There are many ways you can become homeless – eviction, domestic violence, mental illness, alcoholism. In my two years working in Emergency Housing at Hammersmith and Fulham Council I saw them all. But the worst by far was fire. People who lose their homes through fire suffer major trauma just from shock, and then in addition they may have lost all their possession or even relatives who have died in the fire. What they need, immediately, is a safe and comfortable place to go locally, where they will have the security of knowing they can stay for a while. We didn’t have the facilites to offer that, and nor will Kensington and Chelsea Council today to the former residents of Grenfell Tower. Not only have they lost their homes, they have also lost their local community. Two thirds of homeless people in the Royal Borough are offered temporary accommodation in another part of London – and that’s just temporary. When it comes to the permanent offer of a home – neighbouring Westminster Council has offered homes as far away as Coventry. During the London blitz, when homes were bombed out, good people took their neighbours in. But that isn’t going to happen. Of course many are rallying round to help, but one thing is sure – the wealthy residents of Kensington are not going to be offering homes to locally displaced council tenants who have lost everything. We still have a class ridden society. The newly elected Labour MP for the area, Emma Dent Coad, has vowed to tackle inequality in the area. She could not have a harder test.
Grenfell Tower, where the horrific fire took hold last night, lies just a few hundred yards east of the area I worked in, just south of the Westway motorway which carries West Londoners into town. It has certainly had a lot of money spent on it – £8.6 million in a major refurbishment which was completed only last year. But today, there are a lot of questions which have to be answered. Reports suggest that the fire spread quickly through that new cladding on the outside – it came off and melted. Other reports inform us that there is no central fire alarm in the block, and residents were warned only by their personal smoke alarms. There have been proper fire inspections by the London Fire Brigade, but what happened to the sprinkler system? And what about those prominently displayed notices on every floor asking people to stay in their flats in the event of a fire? It’s a tried and tested system which works well when a blaze can be quickly tackled, but not when the whole building is burning down.
If you watch the videos and listen to the sounds as bits of the building fall away, it is reminiscent of 9/11. The same quiet sounds, the same dust, the same horror. But of course not the same news value as victims of terror. There will be no benefit concert for the homeless of Grenfell Tower, no multi-million pound fund to help them. Their story will quickly fade from the headlines, as they try to pick up the pieces of their lives.