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In a report published today, Shelter says the government official figure of 18,689 homeless, based on the numbers in temporary accommodation, vastly under-estimates the scale of the housing problem in Britain.
The charity is launching a £1m campaign called "Face the Facts" aimed at getting the government to adjust its definition of homelessness to include the many hundreds of thousands living in appalling conditions.
Shelter Director Des Wilson said: "We want a commitment to the homeless. The real emergency end of the problem won't be solved unless a special action programme is tailored for that purpose.
"We are getting desperate on behalf of so many families we can't reach and we believe society would want to reach them if only it was allowed to face the facts about their existence."
The Shelter report gives 61 case histories of families in desperate need of re-housing because the conditions they live in are so bad.
The problem is worst in inner-city areas like Tower Hamlets in east London.
In one overcrowded block of flats lives a family of four. They share two damp rooms. Their youngest child, a 21-month-old baby, died recently of bronchitis.
In the same block, a couple with five children have been on the housing waiting list for seven years. One of their rooms is so damp it is unusable in winter.
The husband has pleaded to be re-housed: "I get the same reply every time. When accommodation comes available we will get it, but at the moment the priority is for slum clearance tenants."
He has been told the family is not likely to be moved to a bigger house for another two to three years.
Shelter was launched in December 1966 to publicise the housing crisis in Britain. It followed the BBC drama documentary "Cathy Come Home" which depicted the devastating effects of homelessness on a family's life.
The charity hopes this new campaign will raise awareness of the numbers of homeless people in Britain and kickstart the government's re-housing programme.
The "Face the Facts" campaign was the start of the first Shelter week. Since 1968, the charity has continued to run an annual campaign week to focus attention on its activities.
A million homes were damaged during World War II and that, together with the post-war baby boom, led to a big demand for new homes. As slums were cleared, the sites were used for big new tower blocks, which served the dual purpose of being erected quickly and housing many families.
But public confidence in tower blocks evaporated with the collapse of Ronan Point in Newham in May 1968. Although the block was rebuilt, the trend began to move away from flats to low-level terraces and maisonettes.
In the 1970s Shelter turned its attention to the cuts in council house building. The first Shelter Housing Aid Centre was opened in London offering free advice.
Since then it has also fought campaigns against moves to house families in temporary or bed and breakfast accommodation and more recently it has also become involved in dealing with homelessness caused by mortgage repossession.
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