Shelter: Fifty years and still fighting

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When Shelter was formed it thought homelessness could be tackled within a few years – five decades on the struggle for decent housing continues

20th August 2018 by Robert Armour 0 Comments

Gracie McDougall remembers it all like it was yesterday, if only because it was the first thing she watched on “rich” uncle Pat’s new black and white television. It was the evening of 16 November 1966, and BBC One was screening Ken Loach’s television drama Cathy Come Home. Written by Jeremy Sandford and broadcast as part of The Wednesday Play series, it brought the harsh reality of Britain’s slums into living rooms across the country.

Growing up in Maryhill with two bedrooms between six people, the drama struck a chord in Gracie.

“I was a teenager and wrote an essay about it in school,” she said. “It felt like it was about us and that the overcrowding and poverty were suddenly being taken seriously as an issue. Before then it was just how life was meant to be.”

The seminal film ended with the stark fact: “All the events in this film took place in Britain within the last 18 months” followed by statistics: 12,500 homeless, 4,000 children in care.

Two weeks later Shelter was launched, capitalising on the groundswell of emotion roused by Loach’s hard-hitting film, seen by an audience of 12 million.


1968: Shelter Scotland is formed to deal with the unique challenges of homelessness and bad housing in Scotland 

1971: The charity opens its first housing aid centre in Edinburgh

1977: Campaigning helps to get the Housing (Homeless Persons)Act implemented, which places duties on councils to assist homeless families 

1993: The charity’s in-house team of lawyers is formed to take on cases directly on behalf of homeless clients. 

1997: Shelter tackles the increasing number of young Scots who are destitute through its Rough Sleepers’ Initiative 

1998: The charity’s national helpline opens, answering 40,000 calls in its first year 

2000: Shelter launches its first families project, providing practical and emotional support for homeless families with children 

2002: The Scottish Government sets up the Homelessness Task Force

2003: The government limits the use of bed and breakfast hotels for families waiting for a permanent home 

2007: Tenancy Deposit Scheme comes into force, which to this day, ensures 11 million tenants’ deposits are protected  

2012: Ground-breaking homelessness legislation known as the 2012 commitment is introduced

2016: The charity campaigns to end the right-to-buy policy

2017: High profile campaign to Make Renting Right 

Gracie credits Cathy Come Home as the inspiration for her becoming a housing campaigner, a chosen path that spanned decades, of which one of the highlights saw her infamously handcuffing herself to Glasgow City Chambers during the poll tax protests in the 1980s. She believed the film spurred a generation of campaigners like her into action.

It marked the beginning of a five decades-long struggle that is still as important today as it was in 1966. In 1968 the housing crisis led to Shelter Scotland being formed in response to the inhumane and squalid conditions into which poor families had become trapped.

Scotland’s housing was a national shame – possibly more so than England’s – and had stubbornly remained so from the 1900s onwards.

At the turn of the century housing in Scotland was some of the worst in the UK; in Glasgow it was not uncommon for six people to share a small room. A survey in 1936 found almost half of all houses in Scotland were inadequate. The nationwide policy of creating huge out-of-town housing estates after the Second World War helped ease pressure on overcrowded cities, while slum clearances in the 1950s saw around 32,000 homes condemned or demolished in Glasgow. This just led to increased homelessness. New towns like East Kilbride, Cumbernauld and Irvine helped ease the pressure but by 1961 there were still 11,000 homes in Glasgow unfit to be lived in – a hidden scandal at the time.

Richard Holloway, the former bishop of Edinburgh, was a founding member of Shelter Scotland. “We started Shelter Scotland in my sitting room,” he said. “68 was a very rebellious time, all sorts of stuff was kicking off and it was all part of that ferment,” he recalls.

“Shelter was essentially founded as a kind of professional fundraising body but it soon got into other things and became an advocate. It was given a jolt by Cathy Come Home that revolted the conscience of Britain.”

Shelter’s importance is illustrated by the fact it was the impetus behind the formation of housing associations in Scotland’s biggest cities and opened its first housing aid centre in the 1970s. In the 1990s it launched a service providing legal help to homeless Scots.

In more recent years it has cemented its status as the country’s leading housing campaigner by successfully fighting the bedroom tax as well as right-to-buy legislation, which has depleted Scotland’s council housing stock.

Yet five decades after Shelter Scotland was founded there are still more than 30,000 homeless people in Scotland. More than 137,000 households languish on council waiting lists because of chronic housing shortages and more than 3,400 families have no permanent home.

Graeme Brown, director of Shelter Scotland, said in its early days it hoped that a sense of national shame and the willingness to bring about lasting change would mean a quick end to bad housing and homelessness.

But while good progress has been made, bad housing and homelessness still blights the lives of thousands of people in Scotland – robbing them of their health, security and a fair chance in life.

Give a family a home and they will cherish it - Gracie McDougall

“Scotland is still far from fixed,” he said. “That’s why we are not celebrating our 50th – we shouldn’t really exist and there’s still so much more needs doing.  

“In our 50th year – through a series of events and activities – we aim to re-engage people across Scotland with our core messages and motivate them to join our fight and help us to campaign until there’s a home for everyone.”

Gracie McDougall echoes his sentiment. Now with three children and five grandchildren of her own, the fight for decent, affordable housing continues.

“They used to say that poverty creates bad housing but bad housing creates poverty,” she says. “Give a family a home and they will cherish it; it will become their centre, the base from which they can flourish and create the opportunities in life they need to create. That’s the message: give people the homes they deserve and they will flourish.”