1980s >> 1987 >> no-990-february-1987

Year of shelter

Lord Scarman came on the air and told a harrowing story, of a baby being born to a teenage girl through incest with her father and the girl and father killing the baby as soon as it was born to try to avoid the shame and agony. He was speaking on BBC radio’s World at One programme in early January and mentioned this as a case he’d had to judge in court. He was being interviewed about the launch that day of the United Nations International Year of Shelter for the Homeless of which he is UK president. He attributed the case he’d described to the housing conditions of the father and daughter. They lived in the same room, he said, constantly a few feet from one another and those conditions made incest a lot more likely.

Earlier in the day he’d launched the Year of Shelter by stating that Britain was in danger of becoming a “slum society”. “Do people”, he asked, “understand the misery, the squalor, the threat to health and even to life itself which homelessness inflicts upon millions of our fellow men?” Housing problems were, he said, “a critical element of the social conditions which provide the breeding ground for crime, mental breakdown, child abuse and neglect”, destroying “man’s chance of developing and maintaining stable human relationships”.

The purpose of the UN campaign year is to increase public awareness and raise funds with a view to persuading governments to tackle homelessness and poor housing, in both the economically advanced countries and the Third World. “All that is needed”, said Lord Scarman. “is the political and social will to make the necessary resources available”. The extent of the problem is daunting however. Nearly one quarter of the world’s population, over one billion people, live in what can be called unfit housing and up to 100 million have no home at all — they are literally without shelter. The problem is worst in Third World countries but in a typically developed country like Britain one million homes are officially classified as unfit for human habitation, 1¼  million people are on council waiting lists and 160,000 people upwards live in bed and breakfast hotels, described by the campaign’s director. Leighton Andrews, as “squalid overcrowded substitutes for homes”.

The UN is giving only a small amount of money to the campaign. But what it hopes to do is to encourage governments throughout the world to set up and fund projects to help deal with homelessness in their own countries. Will governments do this to any significant extent? The trouble is that houses, like everything else in today’s world, are objects to be bought and sold on the market and in the final analysis they will go to those who have the money to pay for them. And there is only a limited degree to which governments can and will intervene to provide goods, whether food, housing or anything else, to people who can’t afford them. This is both because governments’ funds are limited by what they collect in taxes from their owning class and also because the job of governments isn’t to provide decent lives for the people they rule over but to make sure that the accumulation of capital and the making of profit takes place as smoothly and efficiently as possible in the country they govern. This may at times mean intervening to help provide shelter for workers but at other times it may mean doing nothing at all and it never means solving the problem for the sake of human welfare.

This is why in Britain, after over a century of government reforms in housing, the problem is still as acute as Lord Scarman has depicted it. That is why, 40 years after a triumphant Labour minister declared “When the next election occurs there will be no housing problem in Great Britain for the British working class” (Aneurin Bevan. 14 July 1946), we are still haunted by the knowledge of bed and breakfast families, by the sight of the homeless roaming the streets by day and sleeping in care centres at night and by the threat, if we lose our job. of becoming one of the many thousands each year who can’t meet their mortgage payments or pay the rent. That is why the present British government has only found £111,000 to put into the homeless campaign, a sum described by its director as ‘disappointing’. and why the wild promises at present being made by the Labour Party that if returned at the next election it will house everyone are so much humbug.

In other words, despite Lord Scarman’s plea, the “necessary resources” cannot be made available by “political and social will”. Governments do not and cannot have that will and ordinary well-meaning people, no matter how hard they may work in campaigning and persuading, ultimately have no power to make the decisions that affect their lives and the lives of the community as a whole. They will only have that power when we all decide to take action to dispense with the present way of running society and organise our affairs on the basis of genuine democratic control and production for need.

If Lord Scarman is the humane understanding man he is said to be he should, despite being a High Court judge, give this idea some thought. For if. as he himself says “Shelter is a human need ranking in priority with food and water and a home as an essential condition of civilised life”, he will only see truly civilised life in a social system quite different from the one he is at present a respected pillar of.

Howard Moss