After an agonising wait, survivors of the Grenfell fire are finally being moved into permanent homes – a whole 10 weeks after the ferocious fire destroyed the building, claiming the lives of at least 80 people and leaving many more grieving and homeless.
It’s hard to imagine how traumatic the waiting has been for those residents. It should cause us all to reflect on the impact of lengthy periods in limbo, to imagine waiting for a home that is anywhere near suitable. This is an experience which causes deep distress to many thousands in London, even without the added trauma and tragedy. The fact, as we see every day, is that Kensington and Chelsea council doesn’t have a surplus of good quality social housing waiting around empty.
It is routine for families made homeless in the area to be waiting for years, not months, for a permanent home. In fact, in the case of the Grenfell survivors, many of the normal rules – and to be blunt, the lack of empathy – that councils too often adopt when responding to homeless people have been to some extent put to one side.
This is quite right too: all public services need to understand how to respond to trauma. But there can be no doubt that what we at Shelter know is a far better than usual response is also down to the bright media spotlight on the council, and the potential criticism if Grenfell families were left to languish in grotty temporary accommodation for months, or be forcibly moved away from their community.
However, the council being on best behaviour cannot hide the fact that some will still face a longer wait for homes than others. Bereaved families have top priority, followed by disabled people or those who need a high level of support, then families with children, and finally all other residents.
Grieving families began looking at available homes last week. But those who remain will have to express an interest in a new home in a way that’s reminiscent of the normal – and unloved – system of bidding. This has raised concerns. Why, people ask, should survivors be made to bid against each other? Is the system so utterly heartless?
Shelter’s advisers – who have been supporting Grenfell residents in the aftermath of the fire – haven’t yet heard complaints about this process. With so many people needing new homes, the council has to find a way to prioritise who gets first pick of the new homes. And it’s right that people moving into a permanent home have choice over where they go.
But Grenfell residents know only too well that bidding on a council home can be distressing and frustrating. Families living in limbo may have their hopes raised about a safe and secure place to call home, only to be dashed again when it goes to someone else.
What is vital now, is that the council workers are on hand to support survivors through the process in a meaningful way, and that the bidding system is transparent and consistent. Otherwise, they risk putting even more stress on families who have already been through hell.
It is also time to ask questions about the system brought to light by this appalling situation. It is certainly not good enough for the Grenfell survivors. It is not good enough for any of us.
This is the latest Shelter blog in a series on Grenfell Tower. Polly Neate is the chief executive of Shelter.