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

Andreas Whittam Smith
Sunday 01 September 1996 23:02

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.

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