Homelessness after Cathy: better prevention, effective solutions

50 years on from Cathy Come Home, a new radio documentary explored the lives of three homeless people with very different circumstances. JRF’s Brian Robson listened in, and reflects on how systems could work better to support each of these situations.

‘It seems so random… I went from being highly successful, to falling down life’s snakes,’ Stewart told Radio Four’s After Cathy. He’d been a businessperson, but now lives in a homeless hostel in High Wycombe.

Stewart’s relationship had broken down. Friends took him in, but his existing post-traumatic stress disorder contributed to a ‘major meltdown’, and suddenly, he was homeless.  A life event like that – or perhaps a bereavement, a redundancy or an illness - could happen to almost any of us, and put us in a situation like Stewart’s. 

Zahra was a teacher. She was juggling an impossible housing situation with a demanding job and two children. The behaviour changes she was beginning to notice in her youngest child sadly aren’t unusual – unstable housing in childhood can have lasting behavioural and educational effects. Her case exemplified a growing group of people accepted by their local authority as homeless following the end of a private rented tenancy. That scenario accounts for the bulk of the rise in homelessness acceptances in England* – with numbers in this category quadrupling since 2009/10.  But those ‘acceptances’ only tell part of the story. The Homelessness Monitor shows that while 54,000 households were accepted as homeless, over 200,000 other homelessness cases were also actioned by councils in England last year.

The final person we heard from was Bernard. He conformed to a more ‘typical’ homeless stereotype – an alcoholic who admitted he liked his lifestyle, but whose complex needs were making increasing demands on public services. Bernard’s story appeared to be presented as a contrast with Stewart and Zahra’s more ‘deserving’ cases – what The Times labelled ‘middle class homelessness’.  As my colleague Abigail Scott Paul has pointed out, this kind of portrayal is counter-productive when it comes to changing public opinion.

Yes, Stewart and Zahra were doing well before an unexpected life event hit them – but how many others never get to realise their potential because the unexpected happens earlier in life, before they get to prove what a great business person or teacher they’d be? What skills and talents are we deprived of as a result?

Safety nets exist, but they can be weak. Many private renters might assume that Housing Benefit would cover their rent if they weren’t working – but there are over 5.5million ‘renters at risk’ – those whose rent would not be covered by housing benefit if they became ill and were unable to work, or lost their job through no fault of their own.

Like poverty, homelessness is real, but it’s not inevitable. As a nation, we could have offered better solutions to each of the people profiled:

Bernard’s complex needs might have been better addressed at an early stage through Housing First. That would have involved him getting rapid access to settled accommodation, coupled with intensive and personalised support for as long as he needed it.

It’s possible Zahra could have stayed in her existing home if England adopted a stronger commitment to preventing homelessness. The Homelessness Reduction Bill – currently making its way through Parliament – would give a right to meaningful assistance as soon as tenants receive a notice to quit from their landlord, rather than having to wait up to 4 weeks for help. A similar approach is showing promising results in Wales.

Stewart had been offered housing, but it was miles away in Newcastle. He (and Zahra) would benefit from an increased supply of secure, low-cost rented housing, through a Living Rents development framework.

JRF’s plan to solve UK poverty set out a vision that the UK should be a country where everyone, no matter where they live, can live a decent and secure life. Let’s not wait another 50 years to make that a reality.

*The cases profiled in After Cathy were all located in England. Different arrangements apply in other parts of the UK.  JRF and Crisis publish Homelessness Monitors for all four parts of the UK.