Since the terrible fire that consumed Grenfell Tower in North Kensington there has been much discussion about the cladding and details of the architecture. But we need to keep focussing on the people. This week I organised a meeting in Parliament for survivors of the tragic fire. Alongside me were my colleagues the local Member of Parliament Emma Coad Dent, Labours Shadow Justice Secretary, Richard Burgon MP and David Lammy MP. Over one hundred and fifty people attended. There were: solicitors; legal advisors; support groups; families of survivors and dozens of survivors themselves.
I heard some incredibly tragic stories including a young woman and her daughter who had been on the twenty-first floor of Grenfell and had been amongst the last people to leave the building. On their way down they had to step over dying bodies. They were obviously still deeply shocked and upset by what they had endured. And her daughter had recently come around from a coma. The meeting, as a whole, was full of sad and traumatised people. Some were, understandably, very angry.
One thing that quickly became clear in the course of the meeting was that many of the things that government ministers claim are happening to help the survivors are not happening at all. My strongest impression is of continuing chaos. For some survivors English is not their first language but very little information or written advice appears to be in translation. There is still no central crisis centre where all who have been affected can go and get help. Survivors are having to go from place to place to get the advice and support that they need. Some survivors are in hotels. But families can be in different rooms and facilities suitable for tourists are not suitable for traumatised families.
For instance many rooms have no refrigerators and a woman with asthma complained of being in a room with no window. Other survivors have been offered temporary accommodation. But they are worried that this is short term and don't know what will happen in a few months time. They are often in accommodation which is more expensive than Grenfell House and are worried that they will not be able to afford it when the temporary placement ends. They also confirmed that they are being offered unsuitable housing out of the borough. Numbers of survivors do not seem to have access to social work support and counselling. There seems to be a shortage of family liaison workers. And in particular there are not enough culturally diverse social and support workers. Too many survivors and their families don't seem to be able to access the financial help that MPs have been assured is available. The community who have been providing the overwhelming majority of support, are concerned about what has happened to all the charitable donations of food, clothes and money. There is no central inventory, no way of tracking where all the donations have gone.
There was an angry discussion about the Judge who had been appointed to chair the inquiry. Survivors had been promised some involvement in the appointment of the chair. No such consultation had happened
And there was a moving discussion about the burnt out shell of Grenfell that looms above the community. Those still living around there think it is a tomb up in the sky and should, at least, be covered in scaffolding or possibly demolished altogether.
Belatedly the chief executive and now the leader and deputy leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea have resigned. Not before time. Their immediate response to the disaster was a shambles, leaving the community, charities and faith groups to step into the breach.
The media circus will move on from Grenfell. But we need to continue to focus, not only on the architectural and regulatory issues, but the human beings caught up in this tragedy and how they can get the help and support they will need far into the future.
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