When she needed Shelter, you were there

Britain's first single-issue pressure group found Cathy a home in the Sixties, but the fire may be going out now

Share
Related Topics
The founding 30 years ago of the first modern charity, Shelter, will be celebrated this week. Of campaigning charities as we have come to know them, Shelter is the original model. In 1966, appalled at the human suffering in Britain's then extensive slums, a number of church housing trusts decided to launch a national campaign and chose a brilliant New Zealander, Des Wilson, to devise it and carry it out. Shelter still calls itself The National Campaign For Homeless People. Looking back, it can be seen that this was one of the most important creations of the innovative Sixties. It led to the development of single-issue pressure groups, which have become a fifth estate, alongside the press (the fourth estate) as a counterweight to the power of government.

Des Wilson was 25 years old when he wrote a report for the church housing trusts urging that the campaign should aim to convince people that the housing situation "was out of control", that Shelter would be a "rescue operation" in a national emergency and that the homeless were innocent victims. The campaign thus had resonance; it also had focus. The aim was to raise funds for housing trusts operating in four black spots - Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham and London. It had an evocative name, Shelter. And a few days before its launch it had a great piece of luck: Jeremy Sandford's powerful documentary-drama about a homeless family, Cathy Come Home, was shown on television. As a result, the opening campaign - in which a charity for the first time used national newspaper advertising, generated editorial coverage by lobbying editors and journalists, and directly mailed bodies likely to be supportive - was an astounding success.

In the next five years, Mr Wilson went on to pioneer the lobbying techniques that pressure groups have used ever since. He was an expert in the use of shock tactics. Shelter took a stand at the Ideal Home Exhibition and showed the exact opposite of what the show promoted - a one-room home occupied by a family of six. Shelter produced shock reports - Back to School from a Holiday in the Slums, Notice to Quit - shock photography for its posters, and a shock advertising line: "Chris? You can stuff it for all we care". The Shelter press office reacted with lightning speed to political developments and learnt to write, duplicate and distribute a press release around Fleet Street within an hour. This is the same rebuttal technique that the political parties are getting ready to use flat out, for the first time, in the forthcoming general election.

The housing problems of the mid-Nineties are no less acute than they were in the mid-Sixties, but their character has changed. No longer is street after street of housing officially described as unfit for human habitation, still in use. The physical condition of housing at every level has greatly improved. Moreover, local authorities have stopped splitting up homeless families; in the Sixties the Poor Law attitudes of the 19th century still lingered on.

But living conditions on housing estates today are grim in different ways. There are better amenities inside the home, but less personal security outside it. In the Sixties there were scarcely any youngsters sleeping rough; now there are more than 200,000 young men and women without a proper home and instead squatting, using emergency hostels or constantly moving from friend to friend. Institutions that once provided a refuge for vulnerable people have been closed down. The so-called policy of "Care in the Community" has put many people on to the street. At the same time repossessions of property whose owners can no longer service their mortgages are running at a steady 50,000 a year.

Shelter, too, has changed. It no longer needs to raise money for housing trusts. That gap was filled by the Government 20 years ago. It has replaced this activity with the provision of information, advice and advocacy through a national network of 48 housing aid centres. Shelter tells homeless people about their rights and options, it provides a telephone service that can quickly organise a bed for someone in a hostel for the night, it advises on mortgage repayment packages to prevent repossession, it represents people in the county court. At the same time, charities such as Shelter have become much more professional in terms of research, policy formulation and fundraising. Thirty years ago there was no career to be had working for them. Now they have proper management structures and take on committed young people in great number each year.

What matters greatly, though, is that Shelter maintains its sense of indignation. The expression of righteous anger in a good cause, however, is put at risk by Shelter's reliance on the state for a fifth or so of its income. Like many charities it has contracts with government departments for the provision of certain services. These deals may seem harmless enough but they enlist charities into the Government's way of thinking, and they give the Government leverage which it could use one day.

The jealous British state never accepts rival power centres and, unrestrained by a written Constitution, will always move against them in due course. Pressure groups take up unpopular causes that the political parties leave well alone. They act where governments will not. This is often convenient. But when it isn't, charities will do well to remember realpolitik. "No more cosy contracts with this or that ministry if you step out of line", will be the chill message from Whitehall.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Project Manager - Pensions

£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The No campaign has a classic advertising problem: they need to turn a negative into a positive

John Hegarty
 

August catch-up: genius of Apple, fools and commercial enterprises, and the Queen

John Rentoul
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone