Shelter at 50 – campaigns, communication and the ongoing fight for housing

In 1966, on the evening of November 16, BBC1 screened 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. Blurring the boundary between fiction and social documentary, the film ended with a caption: “All the events in this film took place in Britain within the last 18 months” and a series of national statistics – 12,500 homeless; 4,000 children in care.

Just two weeks later, Shelter: the National Campaign for the Homeless was launched by Des Wilson and Bruce Kenrick. Capitalising on the groundswell of emotion roused by Loach’s hard-hitting film, which was seen by an audience of 12m, the organisation intended to give voice not only to those on the streets, but to those living in the kind of rundown and overcrowded housing that had featured in Cathy’s story – people that the charity called ‘the hidden homeless’.

A full page in The Times introduces Shelter: the National Campaign for the Homeless, December 2 1966
A full page in The Times introduces Shelter: the National Campaign for the Homeless, December 2 1966

Like Loach and Sandford, the founders of Shelter realised that by simply telling people’s stories they could move others to act. Taking over a full page in The Times, the group outlined the reasons behind its emergence: it would work to raise awareness of homelessness and the terrible housing conditions in many parts of the country, but also attempt to generate money for stretched housing associations that would enable families to be rehoused securely.

While, today, Shelter still works to combat homelessness directly, its aims and focus have shifted over the intervening years – with its fundraising methods, campaigns and identity evolving to reflect this. And 50 years on from its founding, the charity is now dealing with a new crisis – the result of an unprecedented shortage of housing, a generation priced out of home ownership and the continuing prevalence of substandard living conditions across the UK.

It marks its half century not with a celebration, of course, but with a look back at what it has achieved to date and a refocusing of its efforts in campaigning on behalf of those in need. Certainly, in recent years, as the problems escalate, the issue of housing has crept up the political agenda. Its visibility in 2016 is thanks in part to Shelter’s long-term commitment and hard work.

“Shelter certainly wasn’t the first charity to do campaigning, but I think it’s fair to say it was one of a new generation of modern campaigning charities using, arguably, ‘shock’ approaches that other perhaps more traditional organisations had shied away from,” says Roger Harding, Shelter’s Director of Communications, Policy and Campaigns. “[It was] very much part of the younger generation of the 1960s who were protesting against some of the injustices of their day. Shelter not only told human stories but they combined those with more shock and creative tactics that are now pretty commonplace in campaigning.”

Shelter’s early dynamism even saw the emergence of tactical approaches that would these days be labelled as ‘guerilla’. “They anonymously booked a stall at The Ideal Home Show in the [late] 60s and put in a slum property set-up, rather than the ‘ideal home’,” says Harding. “They took out notable full-page ads that were very striking and so on. At the time, these very much broke the mould.”

From the outset, Shelter made use of powerful imagery to get its point across. Nick Hedges, a young photographer who had recently graduated from Birmingham College of Art, was commissioned by Wilson to document some of the families living in the country’s post-war slums and the result is one of the most significant social records of the 1960s (an interview with Hedges about his work for Shelter will feature in a forthcoming ‘Shelter at 50′ post on CR). Hedges’ ability to gain the trust of the people he had come to photograph enabled him to record their dignity in the face of unimaginable hardship. His unflinching work was integral to the charity’s beginnings and has just recently been exhibited again to mark Shelter’s 50th anniversary in some of the key cities Hedges visited: Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester.

In 2016, Shelter is combating a more complex problem, however. “When we were founded we were pointing at whole slum areas in cities, very large spaces where the housing was very decrepit, whereas now the housing crisis is much more of a hidden problem,” says Harding. “We’ve got families in hostels, people having to sofa surf, people facing significant issues with their benefits and so on … it’s hard to paint on such a grand scale as the slums.” Yet while the disparate nature of the problem has meant there are more issues to hone in on, Harding believes  that, at its core, Shelter still reacts to a tried and tested method.

“What we’ve tried to do, and what I think you’ll see over the evolution of Shelter’s visual and creative work, is that we’ve continued to tell human stories, but that we’ve strived to become ever more empathetic in the way that we do it – and make it very much about this being a problem for everyone,” he says.

