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The Warp

What I have written

A few weeks after the transmission of the film I was putting the finishing touches to an essay to go at the end of the novelisation I hurriedly completed to be ready in time for its publication by Pan Books at the time of the second transmission of ‘Cathy’ in February 1967, three months after the first;

‘How can we in Britain continue to tolerate the conditions that exist in our Homes for the Homeless?

‘How can we tolerate that the number of homeless in these Homes has now passed twelve thousand?

‘And that, one rung above the actual homeless, there are now three million people living in slum conditions?

‘I was the first, in the national press, to draw attention to the tragedy of Britain’s homeless. Still I see no real change, and I am sickened by this.

‘You fall in love – you marry – you have a couple of kids and you’re doomed.

‘The homeless in Britain today are not all feckless, nor ne’er-do-well.

‘So often they are ordinary people, people in work, ordinary people. So often it’s just one thing – bad luck. They’re blameless. They’ve committed no crime. And yet, in Britain’s hostels for the homeless, they are often savagely punished.

‘Cathy was young and attractive. She wasn’t demanding. She got herself what most girls want – a husband she loved, a home, three kids. She was blameless. And, through no fault of her own, within six short years, in one of Britain’s Homes for the Homeless, she’d lost them. Lost them at the behest of a society – our society – that doesn’t care.

‘Words can hardly express the disgust that I feel at the way we in Britain treat our ‘Cathys’ – these innocent young mothers whom we handle like so much human litter.

‘The story of Cathy is founded on truth. Every incident in this story has happened in Britain. The caravan fire, the ratepayers’ meeting, the children dying of dysentery – all this is fact. Often the words I have used are the real words that were reported in papers as being used on these occasions.

‘The story of Cathy is founded on truth. The truth has not changed. In ‘Part III Accommodation’, rules vary from place to place. But the basic quality of despair remains constant.

‘In Britain’s hostels for the homeless innocent young mothers and their children still suffer as follows:

‘Husbands are often separated, sometimes forcibly, from their wives and kids as night approaches.

‘There is often a curfew, sometimes as early as 8 p.m., after which mothers may not go out.

‘In one place husbands are only allowed to visit their wives and kids for four hours on three days each week.

‘Often mothers are never allowed to spend a night away – otherwise they’re evicted even from the Homes for the Homeless. Thus they can never sleep with their husbands.

‘Kitchens often are kept locked except at certain hours.

‘In many places mothers and kids exist under threat of instant eviction – which usually means their kids are taken away into care, as happened to Cathy.

‘Dysentery and gastric enteritis are common. They are of course the frequent accompaniment of insecurity and despair. Children have died from them in Britain’s Homes for the Homeless.

‘At other places I have found the following rules;

‘No talking in the passages.

‘No visiting each other’s rooms – mothers must sit out the long lonely evenings alone.

‘Mothers and kids must go out into the streets for two hours, rain or shine, each day. The doors are locked behind them.’

‘Conditions in too many of Britain’s Homes for the Homeless are still appalling. In another British hostel one single room houses three broken families – three mothers and their children, totalling nine human beings. They live here, but eat in a communal mess-hall with a few scores of elderly folk.’

‘Almost the only proper sociological research into Homeless Families was published by the London County Council. Their survey, drawing on hundreds of cases, discovered that they ‘have usually been married couples between the ages of twenty and forty, having two or three children under sixteen. About three-quarters of the adults were born in Britain and one quarter in Ireland. The men are mainly in semi-skilled or manual occupations. The husbands’ wages are below the average, tending to be around £10 to £14 a week ... It was impossible to doubt that the homeless made sincere efforts to find somewhere to live, and that these efforts usually turned out to be a demoralising waste of time and money ... The main reason why families had failed to find accommodation was the apparently growing refusal of landlords to take children ... Only ten percent of the men are out of work ... Asked whether the typical homeless family was feckless and n’er-do-well, or decent and respectable, we found far more truth in the latter.’

‘At one camp in Wales, a number of temporary timber huts, erected in the thirties, house six mothers and twenty children.

‘Husbands are not allowed to live with their wives, and may only visit them for four hours, three days a week.

‘Anyone transgressing the extremely harsh regulations ‘shall be deemed to be unsuitable to be accommodated in the camp’.

‘The dining-room for these six families is amazing. It is one hundred and fifty feet long.

