Has Cathy come home?

There have been two important things on my ‘To Do’ list for some time, and in the past week I have achieved them both.

Firstly, as an Edinburgh-based panda-enthusiast in the possession of free tickets to the zoo, it was becoming conspicuous that 10 months since their arrival in Edinburgh, I had so far failed to make a date with the Giant Pandas in their new home at Edinburgh Zoo.

Secondly, as an employee of Shelter Scotland I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable that, despite its cultural/political significance and association with Shelter and Shelter Scotland, I had not seen Ken Loach’s seminal docu-film ‘Cathy Come Home’.

The first of these was easily rectified and I spent a very enjoyable day at the Zoo. While I could probably fill more than this blog post on my trip to zoo (and perhaps the ethics of zoos generally, and the expense of the afore mentioned pandas…) it is probably of less relevance to my role at Shelter Scotland, so I’ll leave it there.

So back to Cathy. This 1966 black and white documentary-style film tells the story of an ill-fated woman who finds herself homeless. The drama charts her increasingly heart rendering decline into abject poverty until eventually (**spoiler alert**) her children are forcibly – and traumatically – taken into state care.

The film was first screened on BBC1 and was watched by 12 million people, a quarter of the UK population at the time, and shocked a generation. The poverty, the slum conditions, the unfairness of it all and the tragedy, led to public outcry. While the story was fiction, in a new approach to film making, Loach interspersed the story of Cathy and her family, with interviews and footage of real people living in impossibly cramped conditions in slums across London.

Shelter, although unconnected, was launched in London shortly after, when the images of Cathy were still reverberating in the country’s consciousness. The issues of homelessness and bad housing were given a new salience and in 1968, in recognition of our own distinct housing problems, Shelter Scotland was established. Much has been written about the film –it was even voted as the second greatest television programme ever – and working in homelessness, it is often name checked as symbolic of a certain time in the evolution of public policy, and public sympathy, towards homeless people.

But with all the expectation, I wondered whether it could really resonate 45 years later.  And whether – having visited homeless hostels, spoken to homeless families and worked closely with housing and homelessness legislation in twenty-first century Scotland – it would reinforce some of the stereotypes the sector has worked hard to overcome.

Well. Quite apart from the pathos and the drama, what surprised me the most was just how relevant the messages from the film were and sadly, how little has changed. As other commentators have recognised, the issues of bad housing, lack of supply, poor family support and poverty compounding poverty – still ring true.

It’s a sad fact that many of the conditions we campaigned against 40 years ago still remain.

In Scotland there are currently more than 5,000 children staying in temporary accommodation, as our Christmas campaign highlights and their life expectancy, educational outcomes, employability and social networks will all be affected by experiencing homelessness. More than 100,000 families with children are still living in Scotland in houses affected by dampness and condensation and over 45,000 families with children are living in statutorily overcrowded homes.

As impacts of the recession continue to bite, people are increasingly locked out of the market, unable to buy a house, unable to rent privately but not high enough priority to top the 160,000+ person council house waiting list. And as a recent study showed, a fifth of workers are still paid below the living wage struggling to make ends meet. The chronic conditions some people are living in, are underscored by the shameful fact that there are currently 3.6 million children living in poverty across the UK, and that number is projected to rise under current government policies.

So yes, while the hairstyles, the twee language and the slightly caricatured heroes and villains do date the film, its message is as pertinent today as in 1960s Britain. With a double-dip recession, ill-conceived changes to the welfare system afoot and the unemployment rate twice as high as in 1966.  Maybe more so.

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Fiona King

Fiona King

I’m Campaigns & Public Affairs Manager at Shelter Scotland and have been part of the team since 2010, previously having been a policy nerd. Our campaigning work takes me all over Scotland and beyond and I work closely with politicians and stakeholders across Scotland to get housing up the agenda. Outside the world of policy I like to eat and drink, ideally by the seaside and I am an office sweepstake enthusiast.

  • Lucy Dean

    I’m a young volunteer running a campaign to raise awareness of youth homelessness in Derby through charity vInspired, and I recently spoke to the producer of Cathy Come Home at a screening of the television play. His thoughts are exactly the same as yours, Fiona – nothing has changed and the problem has only increased. Read what he said here: http://teamvderbycity.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/a-message-from-tony-garnett.html

    • Fiona King

      Hi Lucy, thanks for your comment and for reading the blog. Great
      that you’ve met Tony Garnett and that he’s still interested in all these issues and is working to campaign against them. Interesting to read about the work you’re doing in Derby and that the problems are the same there as in Scotland. Please do keep up to date with all our work through the blog!
      Fiona