“It affects people up and down the income scale, up and down the country. One of the reasons for doing that – in the campaigning sense – is to reach more people, which propels it up the political agenda. But it also reduces the stigma of the issue. One of the problems we face with our services is that homelessness is horrific, it is difficult to go through and therefore is difficult for any of us to admit, even to ourselves, that that may be starting to happen.”

The hard truth of this is something that Shelter’s work with agency Leagas Delaney has attempted to drive home. “A much more prominent message for us has been, ‘there’s no shame in this happening to you’,” says Harding. “We’ve broadened the range of stories that we use; we’re no longer just about the most acute situations.”

While Shelter can still deliver a punch in its work, Harding believes that the real shock of today is in the ordinariness of the crisis: it could happen to anyone. Recent campaign work has included targeting people with children, for example, making the point that this generation will struggle to buy their first home and inevitably rely on ‘the Bank of Mum and Dad’. (In 2014, Shelter worked out that when all family lending was added up, this ‘bank’ would constitute the 11th largest provider in the UK). Similarly, another campaign applied the rate of increase in house prices to common consumer goods – in posters and print ads, the new costs of milk and bread, for example, reached absurdist levels.

This new thinking is delivered within some old applications, however. Repetition of message is key to it being effective, says Harding. “Repeat it until you’re bored of it and it sticks with your audience. The interesting thing we’ve found is that it sparks more creativity, not less, because after the first couple of years we’d exhausted the more obvious ways to highlight there’s a housing crisis … you’re forced to go way beyond the first few ideas that pop up in a brainstorm.”

So after 50 years of work, what’s next for Shelter as it endures one of its toughest periods to date? “It’s a useful moment to look back and celebrate the successes we have had,” says Harding. “The slums have gone, we have made huge advances in terms of housing need, even if the problem is far from fixed. And it’s also good to be reflective – where are the areas we’ve been more successful, where can we do more?” Furthermore, Shelter is also looking to broaden out and engage with the ‘positives’ of home in its next big campaign.

Bank of Mum and Dad campaign for Shelter by Leagas Delaney

“There is a danger, for all charities particularly, that you focus exclusively on the problem, rather than taking the time to celebrate the great successes you’ve had,” says Harding. “And also the fact that what you’re fighting for is a brilliant thing, there are few things more brilliant than ‘home’. So what we’ve done is worked closely with our corporate partner, British Gas, to find out from the public what home means to them – and [ask] them to share those ideas, so we get a sense of what we’re all fighting for. But we also want to take those views and try and build them up into a ‘standard’ of what a reasonable home looks like in the 21st century.”

Shelter is set to create for the home what the ‘living wage’ is for incomes, says Harding. The Living Home Standard will launch in mid-October as a new level from which Shelter can assess the number of people who aren’t in a home of that standard – the aim being, says Harding, “to get that number down to as near to zero as possible”.

Revenge Eviction Notice campaign from 2015 by Shelter’s in-house creative team
Revenge Eviction Notice campaign from 2015 by Shelter’s in-house creative team

Alongside the Standard will be a new, more positive campaign on the country’s need for affordable homes, Harding adds. This, too, reflects a new kind of campaigning: warmer, more human and emotional. “People are looking for optimism and we’re positive about how we can fix this,” he says. “It’s more human than some of the creative we’ve used – there’s a sense of ‘this is an awful problem but it’s not a problem we have to live with’. If we bind together and put pressure where needed, we can hopefully fix this. So we don’t have to have any more birthdays which aren’t celebratory.”

During the 2015 general election, ‘housing’ became a top five issue among the public and was visible in the top manifesto pledges (it was notably absent in the 2010 election, Harding says). So despite the obvious problems still to tackle, the housing crisis is finally being talked about more widely.

“I think we’ve made a huge amount of progress in terms of the public and political consciousness,” says Harding. “I’d rather be in a position where we’re debating what is the right way to fix the problem, rather than a situation where the problem isn’t even being discussed.” Thanks to Shelter, this kind of talk will hopefully lead to continued dialogue, action and even change.

See for more information on what the charity has achieved in the last 50 years. Shelter are also offering up the chance to win a limited edition print by Anthony Burrill in a newly-launched ballot (see our story on the project, here)