Grenfell Tower fire survivors demand answers with support slow to arrive
With a public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire set to begin, questions have been raised about transparency and accountability. Samira Shackle reports from London.
On June 14, a fire engulfed Grenfell Tower, a social housing block in west London, killing more than 80 people. Three months later, hundreds of survivors are still struggling to put their lives back together after losing their homes and everything they owned in the blaze.
On September 14, a preliminary hearing of the public inquiry into what happened at Grenfell will take place. It will start hearing evidence in October. The purpose of the inquiry, headed by retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick, is to discover what happened at Grenfell Tower and to make recommendations to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again.
While those involved gear up to give evidence, another legal process has been underway in Westminster. Joyce Msokeri, a woman from Sutton in south London, has been charged with seven counts of fraud for claiming 10,000 pounds of support that was offered to survivors. She is accused of falsely claiming that her husband died in the blaze.
The fraud case has drawn attention to the inconsistent way that funds and support have been disbursed to residents. A far bigger problem, residents and community advocates say, has been money getting to people slowly or not at all.
"We have just felt totally abandoned. The community was there, stepping up to help people, but the official response has been so slow," said Khadija, a local volunteer who wished to be identified by her first name only. "If you've lost all your bank cards, your passport, your ID, in a fire, then you need cash just to be able to live your life. In those first few weeks, you had volunteers literally withdrawing cash from the ATM to give to victims of the fire so they could eat. Where's the government in all that? Where is the council?"
After the fire, there was a huge outpouring of public grief and support – yet the official response was poorly coordinated. Within hours, individuals had descended on the local area with clothes, water and food. People from the local community mobilized to sort out these donations. It took days for the council to take an active role. And it was only in early July – a fortnight after the blaze – that the government sent in a task force to coordinate the response.
A definitive death toll from the fire is not expected until at least 2018
In addition to offering donations of goods, money poured in. Around 18.9 million pounds were collected for survivors, led by the Red Cross, the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation, and the Evening Standard.
Yet figures released by the Charity Commission in early August showed that only a fraction of this money had actually made it to those who needed it. Around 2.8 million pounds had gone directly to survivors – less than 15 percent of the total raised. After these figures were published, the speed of distribution stepped up, and by the end of August, around 42 percent had been distributed. But many feel it is still not enough.
"We are appalled by the lack of transparency and accountability over funds raised so far for Grenfell survivors," said Peter Herbert, of BMELawyers4Grenfell, an umbrella organisation of lawyers and local people. "The community has been making complaints for weeks about where the money has gone and until now have effectively been ignored. So far survivors have not been consulted about how they would like to see funds raised being used."
He added: "There are blueprints which could be used for Grenfell such as the Oklahoma bombing, where survivors were consulted on a regular basis about how funds raised for them were used. By now much more money should have reached survivors and community organizations doing the work on the ground."
Over 180 households are still housed in temporary accommodation, mostly hotels. Just eight have been resettled permanently. With the hearings set to commence, the feeling on the ground is still anger and frustration.
"Of the people I've spoken to, there isn't much confidence in the process," said Khadjia. "People feel they've been overlooked because they're poor and for the most part non-white. There's not much optimism that the inquiry is going to redress that balance."