the contented who live in reasonable homes the problem of the homeless is like a distant war where sympathy for the suffering is possible but visualising the conditions is beyond true understanding. Unless you have had to share a lavatory with 17 people, watched fungus growing out of the walls of your living room/bedroom/ kitchen, listened to your children's bronchitis, even seen one sent away because the damp might kill him, you cannot conceive the horror of living in such conditions.
Islington has the worst housing problem of any London borough. Three out of four families live in sub-standard conditions, almost double the London average. The council is providing 2,000 new homes a year but with 12,000 on the waiting list the sheer size of the problem is almost insurmountable.
Playing a small but significant part in housing the homeless are the housing associations run by dedicated groups of people who. by using the maximum amount of grants and loans available, are converting older houses and rehousing at least a few of the many unhappy families.
After spending two days recently talking to members of the New Islington and Hackney Housing Association and to some of their tenants. it is obvious that however small the contribution of such groups, it is incalculable in terms of human happiness. And as the associations increase and become more efficient the more people they will be able to help. cribably damp, with fungus growing out of the walls. "The two girls were terribly bronchial," said Dorothy, "and John has been off work for a year with ulcers and the result of an accident which has left him with only one lung."
A demolition worker, brought up in the worst part of Glasgow, John Newton swears that some of the houses he has knocked down have been better than the ones he has lived in.
"But this little place is marvellous," he said. "When we moved in there was no decorating to be done, the sink unit was in, even decent gas fires. I reckon £5 is a week is pretty good for all this. I don't know how they managed to get us in so quickly. The council told us they couldn't rehouse us for 10 years."
The reason, of course, is that housing associations can be much more flexible than any council. As Mr. Louis Lewis, the housing manager, put it : "It is difficult for local authorities. They have to run a system and cannot deviate from it. We are masters in our own house."
Drop in the ;ocean
Already the New Islington association has provided 60 flats and hopes to have 250 by the end of the year. Although only a drop in the ocean of the borough's housing problem. anything is better than nothing. "We are doing something. however small, and that's what counts," said Mr. Simon MacLachlan, its chairman. "But we have got to try to do it on a reasonable scale so that we can be comparatively self-supporting."
A very worthy aim. this. but the chances are pretty slim as yet. Voluntary help—the association was originally started by school-care workers—has enabled the association to get on its feet. Volunteers, from city businessmen to housewives, go round vetting houses, collecting rents and, as an important by-product, listening to people's problems.
No job for amateurs
The work is hard but not unrewarding although paid officers like Mr. Lewis are vital if the association is to grow beyond what was once an amateur exercise. "I've done this kind of housing work for 15 years," he told me. "I've ceased to cry with these people about their conditions.
"While having plenty of sympathy for them, one has to be detached if anything is to he done. Things can't be done overnight either though we try to help as quickly as we can. And even if we can't do something for them immediately, they can come to us to let off steam."
People letting off steam is a hazard that councils have been contending with for years. Doing anything about people's problems is not always within their power so most councils welcome the assistance of housing associations, however small.
Islington Borough Council is now showing an interest and offering help that was not so much in evidence under the previous regime, which had been in office for over 30 years. "The previous council was not exactly helpful," said Mr. Lewis. "This one is more sympathetic and we have just bought our first two houses in the borough where previously we could rely only on Hackney."
"I think housing associations must be encouraged," said Councillor Patrick Bromley, a member of the council's Housing Committee. "The council have now allocated different areas to different associations so that they won't be competing with each other."
As other evidence of the Council's willingness to help Mr. Bromley told me that the machinery has now been set up to provide, not only 100 per cent loans but also rent rebates to tenants of housing associations, as well as a grant of up to £100 a year for each home to the association itself. In return the Council wants 75 per cent of tenants to be allocated from its own housing list. At present most associations borrow from the GLC and have to provide it with 50 per cent of the accommodation. Helping specifically Islington people is obviously a better idea in a borough with such immense problems.
The work of housing associations is being encouraged more and more. Apart from local authority aid, Shelter, the charity set up two years ago to house the homeless, is putting most of its money to work through the associations. Said Mr. Des Wilson, the director: "This year we plan to allocate £600,000 to housing associations, provided of course that they fulfil certain requirements. They have to show us they are housing the sort of families we regard as needy, they have to be well managed and they have to be tapping every other source of financial aid through grants and mortgages before we will donate anything."
The New Islington and Hackney Housing Association fulfils all these requirements. As a result it has received money from Shelter and also from the Housing and Homeless Central Fund. In May the association is to broadcast an appeal which it is hoped will encourage the smaller donations as well as the large.
There are so many charities that call upon us for help. "Not another appeal" is the typical reaction of most of us. But helping people who live in appalling conditions in our own cities is not charity. It is justice.