Make no mistake – it is a political decision not to solve the housing crisis
On Tuesday, I had the privilege of speaking at the Homes for Britain rally. The rally saw 2,500 housing campaigners descend on Westminster to demand that all parties commit to end the housing crisis within a generation.
Crisis has been a core member of the Homes for Britain coalition since it began. We got involved because we know that the shortage of affordable housing is a major driver of homelessness, and that we will only end the scandal of homelessness in the 21st century if we build enough homes.
At the rally, I spoke in a session with Ken Loach, the chief executive of Shelter Campbell Robb, and Mariam Ahmed, a member of the Youth Homeless Parliament. I was asked to talk about the 1966 film Cathy Come Home, which brought the housing crisis to public attention for the first time, and the campaigning that led to the birth of Crisis. This is what I said:
‘Cathy Come Home had a profound impact on the way that people thought about homelessness and homeless people. It shook and it scared some people, and it angered many more. Though it divided opinion, for the first time people could see homelessness not as a life choice but as a real risk to ordinary families.
1966 and 67 saw an outpouring of public activism. Alongside Cathy Come Home, there were public marches, a candlelit vigil, and rallies like this one. Social reformers emerged from all sides of the political spectrum and founded much of the civil society we see today.
Addressing a rally in Hyde Park in December 1967, Iain MacLoed, founder of Crisis, and then Conservative Shadow Chancellor said this:
“I believe in passion in politics. I believe in anger as a weapon. I believe in attacking anyone, whatever position he holds, who breaks his promise to our country, and so I fear I must meekly endure the genteel criticism of those who think that one should not speak above a whisper.
“This is an appeal to help those who no longer have any dignity and self-respect; the down and outs. We know that they are dirty and derelict. We do not expect you to admire them because of this. What we do expect is that you will acknowledge that they are fellow human beings, and that they have nothing left to look forward to.
“These people live in a state of permanent despair having lost the cloak of sociability that clothes us all. They live in the twilight zones of our cities and enjoy a life marked by obscenity and degradation.
“We call upon the talents, ideas and enthusiasm of people from all different prejudices and beliefs in a constructive attempt to tackle this growing urban problem. The idea is that people of all the political parties shall come together for the same cause. If there be rivalry between them it will be the rivalry of achievement.”
It took another decade until in in 1977 the Homeless Persons Act was passed. This guaranteed accommodation to homeless families for the first time.
This was a landmark Act, but within it was contained a devastating compromise. The right to rehousing was a huge step forward for families, but the House of Lords amended the Bill to excluded single homeless people from help. Nick Beacock, a leading campaigner at the time, recalls: ‘When the bill came back from the Lords many people wanted to reject it. We persuaded them not to on the grounds that half a loaf is better than nothing.’
And so today, this is unfinished business. Walk in any direction when you leave this hall today and you will see single homeless people. The people you see are just some of the thousands of rough sleepers in this country.
For men and women, young and old, homelessness is a crisis that can hit any of us. And when it does we know that you are 13 times for likely to be violently attacked, and that the average age of death for the street homeless is just 47.
Cathy Come Home remains a seminal and spellbinding drama, with a unique postscript of social change. But it stands the test of time for another reason.
Homelessness it still with us. All forms of homelessness are on the rise once again. The victories of the past were not enough and all over again we must make the case for housing those most in need.
Make no mistake, the political decision not to solve the housing crisis, is a wilful decision to condemn thousands of people to living in hostels, or crammed into bed and breakfasts, or worst of all out on the streets.
And so once again, let us seize a moment despite party politics, despite the scale of the housing crisis, and demand a rivalry of achievement to protect all homeless people and build the homes needed to end this appalling and preventable crisis.