‘One of the inmates is married to James, an army batman. They were living in army married quarters in Northern Ireland, four months ago. Then James was posted to a camp that has no married quarters. His wife and children could find no accommodation – and so had to go into a hostel for the homeless.

‘James says; ‘I have been given compassionate leave so that I can come down here to try to find a place for my family. I am so disturbed about it that I have also put in for a discharge. I have been told that while serving in the Forces I do not count as being resident in my home town and so I did not qualify for a place on the list for a council house.’

‘The sad chronicle of Homes for the Homeless stretches throughout Britain. In one north-country town, the communal kitchen for the homeless is a cold, bare room.

‘When a meal is cooked, the mothers must carry the food outside to another building twenty yards away.

‘There, in four-foot-high stalls, the families live and eat. They must be in bed by 10 p.m.

‘To go to bed they have to go outside again and into the adjoining bedroom. There is a connecting door but it has been sealed up.

‘And once in the bedroom, everyone is locked in for the night, a very dangerous situation if there should ever be a fire. There they remain imprisoned until morning when the door is unlocked again.

‘When the mothers bath their children, they have to take them out into the open again to reach the bathroom.

‘A widow here had a 16-year-old son but he was not allowed to live with his family. She told me, ‘He comes here for a hot meal, then just wanders off. One night he collapsed in the street. The police brought him here but he wasn’t allowed to stay the night. He finished up in the infirmary.’

‘There are many events that can land you in a Home for the Homeless. Sometimes it is cussedness. So often it is bad luck.

‘In Britain’s Homes for the Homeless I have talked with dance band musicians ... professional people ... a warrant officer ... a repertory actress ... an ex-police constable.

‘People ask me; ‘What about the dormitory sequence in Cathy? Where so many families are shoved in together?’

‘For reply, I tell them about the hostel in Essex where, on the night when the film was shown, in a squalid hutted area, once a military hospital, ten women and thirty-nine children lived in one room, the proportions shown in the film. The only privacy was provided by screens at intervals between the beds, as shown in the film.

‘The homeless husbands here felt they’d been mucked about enough. They took the law into their own hands. On October 31st 1966, they marched on the hostel, demanded the right to sleep with their wives. Change has now been effected.

‘At another famous hostel in Kent, if a man tried to spend the night with his wife and family, the whole family was evicted from the hostel, with the result that they’d be broken up. Sixty families each year were being broken up like this.

‘Here again the homeless took the law into their own hands, and men were being sent to prison for sleeping with their wives.

‘I cannot blame these husbands for feeling that their duty to their wives outweighed their duty to obey the petty rules of bureaucracy.’

‘The town of Birmingham took the film of Cathy seriously. When it was shown 400 husbands a year were being separated from their families through not being allowed to stay with them in Homes for the Homeless.

‘Ken Loach, the director of the film, and I, spoke at public meetings and on television.

‘A letter in the Birmingham Mail went; ‘Sir – I watched Cathy Come Home with great interest, although I broke my heart. My husband and I were in the same position a few years ago.

‘We know what we should or should not have done, we know our mistakes without anyone rubbing it in. We were both very young when we got married, he was 19 and in the Army and I was only 18. I had no parents, but my in-laws warned us what we were up against. Needless to say we would not listen. We first lived in a bedsitter, £3 10s per week. My husband was in the forces so I lived alone except for when he came home on leave. Nearly two years later when he was demobbed we moved into rooms, we were quite happy, the rent was £3 10s. My husband was not getting a big wage but with help from his parents we managed. I was then blessed with a beautiful little girl. I was 20. We could not save as it took all my husband’s wages, but we managed quite well, always hoping that when my little girl was older I would be able to return to work and save a deposit for a house, but this was not to be, as when my little girl was 3½ years I found I was having another child.

‘Our troubles were just beginning. We had to vacate our rooms and after endless looking we finally took a house with a very high rent plus rates, around 6 guineas, which is all very well on paper but, oh dear, what a terrible struggle it was. I had my second child, a little boy. We lived in this house for 12 months then my husband was off work for nine weeks with jaundice. We got in a mess deeper and deeper. We could pay the rent missing one thing to pay another.

‘Only those who have been through it know how heart-breaking it is. Anyway we were finally evicted and at the mercy of the council. I was put in a hostel and to cap it all I found that I was pregnant again and I was told by one of those kind council officials who visit the hostels that to become pregnant when you are homeless is worse than being an unmarried mother.

