Fifty years on from Cathy Come Home, how has homelessness in the UK changed?

A screenshot from Cathy Come Home. Image: BBC.

Injury, unemployment, eviction, squats, shelters, social services — then 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 & 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 its provisions are essentially reactive — until politicians address the underlying causes, people like Cathy will continue to struggle.The Conversation

Graham Bowpitt is a reader in social policy at Nottingham Trent University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”