How our benefit and housing policies forced a 60-year-old woman onto the streets

What happens when the welfare state shuts its doors. 

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Today marks the 50th anniversary of the screening of Cathy Come Home, which shone a light on the terrible housing conditions across Britain in 1966. At the time, 3m families lived in slums.

And yes - today the slums are gone - but the housing crisis has gone from bad to worse. An estimated 5,000 people are sleeping rough on Britain's streets, and tens of thousands of families living in bed & breakfast accommodation, which is often hideous and completely unsuitable. 

The Right to Buy scheme, which was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1980 and continued under Labour, has long exacerbated homelessness. Council housing stock has been depleted, while ex-council homes have fallen into the hands of property tycoons. These include Charles Gow, the son of Ian Gow, a former housing minister in Thatcher's government when the policy was introduced.    

This failure of policy has human consequences. Sara was born and raised in London, and worked as a social worker across England until four years ago. 

In 2014, at the age of 60, she took the decision to pack her bags and head for Morocco. She hoped to use her modest savings to set up a programme teaching English and undertake some research into the local culture. It changed her life - but not in the way she imagined. 

Her money ran out, and she ended up being repatriated back to the UK from Gibraltar. A well-meaning initiative sadly gone wrong. But then Sara was horrified to discover that, because she had been out of the country for more than three months, she had no recourse to public funds. After she failed the Habitual Residency Test, Sara,quickly sunk into depression. Suddenly, she found herself alone and living in the shadow land - completely abandoned by state authorities. She was forced to endure the indignity and terror of sleeping rough on the streets of Brighton - despite her age and the fact that she had paid into the UK tax system for most of her working life. 

For a few days, she lived on the streets, sustained by the generosity of charity workers who gave out tea and sandwiches. Then an old friend took Sara to Richmond Police Station, where the police contacted the No Second Night Out team. Run by the Mayor of London, this scheme helps people off the streets. The general rule is that you have to be spotted by a member of the No Second Night Out team over a period of two days before you are deemed eligible for any form assessment.  

While incredibly vital, this is no luxury option. Sara told me: "I was taken to a center in Shepherd's Bush, where I lay on a hard floor for ten days, alongside other homeless women waiting to be processed. I was hungry, but no hot food was ever provided. The staff were located in another room where the forms were filled in and the interviews took place. We survived on sandwiches. Nobody knew when, or if, they would arrive on any given day, because they were donations. There were men in an adjoining room, who had been brought in from the streets, and they slept on the floor too. I felt degraded, dehumanised and humiliated."

She eventually ended up at house for women in London run by the Missionaries of Charity, an order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She was able to stay there because the nuns take in people who have no recourse to public funds. She stayed with the nuns for three months and received legal assistance which led to her establishing an entitlement to welfare support after all.

Following a year of moving from hostel to hostel across London, at an age when other women might be drawing up their retirement plans, Sara was finally given a one-bedroom flat in East London, The stress has taken a toll on her health and has led to bouts of depression. She fears that the Homelessness Reduction Bill will help nobody if the government fails to address the acute shortage of homes that are genuinely affordable.  

"There are tens of thousands of people stuck in homeless hostels," she told me. "They are out of sight, but have no way out - especially in London and across the South of England. We need millions of council homes that people can afford, including homes for our  key workers such as teachers, nurses, police officers, firemen refuse collectors and paramedics."

As a former head of housing need in London, I believe that the government must stop developers from banking land, which has been driving the cost of modest homes through the roof. It should scrap Right to Buy, and instead prioritise the building of millions of low-cost, high-quality council homes that ordinary, working people can afford. 

Southwark council, which is the third largest provider of council housing in the UK, has seen its housing stock dwindle from 46,000 council homes in 1999 to 36,000 homes today. And yet there are 11,780 families on the councils waiting list in desperate need of a home. Wandsworth Council has sold off a staggering 25,000 homes whilst the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has sold 2,750 council properties under right to buy. RBKC currently has 1,843 households living in temporary accommodation.
 
With a burgeoning street homeless population and homeless hostels filled to bursting, the government must act now to deal with this deepeing housing emergency, before it destabilises our whole society.  

Philip Burke is a committee member for Disability Labour.

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