It is now six months since the fire at Grenfell Tower and the national focus has once again fallen on that devastated corner of north Kensington, turning quite rightly to national dismay at the fact that many survivors are still living in hotels.
For these families, moving into suitable permanent homes will be vital for rebuilding their lives – but we must never forget quite how horrific that night was and the depth of trauma survivors are living with, and will be for some time. Six months on it’s right that we pause and remember the 71 lives lost, and the aftermath survivors are left to deal with. We must also build a clear picture of why rehousing is taking so long.
As well as the impact of trauma that affects the survivors themselves, it is also vital to remember the profound mistrust that existed between many residents and the council before the fire. Shelter staff were on the ground soon after the fire and our dedicated Grenfell support workers are still helping residents – they will be for as long as they’re needed. We’ve seen first-hand how trauma and grief paralysed many residents. It was essential for every approach to them to be informed by an understanding of this, and framed by an acknowledgement of the lack of trust and authentic effort to rebuild it. But that is not how it was.
Instead, a lack of clarity, a lack of understanding of the individual needs of survivors, and a lack of acknowledgement of where relationships were already damaged have undermined the efforts the council has undoubtedly been making.
This at least partly explains what many outside of the community around Grenfell are struggling to understand: while some have accepted temporary accommodation, others have not, sometimes because they do not have faith that it will truly be temporary. They fear being forgotten – because they’ve felt forgotten before. This is one reason why many residents are still in hotels, despite the difficulty of all living in one single room. Others do not want the upheaval of moving twice, so would rather wait where they are for a permanent home. Given the disruption they have already been through, this is completely understandable.
Frustratingly, other residents have been made offers that are simply not right for them. These include people with disabilities who wouldn’t be able to fully access the accommodation offered. Initially we saw clients who were concerned they’d be forced to move away from their support networks and families – as is all too common for homeless people in London.
Of course, the other critical backdrop is the fact that the council simply doesn’t have the homes it needs to rehouse survivors quickly. Like others all over the country, the area is sorely lacking in social housing. The council has been buying up properties for Grenfell families – which is the right thing to do, but does by its nature take time.
The council has said it expects everyone to be moved into permanent homes by next summer. Believe it or not, this is swift compared to how homeless people in London are usually dealt with – but of course feels frustratingly slow for survivors who just want to bring some safety and comfort back to their lives so they can begin the process of finding some sense of wellbeing again.
Grenfell has exposed a breakdown in relations between tenants and their landlords that should concern us all. It is clear that residents felt like second class citizens. We should not accept that anyone in our communities is treated in that way.
So we must not lose sight of the fact that as a country we need a national conversation which asks wider questions about social housing more widely than just Kensington & Chelsea, including issues like the lack of social housing, the conditions that people live in, and whether social tenants feel powerless.
It is time to examine the role of social housing in creating inclusive and united communities, where no one is second class and where people have faith in those who are meant to protect them. If we don’t do this, we’ll fail to protect the people desperate for change in the wake of this tragedy