Like so many people, I was horrified to wake up last Wednesday to learn about the fire at Grenfell Tower. I was previously the Director at North Kensington Law Centre, and led the decision to move from our offices of 40 years in the Golborne Road, to the heart of the Lancaster West community into Baseline Studios. A key part of the decision to do this was to be closer to the communities that most needed our legal help on housing, welfare benefits and immigration matters. Knowing that many of our clients at NKLC were residents of Grenfell Tower left me extremely saddened by the news.
Much of the current focus is immediate relief, and that is right. It is heartening to see so many members of the community coming out to provide assistance to the families and people who are now homeless.
We welcome Theresa May’s decision to hold a public inquiry and quite rightly much of the focus will be on health and safety and in particular the cladding. We urge the government to ensure that the voices of those most affected are heard in this inquiry and that funding is made available for this. Not only should this be funding for legal representation, but equally for communities themselves to be able to submit evidence in the form of their experiences and knowledge.
For me Grenfell Tower is a stark reminder of why the voices of communities disadvantaged by social policy must be heard at all stages of decision making processes. It is also a reminder of the role that those of us in the voluntary sector must take seriously to make sure our communities are listened to.
This is very much on my mind as I work with staff and trustees at Zacchaeus 2000 Trust to develop our three strategy from 2018. The communities that we work with are very much at risk of living in long term poverty and we want to play an important role in empowering them to challenge systems and process that work against them.
The tragedy has also shined a light on the crisis that is temporary accommodation provision for homeless households in London. Temporary accommodation is already at breaking point in London, with more and more homeless families housed outside of their borough, or outside of London all together. The Prime Minister has promised that families made homeless by the fire will be rehoused within three weeks inside the borough or neighbouring boroughs. But there have been some unconfirmed reports of families being sent as far afield as Preston or, in a gross act of insensitivity, housed in a hotel in a high rise tower. By law accommodation must be suitable and in these circumstances such accommodation most certainly isn’t. We hope that homeless families are able secure support and representation to ensure they are properly housed.
Grenfell Tower maybe an extreme example of the consequences when people are not listened to; we see less extreme but still worrying consequences everyday in our work with our clients – health conditions made worse, mental health issues and people living with no income at all and relying heavily on food banks.
In relation to Grenfell Tower I am extremely pleased to learn that North Kensington Law Centre is co-ordinating legal help for those who are now homeless. And like so many others, I stand in solidarity with friends and residents in North Kensington.