‘The hostels I was in were much worse than those shown in Cathy Come Home. I could write a book on my experience of hostels in the 12 weeks I was in them although it upsets me every time I think about it. It was just like a prison for the women and that is putting it mildly. It was torture for the children who were old enough to understand how degraded their mothers were and how they were treated by the wardens.

‘When I was in there every woman with children under eight had them in hospital with either measles or dysentery. Both my children were in hospital. My little girl had measles followed by bronchial pneumonia and my little boy, then only eight months old, had measles followed by gastric enteritis and I nearly lost him. Both these children were very healthy before going into the hostel.

‘Through all this the husband has to be an outsider looking in, not really knowing what you are going through watching your children suffer for your mistakes. This causes a lot of ill-feeling between man and wife. I have known it to break marriages up. After 12 weeks in the hostel I was given a sub-standard house for which we were so grateful that the heartache was forgiven but never ever forgotten. Believe me, we suffered for our mistakes.

‘I am now in a nice house and am very happy but it has taken 10 years. I am now 28 years and my husband 29 years. We have three children. By the way, we are both Birmingham born and bred.

‘I implored the council, close these terrible hostels. Surely there is another way to help young couples who really need help in this generation. They are not criminals.’

‘A letter from a headmistress in the Birmingham Post; ‘Sir – Frequently, I can see, among the families with which we have to deal here, similar situations arising – and it is necessary to contact various branches of the social services to prevent this.

‘However, I grow weary of endless telephoning, to be told at every turn, “This is not our area – our type of case – or our province.”

‘No wonder there are so many Cathys in this city. To those who condemn out of hand, and take a “let them get on with it” attitude, I would say this; “Without your own good upbringing, with a limited mental ability, an unco-operative marriage partner, too many children and a very substandard house – there but for the grace of God, go you”.’

‘Our government is aware of the scandal of the treatment of Britain’s homeless. Probably as a result of ‘Cathy’, a circular sent out by the Ministries of Health and Housing is asking all local councils urgently to review their arrangements.

‘There are 67,000 children in care in Britain. In London one percent of the entire child population is in care. There are probably twice as many again in care under private arrangements.

‘In 1964 Kent took 245 children into care because of homelessness. I estimate that at least 4,000 children are taken into care each year as a result of homelessness.’

‘Audrey Harvey, in the New Statesman, has written: ‘I heard a most fearful sound. I took it for the screaming of an animal but it came from a woman. The scene was a derelict remand home in which the LCC temporarily parked homeless mothers and children, but not their fathers. The woman was lying face downwards on a bed and beating her fists into the pillow. Her children, one of them a baby, had just been taken away from her and scattered in various institutions. And she was to be turned out that night - for the excellent administrative reason that the family’s time-ration had run out. This practice was soon afterwards relinquished by the LCC but not by dozens of lesser authorities.

‘In Kent it has caused the victims to defend themselves with fire extinguishers, but this is exceptional. “We usually find they go quietly,” a welfare officer smugly told me the other day. “We get them to see our difficulties”.’

‘There are many Homes for the Homeless in Britain now in which conditions are quite good. That there are ia probably due to Audrey Harvey as much as anyone else. She has fought relentlessly for the homeless. In her booklet ‘Casualties of the Welfare State’ she told the story of one of Britain’s ‘Cathys’.

‘After she had seen the film, a viewer wrote to me; ‘The Matron and “Master” literally tore my 2 sons away from me sobbing violently, just as you showed in the film, too, while I was in labour with my fourth child and waiting for the ambulance. I could still hear their sobs (they were only 7 and 11 years old) as I gave birth to another son just two hours later. I had my second son brought back to me 5 weeks later, but the 11 year old was put into a boarding school and I only saw him briefly after that during the holidays. He and my daughter spent most of their time in a Home where they hated it intensely. I very rarely saw my daughter. Once you’re down, the Welfare administer the final kick by parting you from your children as quickly as they can.

‘I had all you showed – cockroaches as well! We had only one bedroom between anything up to 20 people – (and one living room) and used to chase the things with puffer-packs of DDT left with us especially for that purpose. There was a girl there very like “Cathy” and she was my special friend. Imagine the two of us chasing cockroaches at 2 in the morning, and actually laughing about it!

