Opinion: Housing charities miss a golden opportunity

Julia Neuberger

Shelter, the homelessness and housing charity, has reported that 1.5 million children are either homeless or, more commonly, living in sub-standard housing.

Homelessness charity Crisis says its research shows that single homeless women are afraid to seek help - and 40 per cent of them do not come forward for any help when they first become homeless because they try to hide their situation.

These are appalling statistics, coming at the time of the 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking TV drama Cathy Come Home. But I am struck by the fact that the various homelessness and housing charities did not come together to mark the anniversary with a report on the current state of play in the UK.

It would have been a golden opportunity to band together - they would not have had to agree on everything - to tell us all how serious the situation still is, despite homelessness czars and despite the Government wanting to get rough sleepers off the streets. You may be able to move rough sleepers on, but it is a wholly different ball game to tackle homelessness properly.

It seems particularly perverse that the homelessness charities did not get together to mark the anniversary when mental health charities and other organisations have co-operated so successfully over the proposals contained in the Mental Health Bill. The Mental Health Alliance is a coalition of at least 70 charities and organisations that has existed for more than seven years. It comprises members with very different views, but the alliance has nevertheless managed to brief politicians and other organisations sensitively and responsibly, and politicians are full of praise for its work. It has also organised two peaceful lobbies of Parliament. That the alliance comes together, provides a detailed briefing and admits that not all its members agree on every facet of the legislation is refreshing, time-saving and, most importantly, very impressive.

Organisations with similar interests will never agree on everything.

But it would be helpful to those who need to be briefed to see organisations coming together on particular issues. It would also say something about the voluntary sector itself: in some important way, it would show that it has grown up. Organisations must retain the right to stay separate on what makes them different. But if they could work together with alacrity at times of significant events or anniversaries, it would feel different.

If all the homelessness charities had marked the Cathy Come Home anniversary together, it would have done an enormous amount to push the cause further up the news agenda. Organisations have got to learn to be less precious about what divides them. It would be far better for the people they are there to serve, and the public would really appreciate it.

- Julia Neuberger is a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering

AND WHILE WE'RE ON THE SUBJECT ...

- Watched by 12 million people when it was first screened on BBC television in 1966, Cathy Come Home provoked public outrage at the state of housing in Britain at the time. One beneficiary of Ken Loach's film was the homelessness charity Shelter, which was launched amid much publicity a few days after the broadcast.

- The Mental Health Alliance consists of 78 member organisations representing service users, health professionals, lawyers, voluntary associations, religious groups and research bodies. It has recently been campaigning for changes to the Government's proposals to reform the 1983 Mental Health Act.

- A series of government efforts to tackle the problem of rough sleeping have met with only partial success. In 1990 John Major's administration set up the Rough Sleepers' Initiative, whose concern was primarily with London. Labour replaced the RSI with the Rough Sleepers Unit and then with the Homelessness and Housing Support Directorate.

- Shelter insists that, if child homelessness is to be eradicated, the Government needs to build 20,000 affordable homes a year. It says that children living in bad housing are twice as likely as their peers to leave school with no qualifications, and that 310,000 of them are suffering from long-term illness or disability.

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