Shelter at Christmas

Author Nick Crowson Image

Christmas is a congested time in the homelessness charity market as organisations of national and regional profiles vie with one another to secure your donations.

2017 sees Shelter’s Christmas appeal focusing on claims that 125,000 children will be homeless this Christmas and urging the public to make supporting Shelter ‘your new Christmas tradition’.  The story focuses on Julie and her two children who, last Christmas, had been placed by their local council in unsuitable emergency temporary accommodation. With Shelter’s assistance the family will now enjoy Christmas 2017 in a safe, new home of their own.

Shelter launched, with its first Christmas campaign, on 1 December 1966.  Conceived by Rev Bruce Kenrick in February 1966 Shelter was intended to be a short-term fund-raiser for a collective of housing associations. With seed funding of £25,000, Des Wilson, a 27-year-old New Zealander, was hired in July to prepare the launch and research the state of homelessness. Wilson, who became Shelter’s first director, came to symbolise the public ‘expert’ face, and voice, of the organisation in its early years.

Shelter advert 1 Dec 1967

Despite the pre-planning and PR expertise, the launch of Shelter only received limited press coverage and initial donations were slow. Good fortune came with the repeat on BBC TV of Cathy Come Home on 11 January 1967. This was the tragic love story of Cathy and Reg spiralling down the housing ladder into local authority emergency accommodation. Cathy’s desperate effort to prevent her children being placed in care, just because they were homeless, caught a public nerve.

This mirrored Shelter’s message. Many would, mistakenly, assume that the two had emerged in co-operation, rather than isolation. A mistake reinforced because the rights of Cathy were donated to Shelter enabling it to repeatedly broadcast at fundraisers nationwide. Without Cathy it is questionable whether Shelter would have raised £650,000 within two years.

Shelter Home Sweet Hell Advert 2 Dec 1966 The Times

The Christmas appeal became enshrined in the calendar as it pushed the message that too many families were experiencing ‘hidden homelessness’ living in sub-standard, and insecure, accommodation. The image of the family, and especially the child, became central: innocents obliged to endure hardship through no fault of their own.

Shelter was only borrowing from the pioneering use of photography by the NSPCC to highlight child abuse in the Victorian era, and the draw upon the idea of waifs and innocents that had become such of feature of humanitarian publicity campaigns. Shelter secured the services of young photographers, like Nick Hedges, to chart the dereliction and decline of Britain’s housing stock. The themes were recurrent: children suffering, overcrowding and uninhabitable rooms.

These photos, accompanied by personalized stories of the family, adorned the campaign literature of Shelter to both evidence and tug-at-the heart. And so with the 2017 appeal it would seem little has changed since 1966. Some of the images became iconic: the image of woman pushing a pram, and dragging a suitcase, down a desolate country lane first appeared in 1974, and was used repeated until 1987.

Shelter recognized that Christmas was a time of when the media was only too willing to run with stories concerning the homeless. It facilitated introductions and stories. ITV ran a succession of ‘Shelter Reports’ (1967-1972). Yet TV news reporting often down plays the homeless’ role as active citizens who have a right to participate in solutions; instead these are articulated, by a dialogue, between charity, government and health professionals.

Shelter would have countered that their campaigning strategy of documenting case-studies heighten awareness for groups whom otherwise might have been denied a conduit for their voice. It used its publications to show the ‘impact’ of the money raised. Homelessness numbers continued to grow and by 1973 Shelter were explicitly rejecting the notion that money brought solutions.

Herein lies the dilemma: too often the public are unable to connect these cases to wider structural responses that might alleviate matters. Our guilt is assuaged by direct debit donations to such ‘expert’ organisations that offer to ameliorate a situation on our behalf.

Shelter’s early achievement was in expanding the parameters of public debate about housing, and successfully relating it to an issue of housing security rather than welfare need. They were able to create a narrative that took homelessness beyond being those who were physically roofless to those who were obliged to live in housing that was either insecure or in a poor condition.

That Shelter continues to exist points to the intractable nature of homelessness, but also suggests that it, and other such organisations, have failed to convince government  (and ultimately the electorate) that a radical and fundamental restructuring of the housing market is required.