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The Warp

Families without a home

‘Homeless Families’ was one of a number of radio documentaries I was making at the time. To try to bring home to people this dreadful situation that was happening in our midst, I also wrote a piece for the Observer that later was to be described as ‘the most famous newspaper article of our time’ in a Penguin Special book on ‘Housing’.

‘More than three families each day in London become homeless in the sense that there’s nowhere to sleep but the street. Many of them are sent by the police or local authorities to Newington Lodge in Westmoreland Road, Southwark.

‘It’s a huge gaunt Victorian institution. The tall, rather beautiful buildings tower over asphalt quads behind high walls and iron fences. Husbands, who are allowed to visit their families at certain hours only, can sometimes be seen attempting to scale these walls and fences.

‘I came here to see a former neighbour of mine. Two families were trailing in as I arrived, pathetic women clutching children, harassed men with cardboard boxes and bulging suitcases. A porter in a stone lodge wrote their names down in a book. The faces of the people I saw here were vacant. A family without a home suffers a loss of identity.

‘I spoke to three officials, each of whom denied that the woman I was seeking was in the building. Finally one of the mothers asked ‘Is she an ash blonde, wears a pink cardigan?’ In a small room at the end of a long corridor I found her.

‘Up to three families are crammed into one room at Newington Lodge, and the rooms contain up to thirteen beds. One woman I talked to said she and her family share two toilets with sixty-four other people. Husbands must find their own accommodation. Feeding is at long tables in a communal dining hall and, owing to the number of inmates who contract dysentery, new arrivals must queue up three times for the unpleasant ritual of ‘swabbing’ up the backside. Well over 20,000 families have passed through this place since the war.

‘L.C.C. Chief Welfare Officer Monroe, whose responsibility they are, said ‘The homeless family is only one part of a far larger problem. The housing situation being what it is, it’s surprising that we don’t have 25,000 homeless families each week, instead of just twenty-five. For the days are past when your homeless family was in any sense a ‘problem’ family. These days the people who come here are all decent people, victims of the current housing crisis whose only problem it to find a place of their own.’

‘Many of the women I talked to said that in the days when they had a place of their own they used to despise anyone who became homeless; and that if anyone had told them of conditions at Newington Lodge, they wouldn’t have believed it.

‘The doctor told Mandy, the woman I’d come to visit, that there was dysentery ‘in the walls’ and warned her to keep her children as clean as she could. At first she kept her children locked in her room, in order to keep them healthy. But she was paying the L.C.C. £5 19s for bed and board, her husband was paying for separate lodgings, National Insurance, storage of their furniture, travel and clothes, and so, rather than starve, she and the children had to go down to the dining room. There, the last meal of the day, high tea, she discovered, is one piece of cheese, and two slices of bread and butter, or one piece of jelly, tea, and two slices.

‘Last time I saw Mandy a change had come over her. It was during visiting hours and I was meant to be seeing her husband too, but he didn’t turn up. ‘I had a bit of a row with him. He says he can’t bear to set foot in this place, and he can’t afford the fares for travel. I said, “What about me? I have to live here.” “There seem to be two kids missing.” I said, “Yes, the ambulance took them. They got the sickness.”’

‘Many of the hardships these families undergo are intended. However much they may not wish to, the L.C.C. are obliged to apply what is known as the built-in disincentive. They take the view that things can’t be made too nice, otherwise the number of entries each week would increase, and families would stay here for ever. As it is, of each weekly batch of twenty-five families, by the end of the month only five or six remain. By hook or by crook the others have squashed themselves in somewhere.

‘The families who still can find no home now pass into a never-never world of institutions and workhouses, living often for years on illusory hopes of housing. I found about a hundred of these families in Plumstead Lodge in Woolwich, an old institution whose big halls have been sub-divided with hardboard.

‘I found other pockets of a hundred or so homeless families in the great hulk of Durham Buildings in Battersea, and in Bromley House in Poplar. Of all the ones I visited, Norwood House by Gipsy Hill was perhaps the least luxurious. Mothers and children here live in stalls of seven-foot high hardboard, without ceilings, in a great hall, and with curtains across the entrance.

‘How does a family come to be homeless? The sad fact is that rarity value has forced up the price of accommodation in London so high that accommodation can no longer be found on the open market by an unskilled worker who is a family man. Landlords can afford to be choosy, and the one thing few of them want these days is children. Families who live in council flats or whose rents are still controlled are still paying prices that they can afford. Outside this charmed circle, there’s nothing. ‘One agent said, if we could put down £50 cash he’d find us somewhere. But my husband he’s on a £10 wage, and we just haven’t got that kind of money.’

‘Newington Lodge is to be replaced. A new ‘transit camp’ is almost ready. But it is unlikely that Newington Lodge will close, even when the new place is opened. Since the Rent Act has really made itself felt there has been a marked increase in the number of families seeking admission, and even indefinite sardining cannot really stem the tide.

‘In order to make room for new admissions, families who’ve been there the longest are asked to leave. That means that they go out with their children, try to sleep in a park or station waiting-room and are picked up by the police. Their children are taken away from them as being ‘in need of due care and protection’. The break-up of a family by society is complete.

‘What is shocking, however, is not what ultimately happens to these 1,500 families who find themselves homeless in London each year. It is the housing shortage of which they are a symptom.’


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