It is sixty years since two Catholic women, Maisie Ward and Molly Walsh, decided that something practical needed to be done to prevent homelessness and help families and individuals into secure affordable accommodation. Maisie Ward was a writer, theologian and the daughter of a prominent Catholic publisher. Molly Walsh and her husband, Bob, ran a House of Hospitality during the depression. Molly and Maisie met through the Catholic Evidence Guild. They shared a concern about the needs of young families in Britain after the war. Especially as they saw the damage done to children who were being brought up in dreadful slum conditions and the lasting impact on family life. Molly and Maisie joined forces to persuade the Catholic Church to respond to the needs of people who were homeless or living in poverty – a witness of the Catholic community to the problem, but a service to the entire community.
Over the years many Catholics, usually married women, up and down the country, joined forces with Maisie and Molly to run support and advice services from their homes. That was the birth of CHAS, the Catholic Housing Aid Society. In the early days they raised money to buy parish-based houses to convert into flats for families in need. They also raised money for people to use as a deposit on a home and, indeed, often secretly guaranteed the loan. They brought together groups of volunteer professionals, such as bank managers and surveyors, to give free advice to low income families who were trying to move into home ownership but were experiencing difficulty in finding reliable, honest and affordable advice. And they established half-way houses, where people could rent accommodation for a few years, but the rent they paid included a compulsory “savings” element which was returned to them at the end of their tenancy so they had a lump sum to use as a deposit on a property.
Sixty years on Housing Justice, as the successor organisation to CHAS, continues to work to meet a need that is tragically, just as great today. As part of the sixtieth anniversary celebrations we are re-issuing “Homelessness: a fact and a scandal” first published in 1990. The problem described then is very similar to the problem as it exists today – but the political and social context in which we are operating is very different. There have been huge changes in attitudes to poverty and to the role of the state as provider of a welfare safety net. But there has also been a big increase in the number of church linked projects, like the winter night shelters Housing Justice supports, and in the number of volunteers from faith communities of all stripes who want to do something to make a real difference. The times are ripe for change.
So maybe, just maybe this is the time when the battle to end homelessness in England is about to make another leap forward. There are three developments that I present in evidence.
The first is the CLG committee’s Homelessness Inquiry. This is an in depth look at the causes of homelessness and the effectiveness of the work being done to tackle it by the voluntary sector and by Local Authorities. It is currently hearing selected oral evidence but it is still open to late submissions if you want to send one.
The second is the independent review of homelessness legislation published on26th April by Crisis. Again this is an in depth review by experts from across the spectrum of Local Authorities and third sector organisations. The focus here is on the legal duties owed to homeless people in England. Even though there is not complete agreement about the recommendations there is broad consensus and the appendix proposes detailed amendments to the current legislative position including the institution of a duty to prevent homelessness.
So far so good – and perhaps you are all thinking that we have been here before. The third element though is a minister who is engaging both with the sector and with the not so usual suspects. Marcus Jones may have got off to a rocky start at Homeless Link’s conference in 2015 but he has made up for it since. He has read the reports, visited projects, talked to people with experience of homelessness and seems to be genuinely committed to finding better ways to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place. Of course this is all on the back of changes that have already taken place in Scotland and are underway in Wales, but I don’t mind if we English are followers rather than leaders here so long as we get there in the end.