Lime Legal

Girl on film

Published 02 January 2024

Cathy shocked a nation in 1966. Des Wilson tells Emma Hawkey how it pushed the campaign against homelessness to the top of the agenda

Cathy Come Home? I hadn’t even seen it!’

And so the myth about the launch of Shelter is scotched. Legend has it that weeks after the BBC screened Cathy Come Home, Shelter was born in a frenzy of national shock and emotion. Not so, says Des Wilson. ‘I’d been planning the campaign for nearly a year and had no idea about the film. They showed it, and next day all hell broke loose!’

So Ken Loach’s devastating documentary-style drama didn’t lead to the launch of Shelter 40 years ago. But it did lead to the success of the campaign. ‘It meant you didn’t need explain that there was a housing problem, or who the homeless were.’

It meant that 24-year old Wilson was dragged from his dingy London office to appear for the first time on television, interviewed on David Frost’s prime time show about the scandal the film exposed. ‘The publicity was amazing. At the launch of Shelter the hall was crammed with journalists and TV cameras. It was like a presidential press conference.’

Cathy Come Home was a public relations ‘miracle’. As Shelter’s founding director, Wilson toured the country with the film. ‘I’d turn up in the hall for the last five minutes, and walk on to the stage just after that last very graphic scene where the children are torn away from her. I’d find an audience sitting there, stunned. It made it so easy for us.’

Within four years he and three ‘terrific’ staff had set up 350 local fundraising organisations, funded numerous

housing associations with the proceeds – and filled many thousands of column inches and hours of airspace. ‘It was glamorous, dynamic, and positive.’

And it wasn’t just the scandal of homelessness that was the story. People were interested in Shelter because it was new, and different. ‘I knew from the start that this must be more than a charity, it must be a campaign. Up until then charities had been paternalistic; you gave money and did good. They did not engage in political activity and were strongly prevented from doing so by the charity commission. We broke the rules, and the reason the government didn’t do anything was because we were so popular. There would have been uproar. It would have looked like the suppression of the facts.’

Facing the facts, Wilson’s most famous campaign, was certainly a challenge to government. ‘We launched an assault on the received wisdom that there were only a few thousand homeless people in Britain. Ministers were defining homelessness by how many people were in hostels on any given night. It was insane! You could be sleeping in a car over there with four children and you wouldn’t be homeless by their definition.’

Wilson’s exploits were observed, sometimes with bemusement, by a distinguished board of trustees. ‘For some of them I must have been beyond belief, out there in jumper and jeans doing all sorts of unpredictable things. I’m sure I made them uncomfortable at times, I’m sure they bit their tongues and thought “arrogant little shit”.’

But they didn’t take action, because whatever it was Wilson did, it was working. ‘I remember one advertisement showing a family of four standing on a Gorbals doorstep. The headline was “Christmas? You can stuff it for all we care”.

‘The Observer ran a page three feature on how it had shocked the advertising industry. A Shelter trustee wrote to me and said it was the equivalent of vandals cutting up seats in railway carriages. But it raised more money than any other charity ad ever.’

Wilson hitting the campaign trail in Shelter's early days

Forty years on, a comparison between now and then is irresistible. On the day before this interview a BBC poll found that Britons circa 2016 say they care more about stray dogs than they do about homeless people. Back in 1966 they were running donkey derbies for Shelter; the boys at Eton donated £7,000; and the royal princes sent stamps from Buckingham Palace to raise money for Blue Peter’s appeal. These days, the poor have terrible PR, don’t they?

That’s nothing new, says Wilson, who has heard it all before. The trick is how you challenge that view. ‘People see a homeless woman being interviewed with four children crawling around her feet in one room and they think “why did she have all those children?” It’s not an unnatural thought. In the old days people saw a lot of homeless black people and the view was, “well why are you here, then?” There’s nothing insane about briefly thinking that.’

Back in the 1960s Wilson would tell his audience that there was no shame in that reaction. ‘But then I’d explain the reality to them. The reason we have all these immigrants is that we invited them here. Enoch Powell as health minister advertised jobs in the West Indies. If you have a party, I’d say, and you invite 20 people but only have 15 chairs, is it the five people’s fault that they have nowhere to sit? And with the homeless mother, who are you going to punish? Her, or the children?

