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Half a century of homelessness in the UK – here’s what has changed

Injury, unemployment, eviction, squats, shelters, social services – homelessness. This is the desperate spiral depicted in Ken Loach’s influential film, Cathy Come Home. First aired 50 years ago, the drama offers a graphic portrayal of the treatment of an ordinary family by public authorities, as they grapple with homelessness.

Reflecting the public outrage at the film’s revelations, the pressure group Shelter was founded to raise awareness and campaign for reform. The same year saw the publication of one of the only government-sponsored surveys of homelessness in England, by the National Assistance Board (NAB).

On the 50th anniversary of these three landmark events, it’s time to ask whether Cathy and her family would suffer the same tragedies today.

The first count

We’re not shown what happens to Cathy after her children are taken by social services. In all likelihood, she would have joined the 965 people sleeping rough, which the NAB found in their one-night head count on December 6, 1965, of which only 45 were women.

She could have become one of the 1,367 unaccommodated claimants of National Assistance, the precursor to our Jobseekers Allowance. That meagre provision might then have afforded her the occasional bed in one of the 567 commercial or charitable hostels and lodging houses, which housed 28,789 inhabitants, of which just 1,905 were women.

Free, public sector accommodation was limited to the NAB’s own reception centres – a relic from the Victorian era’s Poor Law workhouses – which housed 1,956 men at the time of the count.

After computing these figures, the survey estimated that there were about 13,500 single homeless people in December 1965, the vast majority of whom would have been men.

Ten years on

Cathy might have fared better a decade later. Tireless campaigning by Shelter and other charities finally bore fruit, in the form of the 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. The act is unique among Western states, because it makes housing a statutory right for certain people.

The law obliges local authorities to provide permanent housing to families who are judged to be “unintentionally homeless” (or threatened with homelessness) and belong to a “priority need group”. These include families with dependent children or pregnant women.

So, Cathy would have had housing rights up to the point where her children were removed by social services, although she would still need to prove that she had not become homeless “intentionally”, by being evicted from a private tenancy for failing to keep up rent payments. Despite several re-enactments, these laws have withstood Thatcherism, and today remain in more or less their original form.

Yet any expectations that the act has worked to eliminate homelessness today must be quickly disappointed. The methods used by the NAB to count homelessness have changed over time, which makes comparisons tricky. But figures released by the Department for Communities and Local Government, based on nightly head counts undertaken in the autumn of 2015, revealed 3,569 rough sleepers. This is double the number recorded in 2010, and nearly five times the figure quoted 50 years ago.

Services have not expanded to cope. The NAB counted 34,596 available places in hostel accommodation in 1966. The charity Homeless Link recorded 36,540 in 2014.

Would Cathy still lose her children for being homeless in 2016? An investigation for Inside Housing revealed that 35 of the 106 councils that responded to their survey had taken at least one child into care during 2014/15, where the main reason was homelessness. This tells us that a third of councils are still pursuing this practice, 50 years after Cathy and nearly 40 years after legislation was supposed to make it unnecessary.

Ray of hope

Amid this darkening outlook, some hope rests with the Homelessness Reduction Bill, which is currently being debated in parliament. As it stands, the bill will oblige local authorities to assist all homeless people by assessing their situation, helping to prevent their homelessness where possible, or providing temporary accommodation for up to 56 days.

It also addresses the most rapidly increasing trigger of homelessness: the shorthold tenancy. When a shorthold tenancy comes to an end – usually after a period of six months – the landlord can evict the tenant without any legal reason. The new bill requires that local authorities treat households as “threatened with homelessness”, as soon as an eviction notice is served. This means people like Cathy won’t have to wait for the bailiffs to arrive before help is available.

If the NAB enumerators were to repeat their survey today, they would be struck by how little has changed. Some comparisons are possible using data on rough sleepers compiled by the Mayor of London’s office. Compared with 50 years ago, today’s rough sleeping population is younger, more female and more vulnerable. It has a greater proportion of foreign nationals, and as we have seen, it is larger and growing by the year.

But unaffordable and insecure tenancies remain the primary reason that people are left without accommodation. The proposed legislation offers some hope, but it’s provisions are essentially reactive – until politicians address the underlying causes, people like Cathy will continue to struggle.

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