Why the community has been forced to rebuild Grenfell homes

While the government admits it failed to help Grenfell Tower victims, the community is taking up the mantle

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Volunteers helping to furnish homes for Grenfell Tower victimsPhotography Annabel Sowemimo

Like many other Londoners, I have spent much of my life visiting friends and family in social housing and often climbing numerous stairs to reach an aunt or uncle in a London tower block. The events of Grenfell feel extremely personal. On a different night, this could have been my loved ones that found themselves victims in their own homes.

Spurred on by the demonstration of solidarity at Friday’s protest, where thousands took to the streets and stormed Kensington town hall, demanding answers, I decided that I would spend Saturday contributing to the volunteer efforts. As I walked along Portobello Road I saw dozens of posters of missing people – many of whom were children. It hammered home how devastating this tragedy has been.

On arrival I asked one of the women in high-vis jackets who was coordinating the efforts what I could do to help. A community leader began an impassioned speech: “We don’t need too many volunteers now but we do need answers. It is important to keep applying the pressure.” Although the atmosphere remained calm, there was a sense amongst locals that information was being hidden away and that we were in the midst of a scandal.

“It was strange that volunteers were asked to set-up the homes for the displaced”

Later, as I drove to the address we had been given to help furnish the homes, several of us commented that we sincerely hoped that they had the sensitivity to place the victims in better living conditions. I was extremely relieved when I arrived to see a brightly coloured, three-storey apartment block of newly renovated homes, which had mostly been supplied by the neighbouring Chelsea and Westminster Council.

The next few hours were spent unpacking new flat-pack furniture, building a bed and setting up kitchen appliances. We furnished about 15 flats on Saturday and others reported that 15 were furnished the previous day. As we worked through the heat, I looked around and saw that there was a diverse, intergenerational array of people. One woman was even wearing her Scout Leaders uniform. There was a real sense of hope that we may have assisted those that had lost everything.

The relief efforts by the community have been monumental but there is increasing frustration on the lack of government coordination. Yesterday, Theresa May admitted that the response to the Grenfell fire was “not good enough”.  One local resident, Alesha, said: “I needed to help as the local council have not coordinated anything. You can see people are in need and they do not seem to be doing anything. I thought I should do my little part”.

It did seem strange that volunteers were asked to set-up the homes for the displaced. Mark, one of the chief coordinators from Notting Hill Housing who were organising the rehousing, stated that they were doing the work not-for profit, but had been contracted by the local council. They claimed they could get the job done more quickly by mobilising community support.

“Whilst the government fails to provide any real organisational support, the community continues to bridge any gaps necessary”

The community continues to bridge any gaps necessary. Undoubtedly this is a beautiful thing, but the continued mismanagement by both local and central government is fuelling suspicion, especially because the majority of the victims were poor, brown or black, and working class. A rapid relief strategy should have been created but instead local leaders continue to be the ones addressing the communities’ darkest fears.

One young woman was adamant that the council were actively preventing further donations. “It is the council that have asked people to stop bringing donations in. They are even giving the donations to the Royal Mail to distribute to act as if it is the council is doing something, when it is not,” she said.

Other volunteers highlighted that the donations seemed to be accumulating, and that the lack of distribution was symbolic of a higher death toll. Only 30 deaths have been confirmed, despite hundreds of people living in the block. As the rumours of causalities in triple figures continue to persist, an estimate seems necessary to allow the community to start to process this tragedy.

In the meantime, they continue to try to manage the tragedy through their own innovation. One person has created gathrer.com, which lists missing residents. It currently stands at around 150. 

The tragedy that continues to unfold in west London seems no closer to ending. The only triumph is the collective brilliance of the community but with information lacking, even if their patience is beginning to wane.

*Some names have been changed

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