I was brought up in Birmingham and now live in London, so I went to Edinburgh with some humility, remembering that from the great Enlightenment thinkers on, Scotland has so often led the way in thinking about social policy. But even there the problem of housing and the homeless persists. I feel privileged to support Crisis’s new policy. A novel ambition. It wants to abolish itself through solving the homeless crisis. I spoke in support at a conference this week, in Edinburgh.
I am now in my eighties, so I have a personal perspective going back to the War. I remember as a boy coming out of the air raid shelter in the morning to see if our house was still there. I remember my Uncle Fred, a milkman, dryly complimenting Hitler for bombing the slums. “Should have been knocked down years ago”, he’d say.
I remember after the war, when this country was broke, flat broke. When austerity was real – not the austerity imposed by a cynical chancellor to pay for the criminality of the bankers. Real austerity. Yet there was a determination to win the peace together, to create a better world for everyone. Homes were built at rents people could afford.
And in the Fifties another government built over 300,000 homes a year, year after year. Progress was being made.
Well so I thought.
That belief was shattered during the Sixties when Jeremy Sandford told me a story. I couldn’t believe it. This is what happened. One of his neighbours had disappeared and no one seemed to know what had happened. So he dug, asked questions, not taking no for an answer. He was more of an investigative journalist than a screenwriter. The story he uncovered became Cathy Come Home. I was shocked and ashamed. How could this be happening? Why was I so ignorant? How could I live my comfortable life in the midst of this? I was determined we should make this film and determined to get it shown. When it was shown the shocked response told me that the whole country was as ignorant as I had been.
Jeremy, Ken and I were invited to meet the Minister, so we went down Whitehall and were shown into a vast office where he and his permanent secretary served us tea. The china was delicate and the biscuits were crisp. He was charming and complimentary, clearly a decent chap. It was all so English. He looked pained, threw his hands up, and said, “But what can one do?” ”Build more houses”, was my terse reply. At which point they looked at each other and smiled, as if to say, “Ah. The optimism of youth”.
But in fact that was a moment of opportunity, when the whole country was shocked and full of compassion for Cathy and her family. Radical policies would have sailed through Parliament. Any opposition would have been shamed into silence. But the moment passed.
Now, everyone knows about the homeless. There has been countless tv and press items and documentaries. The streets are littered with people living in doorways.
So much of the suffering goes on in secret, so that when it is exposed it feels like homeless porn, there to shock and titillate. I’m waiting for the computer game.
So we cannot plead ignorance. The brutal fact is that now no one cares.
This is the age of individualism, of the gig economy, insecurity and competition. The cold indifference is a direct result of an ideological shift in the late Seventies from the social to the individual. There is no such thing as society, after all.
Image credit: www.crisis.org.uk