Grenfell: a home is more than a roof over your head

Whenever there’s a lot of media and public interest in people who are homeless, it’s important to stop and think what we mean by a home.

Homelessness often follows a period of personal trauma – the loss of a loved one, serious illness, the breakdown of a relationship, an escape from domestic abuse or violence, or the loss of a job and income.

These are all things that any of us need time and space to deal with emotionally and practically. It’s at these times that we most need the comfort of home, familiar surroundings and neighbours.  But this isn’t possible when our home is lost, so the trauma and distress is compounded.

Homeless survivors and witnesses of the Grenfell Tower fire, including many children, are clearly dealing with extreme trauma.  Therefore, one of their most pressing needs is a home: somewhere they can retreat, shut the door on the world and start to process the enormity of what they’re going through.

Shelter advisers and lawyers have been on the ground, working with partners at North Kensington Law Centre, Kensington CAB and the Housing Law Practitioners Association, to do everything we can to make sure that people made homeless by the fire have access to free legal advice and support.  We are listening to the community – so that our response is led by their many needs.

First, to make sure that they can avail themselves of their right to suitable emergency accommodation so they at least have somewhere safe and comfortable to stay.

But a home is not simply a roof over the head.

An emergency hotel room provides a place to rest and recuperate. But a hotel room isn’t a home.  It offers little in being able to get on with the basics of day-to-day life: children being able to play with friends; neighbours, family and friends able to pop in with practical and emotional support; preparation of family meals; laundry; time to be by yourself – even a correspondence address.

Traumatised homeless people should not be expected to stay in emergency accommodation for more than a few days. So now our attention is turning to people’s access to far more suitable housing: either temporary accommodation while they have time to think about permanent rehousing options – or, for people who are ready and where they are available, offers of permanent rehousing.

To be legally suitable, housing must meet health & safety standards, be affordable, within the locality (to ensure easy access to schools and hospitals) and meet the needs of the household in terms of number of bedrooms, accessibility etc.  But for men, women and children who’ve been through such terrible trauma, there’s surely a need to take personal preferences into account too, such as closeness to the trusted, close-knit community that responded in such a magnificent way.

Where permanent rehousing is offered in response this situation, it must be on the same type of tenancy and rent level as the home that’s been lost.

But we’re encountering three main problems:

  • Some people made homeless at Grenfell were undocumented migrants who are afraid to come forward and get help either from Shelter or the authorities. Without regularising their status, they have few legal rights to housing and some are now street homeless.  The Government must urgently offer them indefinite leave to remain – the current assurances that they won’t be asked their status are either not being heard or believed.
  • Not enough suitable temporary accommodation is being found, in some cases in terms of its quality and in others its proximity to hospitals, schools and community support.  Location is an important factor for people who feel a need for the support of their community.
  • People are keen to know what type of permanent rehousing they may be offered, in terms of both tenancy, rent or location.  But at this stage there is limited information available.

What the Grenfell fire, and the subsequent evacuation of homes in Camden, has brought into sharp focus is London’s acute shortage of affordable, suitable housing. Last week’s homelessness statistics revealed that over half of homeless households assisted by London boroughs have to stay in temporary accommodation for more than a year before moving to a settled home and, at last count, a shocking 740 families in London spent more than the six-week legal limit living in private hostels and B&B’s. Families are spending longer and longer in emergency and temporary accommodation because there is so little suitable, affordable accommodation within their home borough.

We are at an absolute crisis point in terms of settled housing in London.

There are many ways in which both the Government and local authorities can respond to this homelessness crisis in both the short and long-term. Behind the scenes, we’ve been urging the Prime Minister and DCLG to do so.  The Government have made clear assurances to people whose homes have been destroyed by the fire about the housing offers that will be made.

This is not a time to overlook innovative solutions to pressing and large-scale homelessness. London Borough of Lewisham has developed an innovative ‘pop-up’ temporary accommodation on its Ladywell site, which provides high quality yet affordable homes on longer-term contracts.  If a suitable site could be found, this sort of solution might allow Grenfell survivors to be temporarily housed as a community, not too far from their previous homes.  Other London boroughs are now purchasing local homes on the open market for use as temporary accommodation.

We’re also seeing innovative, community-led solutions to permanent rehousing needs, such as the Community Land Trusts in St Clements and St Ann’s.

Regardless of how government chooses to respond in the longer-term, people need suitable accommodation now.  If this is not forthcoming, Shelter’s advisors will be working with residents to hold authorities to account on their promises and to ensure their legal rehousing duties are met.