‘The great thing about campaigning is that you’ve got to get people saying “yes, I see that”. The way to do that is to get them to move on, to give them a thought they hadn’t thought of before.’

In the context of the 1960s – youth rebellion, rioting students, the anti-Vietnam movement - Shelter’s attraction was, he says, that it was young people doing something positive, clean, decent and constructive. ‘We never organised demonstrations waving banners disrupting people.’

Being positive is still one of the keys to a good campaign, he says. ‘Hence the Campaign for the Homeless’ not ‘against bad housing’.

But isn’t being winnable also an important campaign ingredient? In which case, didn’t Shelter pick the wrong one?

Look at this, for example. Back in 1968 Shelter published a report with the shocking title Back to school from a holiday in the slums. It had a huge impact, with Wilson himself interviewing a homeless family on the News at 10, and two ITV documentaries devoted to the subject. The plan was to draw attention to the problems faced by children in bad housing.

Sound familiar?

Forty years on, Shelter has launched a shocking expose of 1.6 million children living in bad housing. Doesn’t this prove that the long campaign has been a failure?

Wilson disagrees. ‘We had a thing on the wall which said “we exist to work ourselves out of a job” so in away of course we failed. But you have to be realistic about this. To the extent that there is still a big problem Shelter has failed, but ask any family rehoused or given the right advice or assisted to get a home and they will disagree. There is no society where there won’t be an element of bad housing, crime, some kind of social problem. It’s too simplistic to talk about failure.’

He says you need to be ambitious, but also realistic. So the objective to end homelessness might be an ‘umbrella objective’. But, under that, smaller objectives can been achieved. For example, Wilson says it’s no coincidence that there have been only two years in history when house building has topped 400,000, and they both occurred within 24 months of Shelter’s launch.

Back then, the new advocates for homelessness didn’t need beer and sandwiches to gain access to Number 10. In the autumn of 1968 Shelter was mentioned by all three leaders at the party conferences. ‘I remember Harold Wilson having to reassure his party that he was on Shelter’s side. That’s how popular we were.’

He cites changes to punitive hostel rules and reform of security of tenure in the private sector as other changes during his time. His successors would no doubt add to the list.

When he left, exhausted, in 1970, he was starting to think about housing within the context of a neighbourhood. He is glad that modern Shelter is moving that way too. He agrees there is a risk to seeing housing as an end in itself. ‘I remember visiting an estate in Liverpool where the housing was built in a circle. In the middle, children would play while their mothers would hang over the balconies four storeys up and watch. There was no playground down there, no security, no creativity at all. It struck me that providing those homes wasn’t enough.’

He knows that Shelter 2016 is a very different organisation, doing different things. There are now over 800 staff, and 50 advice centres and projects offering independent help and support. Around 200 more people work in 100-odd Shelter shops.

He says it feels ‘like an institution, not a campaign’. But that’s not a criticism, it’s just that the world has moved on. ‘In my day it was very simple, we raised money and handed it straight to housing associations who did the work. We also campaigned. Later on we started to set up some practical initiatives.’

He says that people who talk about the ‘homelessness industry’ in disparaging terms are being cynical – but he knows what they mean. ‘I’ve never been comfortable with trade unions in charities, or pensions, because I think it never crossed any of our minds that we’d bee seeking a pension or staying at Shelter for any length of time. You came in, exhausted yourself, fought a war, and then you were sent back and new soldiers were drafted in. That gave you a sense of urgency, and energy.’

There is, however, no greater bore than the person who says “it’s not like it was in my day”’, Wilson laughs. He knows the times have changed. ‘It was different then, we were fighting a war. If you like, Shelter has been involved in a long and bitter peace, but we were fighting a war.’

So what made him jack in his job in journalism and jump into the trenches in the first place? Another TV programme, actually – a documentary about the nascent Notting Hill Housing Trust refurbishing bad housing. ‘I was a fairly idealistic chap and I rang up Bruce Kenrick to find out more. He said we needed to create a sort of Oxfam on the home front. And then it was a bit like being a young jockey, shoved on to a horse and told you’ve got to ride it in the Derby. Then you realise you’re on a winner. Hanging on for dear life, all you want is not to fall off.’