Homelessness Destroys Lives

In 1966, I watched Ken Loach’s drama documentary Cathy Come Home. Wikipedia summarizes the play thus:

The play tells the story of a young couple, Cathy and Reg. Initially their relationship flourishes and they have a child and move into a modern home. When Reg is injured and loses his job, they are evicted by bailiffs, and they face a life of poverty and unemployment, illegally squatting in empty houses and staying in shelters. Finally, Cathy has her children taken away by social services.

I still remember the play vividly; it had a profound effect on me as it brought my earliest memories as a child of 5 into focus, living in my uncle’s house, his family, my grandmother, and my family (my parents, my sister and me); my family had one tiny room.

My father was desperately looking for work, and eventually found some labouring work in a school in another town 60 miles away. We moved with him, and again had to live in a rented room for another 6 months. That experience made me regard homelessness as one of the greatest horrors that could befall an individual or a family.

Research by the National Housing Federation has found that between January and March 2012 there were 3,960 families nationwide in the UK living in B&B accommodation, a jump of 44% over the same period in 2011. It is likely that these figures will rise even further as the scale of cuts and austerity bite deeper.

How did we allow our stock of social housing to dwindle so low that families have to live in such conditions to stay off the streets? Politicians from left and right constantly talk about equal opportunities for our children to achieve their full potential. How does a child living under such conditions achieve his or her full potential?

Imagine the misery, hopelessness and devastation associated with these statistics, the stress and anxiety of the adults, its impact on the children, and the destruction of their future and their life chances. The poverty trap and deprivation that may result will cascade down the generations.

The charity for the homeless, Shelter, sees:

Homelessness is not just a housing problem. Not having a decent home adversely affects all areas of your life – from your health, to your achievement at school if you are a child, and your ability to get work if you are an adult. Conversely, if you are struggling with your health or your employment, this may in turn affect your housing needs and the security of your home.

The lives of most people are dependent on the modest wages they receive from work to survive and keep a roof over their family’s heads. Any interruption of that income due to illness or unemployment of the breadwinner could tip the family into homelessness. Most of us feel “there but for the grace of God go I.”

As individuals we take up insurance to ameliorate the shocks of life. As a society we pool our resources through our taxes to give us the welfare safety net; we pay for the NHS to ensure that we will be treated if we or our children become ill. That our welfare safety net should have become so poor to the extent of condemning families to live in such unsuitable accommodation as a B&B is a scandal a civilized society should not accept. The elevation of dogma and ideology above reason often has tragic and devastating consequences.

Margaret Thatcher initiated in 1980 the sale of council social housing under the right to buy scheme, and one million council houses were sold by 1987. That, in itself, would not have been so bad if central government had allowed councils to use the money to build more houses, instead of restricting them to using it to reduce their debt. That was false economy, as we, the taxpayers, ended up paying more money to private landlords to provide inferior accommodation for those who had fallen on hard times, taxpayer funds to enrich the wealthy.

Perhaps it is time for a Cathy Come Home part two to be made to remind people and governments about the destruction of lives brought about by homelessness.

Adnan Al-Daini (PhD, Birmingham University, UK) is a retired University Engineering lecturer. He is a British citizen born in Iraq. He writes regularly on issues of social justice and the Middle East. Read other articles by Adnan.