homelessness 50 years on: what's changed?

50 years on from the blistering drama of Cathy Come Home, we hear from Palme d'Or winning director Ken Loach on his most affecting work and speak to Adrian Jackson, founder of Cardboard Citizens: a theatre company comprised of actors who were or...

by Matthew Whitehouse
07 July 2016, 11:49pm

We shouldn't still be talking about Cathy Come Home. At least, not as something still relevant in 2016. First aired on television 50 years ago, the Ken Loach directed drama of a young family's slide into homelessness was a landmark in art effecting real change, leading to public outcry at the state of housing in Britain and inspiring the formation of several homeless charities, including Shelter and Crisis. Fifty years on, the story of Cathy, her husband Reg and the chain of events that see their family left homeless remain, sadly, all too real; a situation underscored by Tuesday night's urgent and moving re-staging of the play by Cardboard Citizens: a 22-strong ensemble comprised of actors who have been or who are currently homeless.

"It just makes me angrier and angrier that we are still here, still talking about this," said Loach, who made an unscheduled appearance at a discussion following the production, directed by Tony McBride and starring Elle Payne as Cathy and Denholm Spurr as Reg. "This isn't a historic reenactment. It's a small example of something that is now much worse. And it just seems so extraordinary that this is happening. It's something that we couldn't have imagined 50 years ago."

On a panel including Cardboard Citizens founder Adrian Jackson, BBC journalist Samira Ahmed, Shelter CEO Campbell Robb, Mercury Prize nominated musician Eska and Deputy Mayor for Housing James Murray, Loach spoke angrily of how a culture of private greed has lead to a conscious acceptance of cruelty, one that tolerates foodbanks as an acceptable part of society: "I think we're now in a far worse state," he told the audience. "We have a government that is bent on cruelty to the poor. Cathy was 50 years ago. People still ate then. Who would have thought, now, people are forced to choose between eating and heating?".

With the production also marking 25 years since the formation of Cardboard Citizens, we spoke to founder Adrian Jackson about "the creativity, bravery and genius of people who are sometimes written off and have shown here tonight that, if given a chance, can be brilliant." Cathy Come Home might not have ended homelessness in Britain, but 50 years on it continues to give a voice to the voiceless. Watch the performance and read our interview with Adrian interview below.

What's the aim of the re-staging?
Cardboard Citizens' community staging of Cathy Come Home is both a homage to the original film and its remarkable impact, and a reminder that homelessness is seriously on the up again. If you like, we are using the anniversary of this powerful statement to make a further powerful statement about today. Like Ken Loach, we are great believers in the power of art to effect change, on a personal and societal level - this is what we do every day, with the homeless people we work with, and our production of Cathy Come Home will be a living embodiment of how much people can grow when given support, when trusted to complete a difficult task and when offered the opportunity to express themselves.

Has much changed since the original release? What did we learn and what did we not learn from the film?
Much has changed and much has either stayed the same or returned to a similar place. General attitudes towards homelessness and towards those in the grip of it have probably improved, since a time when the standard word for a homeless person was 'tramp'. There is surely a wider understanding in the general public that it's is not necessarily homeless people's own 'fault' that they find themselves in this condition, and that actually it could happen to anyone with a few bits of bad luck. That said, homeless people still have to endure daily humiliations, simply to survive, and are frequently the object of verbal and physical abuse. The conditions of hostels have improved, but still people find themselves trapped in temporary accommodation for years and years. The austerity regime means that homeless people have to go through even more hoops to avoid being sanctioned (i.e. having their benefits cut) - and legislation such as the Bedroom Tax have done nothing to free up accommodation.

At the time of writing, there are apparently a million people living in temporary accommodation awaiting council housing -the supply of which has been drastically reduced in the last twenty years because of the Right to Buy legislation. In spite of the efforts of Shelter and Crisis, both launched within a year of Cathy Come Home being broadcast, no political party has shown the political will to make the building of sufficient social housing a proper priority. Legislation around the rented sector has been adjusted greatly to favour the landlord and gives tenants very few rights - so-called 'No Fault' evictions are perfectly legal and very common. Finally, after a number of years in the late 60s and early 70s during which housing stock was improved and slums were cleared, we are now in the era of the shed, in which multiple occupation of completely unsuitable buildings has become common again.

How can people organise to help?
Anyone can volunteer for any of the multiplicity of charities working with homeless people - just do it, you will not regret it. But even more important possibly is to seize opportunities to meet and talk to homeless people, to treat them as the fellow citizens they are - and to work towards changing the laws of our country so that more housing is built which is genuinely affordable and rebuilding the rental sector to give renters the security of tenure which everyone needs, in order to call a place home. There is masses of new housing standing empty, used as an investment, often by overseas buyers - it would be simple enough to introduce tax levers which would make it more financially advantageous for people to have these properties occupied.

Finally, Adrian, are we any closer to ending homelessness?
I fear not. But there is no reason why the fifth largest (maybe sixth largest today) economy in the world should allow it to continue. It is intolerable. So let us not tolerate it.

Cardboard Citizens bring a new work, Ali Taylor's Cathy, to theatres, hostels, prisons and day centres around the country this autumn. For more information visit cardboardcitizens.org.uk.


Text Matthew Whitehouse
Photography Richard Davenport

Ken Loach
cardboard citizens
cathy come home