As a worker in an advisory office in East London I am consulted every day by people in urgent housing need. On an average, 20 people a day come to this office and, of these, at least a quarter have a severe housing problem, so that over my seven years there I have met literally thousands of them. Apart from actual homelessness, the worst and most distressing cases concern people who are ill or disabled and whose living conditions are totally unsuitable.
Because of the impressive amount of post-war building that has been achieved in this country, particularly in metropolitan London, it is much too commonly assumed by people who are comfortably housed themselves, that archaic living conditions now exist only in slum areas scheduled for clearance. One of the reasons why this is not so is that a great number of our larger town houses in traditionally middle class districts have, since the war, been subdivided—not merely into flats but into rooms which, singly or in pairs, are each let to a separate family. The reluctance of property owners to spend money on proper conversion has meant that many of the tenants have no kitchen of their own let alone a bathroom or private WC, while ventilated cupboards for food are practically nonexistent. It therefore often happens that a neighbourhood which, superficially, looks primly respectable conceals behind its front doors the most insanitary conditions imaginable.
In last December’s issue of the British Medical Journal a doctor with a practice in just such an area, West Hammersmith, described how he was consulted by a man suffering from a skin disease who, at a hospital outpatient clinic, had been told he must have a daily bath—but who had no access to a bath at home. This prompted the doctor to undertake a survey covering 500 of his patients, most of whom were young parents and their children. One result of this was that as many as 44% were found to have no access at all to a bath and that 56% had to share one with other tenants. No wonder then, that in the dockside area in which I work a much higher percentage of the people who consult me have no bathroom— in fact it is fair to say that only those rehoused in council flats enjoy this necessity for civilised living—while indoor WCs are virtually unknown.
This may not immediately appear as a quite intolerable hardship compared, say, with that of families who have to eat sleep and live in a
Some time ago I was consulted by the husband of a young woman who had just managed to survive a whole string of serious internal operations, one of which was an ileostomy. While she was still in hospital her doctors had urgently applied to the LCC for her to be rehoused. But after keeping her as an in-patient for longer than was medically necessary, they were obliged to send her home. This so-called home was two pocket-sized rooms on the top floor of a small blitz-battered house typical of the neighbourhood. It was of the sort that used to be known as an artisan’s dwelling, dating back to the 1880s, unblest with a damp course and apparently designed for pygmies. The family—fortunately there was only one child—slept in one room and bravely attempted to live in the other. On her return, the wretched young mother had no privacy in which to carry out the frequent and nauseating changing of paraphenalia which was the legacy of her operation. And there was no water laid on in the house for most necessary washing. The only tap was in the yard and to reach it, she had to go through the downstairs tenants’ kitchen—afterwards hauling up heavy buckets. Naturally her husband could not be there to help her during the day, and her son was too young. As soon as she was able, she insisted on tottering out to the public baths over a mile away, and she did this three times a week before the visits of the district nurse. Not surprisingly, she soon found herself back in hospital.
In perhaps an even worse case concerning the same type of medical condition, the patient was an old man of 75. Before his operation he had lived alone but, after it, a married daughter had taken him in—although she and her husband had four children and only two small rooms. The poor old man had nowhere to wash himself and his dressings but the kitchen sink. His daughter could not forbid him to use it, but the sight of him doing so and her fears for her children’s health so preyed on her nerves that, when I met her, she had developed a nervous skin disease which covered her face, arms and legs with festering sores—and she was only too plainly heading for a breakdown.
Both these families were eventually rehoused by the LCC—but only after more than a year of unimaginable strain and suffering, and then only after repeated and urgent applications from hospital doctors, family doctors and people in the same position as myself. But the grimmest point about this is that housing in both cases was, by current standards, extraordinarily quick. Normally it is so cruelly slow that many sufferers have remarked to me: ‘It seems you have to be pretty well dead nowadays before you can get any help’. And only the housing authorities know how many do, in fact, die or have to go into hospital before that help finally arrives.