‘There are no words to describe the heartache of having your children taken away from you. Specially as you have already lost your home and perhaps your husband. How can the Welfare be so damnably heartless? The pain is physical as well as mental.’

‘A Birmingham councillor writes: ‘A few weeks ago, a Birmingham-born married couple with several young children were evicted from a service tenancy. They refused to be parted, and so rejected hostel accommodation – a happening not uncommon in Birmingham.

‘In desperation, they erected a small tent alongside a busy main road in which they then spent several days of misery and despair.’

‘A child-care officer writes: ‘During this week many of my friends have asked, “Is that sort of thing really true?” And I have to answer, “Yes it is”.’

‘Although foul, what Cathy Come Home showed is not the worst that can happen to a homeless family.

‘There are local authorities who make no attempt even at the sort of rudimentary ‘family’ accommodation outlined above, but instead, dismember a family instantly upon its becoming homeless.

‘Rugby evicted a family of five for rent arrears (even though these arrears had been paid by an unknown benefactor) and broke the family up into its component units. (At considerable cost to the taxpayer of course – at approximately £10 per child this comes to £50 a week. Families to whom this has happened can quite easily cost the taxpayer in all £25,000 or £30,000, the cost of re-housing them many times over.)

‘A council in Berkshire evicted a couple and nine children when the mother was seven months pregnant. Two of the children stayed with the mother in a hostel. The rest went into care.

‘The practice of breaking up families before sending them to Homes for the Homeless is getting more common in London, now that responsibility for the homeless has shifted from the LCC to the individual boroughs.

‘Dorset separated a boy from his parents when they were evicted, and later, while in the council’s care, the boy was assaulted by his room-mate.

‘A local authority social worker tells me: ‘Most social workers, even now, see no reason why a family should not be split up – especially as concerns the father.

‘Homeless families can become like pathetic yoyos in inter-borough contests.

‘It’s like the days of the Poor Law. Different boroughs apply different rules as to the length of residence which will entitle you to their emergency accommodation – some say four weeks, some six months.

‘So anxious are local authorities to avoid the possibility of becoming responsible for a new homeless family that they pack families off somewhere else, sometimes even without letting them stay the night.

‘I recall one especially pathetic family who came here from Flintshire because the husband was out of work, and they’d had a violent quarrel with the in-laws with whom they’d been staying. The children were sick, dead tired, weeping and hungry. They were sent straight back to Flintshire.

‘Other provincial authorities actually encourage the homeless to go up to the big towns, saying “We’ve got no accommodation for you, but they’ll give you some there.”

‘One family like this arrived from the North. We rang their county council and explained that the family were their responsibility. They replied simply, “We don’t want them and we’re not going to have them.” We threatened to take this up with the Minister and they said, “Well, we agree to have them, but it would not be humanitarian to send them back here tonight.” We said, “All right, we’ll keep them here tonight, and then send them back.” We did this. Next morning the pathetic family travelled back up North. They were put through savage and sadistic questioning and that evening saw them back once more in our reception centre.’

A worker in a borough Children’s Department tells me; ‘The damage to the fabric of a family caused by such treatment may well be irreperable. Children who have had to go into care because of homelessness can be recognised by us because of their very great instability. They are children who have had many moves of schools and homes in few years. They are not suitable for fostering out owing to their instability. Later they will develop school phobia. It is difficult to see how they will ever turn into normal and happy adults after this treatment in their formative years.

‘The National Assistance Act charges local authorities with providing accommodation for families who are homeless in circumstances that “could not have been foreseen”.

‘Different boroughs interpret this Act in different ways.

‘Take the case of a large family on a low income who through poverty and bad management are not able to keep up with their rent. Some boroughs will accept them, others won’t. They say these circumstances “could have been foreseen”.’

‘Now that eviction without a court order has been made illegal, why are there still homeless? Often, because people still don’t know their rights. Rather than sit tight people still move out and stay with mum-in-law or a relative in conditions so overcrowded that they become intolerable. Or there is statutory overcrowding and they are evicted by a local authority.

‘People are still afraid. The deep-seated fear of eviction dies hard. Landlords get angry. A tenant can still be forced to leave if he commits what is called an offence. Solicitors’ letters are sent on trumped-up charges, for instance, that they are sub-letting illegally. The exact interpretation of the law will often depend on the particular climate of the Magistrate’s court in which the case is heard.’


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