Let’s be honest: could your housing association and your board be doing more to help end homelessnes

Professor Ian Cole, Chair of South Yorkshire Housing Association

Professor Ian Cole, Chair of South Yorkshire Housing Association

20 June 2019

It is now 53 years since Ken Loach’s ground-breaking play 'Cathy Come Home' was shown on television, showing the devastating impact of homelessness on Cathy and her family. Some of the scenes, such as the moment when social workers turn up to take Cathy’s children from her, remain etched in your memory forever. It is therefore both shaming and depressing that 'Cathy' remains as relevant today as it did in those distant days of 1966. 

The recently published 2019 Homelessness Monitor, for example, showed that the official number of people sleeping rough has increased by 165% since 2010. There is also an increase of 71% since 2011 in the number of households placed in temporary accommodation.

There are signs that the Government has at last taken some notice. The 2018 Homelessness Reduction Act has brought some positive benefits for those not deemed to be in priority need. Nevertheless, the ability of local authorities to respond is inevitably constrained by the pressures on their services and resources.

So, are housing associations stepping up to the plate? Is yours? Are you sure?

At South Yorkshire Housing Association (SYHA), one of our non-executive directors asked this question at our board meeting last year: 'are we sure we are doing enough to combat homelessness?’. Now, SYHA has social purpose written into its DNA. The impact of 'Cathy Come Home' led to its birth 50 years ago, as it did for many associations. SYHA is also a member of the Homes for Cathy alliance, which now has 83 members and is doing brilliant work to press the case to end homelessness and promote what is happening in the sector. But that is not enough. Our board therefore asked officers to assess what we are doing, and what more we might do, against each of the nine commitments to end homelessness made by Homes for Cathy for its members to sign up to. 

SYHA’s executive team put together a detailed response to each of those nine commitments, identifying what SYHA is currently doing and where we could do more. Non-executive directors then commented on this response, adding our own questions, comments and suggestions. The revised 13-page document will now be considered by a sounding board that focuses on our care and support services for customers, and will then come back to the main board for approval. The response will remain a ‘live’ document for the board and executive, to ensure the need to end homelessness is always on our radar. 

Is all this overkill? Boards are not short of other things to worry about – audit, appraisal, risk management, scrutiny, financial deals of mind boggling complexity, stress testing, partnerships and the rest. But – I would humbly suggest – if we as board members forget Cathy – if we just assume our association is doing all it can without having that evidence before us – then we should take a long look at ourselves. As the Homes for Cathy alliance shows, many associations are really pushing the boat out, but we should never stand still. 

If you want to hear more about our approach at SYHA, then our CEO Tony Stacey and I will be speaking on this at the National Housing Summit in September. Do come along and let us know how your board is picking up this issue. We would love to know. 

Let’s do all we can to ensure the message of 'Cathy Come Home' is no longer relevant – but that it becomes what it should have been years ago – a crucial landmark…. but an historical relic.        

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