On September 11th, 1969, a fledgling national charity put the spotlight on Britain’s ‘hidden homeless’ – those forced to live in conditions barely fit for human habitation.
The charity, founded less than three years earlier, was Shelter, and its “Face the Facts” campaign marked the start of its annual Shelter campaign week, which has run ever since.
According to Harold Wilson’s Labour government, the official figure for homeless people living in the UK was 18,689 – that figure based on the numbers in temporary accommodation. But Shelter said that figure massively underestimated the true scale of the housing problem in Britain. In reality, up to three million people urgently needed rehousing because they were living in overcrowded, damp and unsanitary slum conditions, it claimed.
Launching its “Face the Facts” campaign 49 years ago today, it called on the government to change its definition of homelessness to include these hundreds of thousands living in appalling conditions which directly impacted on their health and even life expectancy.
The charity’s director, Des Wilson, said: “We want a commitment to the homeless. The real emergency end of the problem won’t be solved unless a special action programme is tailored for that purpose. We’re getting desperate on behalf of so many families we can’t reach and we believe society would want to reach them if only it was allowed to face the facts about their existence.”
In order to get its message across, Shelter published a report outlining the kind of sub-standard housing conditions endured by hundreds of thousands of UK families. It included 61 specific case histories of families across the UK in desperate need of rehousing because their current housing was so poor.
The problem was at its worst in inner city areas, often in outdated pre-war housing but also in some of the new post-war tower blocks hastily erected on former bombsites. In one overcrowded block of flats a family of four shared two damp rooms, having recently lost a 21-month-old baby to bronchitis caused, they believed, by their living conditions.
In the same block, a couple with five children had been on the rehousing waiting list for seven years. One of their rooms was so cold and damp it was unusable in winter. Despite this, the family had been told there was no prospect of being rehoused for another two to three years. Instead, priority for new housing was going to families made homeless by slum clearance programmes.
A million homes had been damaged by bombing during the Second World War, many of them beyond repair. In addition, the post-war ‘baby boom’ led to an unprecedented demand for new homes, with local authorities and private housebuilders struggling to keep up.
For many councils the answer seemed to lie in big reinforced concrete tower blocks. They could be built quickly using modern construction methods and house many more families per acre than traditional terraced housing. But many of those built in the 1950s and ’60s were of poor quality and plagued with leaks, damp and even serious structural faults. They also had the effect of destroying traditional communities which had evolved over generations.
Many of those who moved into the new tower blocks quickly became disenchanted with them. When a tower block in East London suffered a partial collapse just two months after it opened, public confidence was seriously damaged. Four people were killed and 17 injured in the ‘Ronan Point’ collapse, which led many councils to look again at the design and construction of their tower blocks and brought about major changes in building regulations.
Gradually, housing conditions across the UK began to improve and a surge of housebuilding during the 1970s started to ease demand for better quality accommodation. Shelter has continued to campaign, not only for homeless people living on the streets or in hostels, but also on a wide range of other housing-related issues.
These include families living for too long in bed and breakfast accommodation due to housing shortages, sustained cuts in local authority housing provision, and people made homeless through mortgage repossessions or rent arrears.
Today, Shelter helps millions of people every year struggling with bad housing or homelessness, giving practical support, advice and legal services. You can find out more by visiting its website.