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.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.