A poignant new play exploring the reality of being threatened with homelessness in the UK
This week I went to see 'Cathy', a play about a family who become homeless, by theatre company Cardboard Citizens. The company make theatre with and for homeless people and are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year. The play was followed by a ‘forum’ discussion about the issues raised. 43,000 families in the UK became homeless in the last year. What can we possibly do to help all of them?
In the play, Cathy and her 15 year-old daughter Danielle are evicted from their flat on a council estate in London where Cathy has lived her entire life. They are told to feel lucky that they are among those classed by the council as ‘priority need’ and given emergency cockroach-infested accommodation in Luton – miles away from their home and Cathy’s elderly father – where they end up living for five months rather than the promised 33 days.
The good news that they have been assigned temporary accommodation comes with a heart-rending decision – the flat is in Newcastle, and it’s the only one the council will be offering. If she refuses, her name goes to the bottom of the list; if she goes, she moves away from her family, her friends and the only place she or her daughter - who is months away from sitting her GCSEs - have ever called home.
How long should they expect to be in temporary accommodation in Newcastle? Seven years. Cathy refuses and things go from bad to worse, with Cathy and Danielle having no option but to sofa surf. Danielle reaches breaking point when Cathy persuades a stranger in a pub to invite them home with him. She moves in with her dad, an alcoholic and gambling-addict, leaving Cathy on the streets alone.
Following the play, Cardboard Citizens asked the audience to discuss the issues raised and to consider what we would have done in Cathy’s place. For my part, I found it hard to see where Cathy had gone wrong; to me it seemed like she was the victim of a system that isn’t working. Others disagreed – she shouldn’t have let the landlord evict her, she should have sought legal advice, she should have roused the support of her local community, she should have gone to Newcastle – and ideas about what she could have done to stay in her home ranged from organising a sit-in to starting a kickstarter campaign to pay off her rent arrears.
'Cathy' is a remarkable play but it isn’t easy to watch, as her situation seems all too familiar. In the words of one audience member, the play was ‘too truthful’. I’ve never been threatened with homelessness, but as a volunteer for The Mix’s helpline I speak to a lot of people who have found themselves with nowhere to stay. It seems there just isn’t enough help for all the people out there that need it. Cardboard Citizens don’t have the answers to this problem, but they’re opening the debate.
'Cathy' will be touring theatres, hostels, prisons and day centres across England from autumn 2016 to spring 2017.
Bryony, Peer Editor
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