nevertheless in a way that we need to rethink. We tend to say it where care and protection  proceedings are leading to a freeing for adoption or some other form of court order when it has been judged that rehabilitation has failed, not necessarily as a result of the poverty that comes across in this film. Across much of northern Europe, for example Sweden, this does not happen and children in public care are rarely placed for adoption. Instead, long-term fostering is the norm with extensive efforts made to keep children in contact with their parents when they do not live together. Are their outcomes in Sweden different and how do we measure them?

Shortly after the first screening of Cathy Come Home, the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 came into force. The government has failed to invest in section 12 of the act, to enable councils to promote social welfare. If we were to compare the well-being of young people brought up in Sweden and the UK who had experience of the welfare state and public care, might it be that Sweden would show more positive outcomes from its more enlightened view of the bond between parents and children?

Mark Ivory, managing editor, Community Care
The woman on the radio towards the end of the film sums it up for Cathy and homeless families like hers in the 1960s: “They are casualties of the welfare state, perhaps the worst casualties of all. They are pushed around like so much human litter and nobody will help them.”

Evicted eventually from segregated workhouse-style accommodation, Cathy and the three children are thrown like “human litter” on to London’s streets while Reg heads to Liverpool in search of work. A posse of social workers turns up to take the children into care, Cathy screaming in horror before subsiding into silent despair. Finally, the film tells us that 4,000 children from homeless families were taken into care each year.

Thanks to Cathy Come Home and Shelter, among others, the situation is now generally less bleak. Cathy’s family would be accepted as having a “priority need” under homelessness legislation and the council would be expected to find permanent  housing for them. However, they would probably still spend far too long in temporary accommodation and the children’s schooling would be hugely disrupted, creating the conditions for the next excluded generation.

Loach’s depiction of social work is harsh – some things never change – and rather one-sided when much that was good happened under post-war children’s legislation. But the profound sense of alienation produced by authoritarian social workers is readily apparent and ought to be a warning when today’s government regularly calls on them to police and monitor “problem” families.

“Many social workers feel all homeless families are problem families,” says one hapless functionary in the film. “They may not be when they arrive in our hostels but they usually are when they leave.”

It is also a reminder that the boundary between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, though it may shift positions, never goes away. For failed asylum seekers, for example, it is as if the past 40 years never happened. Section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 2004 urges social workers to take their children into care in much the same way as Cathy’s were. Their faces may be different, but families like hers are still out there.

Have your say on How far the policy towards the poor has moved forward since 1966. Visit our Discussion Forum

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.