A year laterGrenfell’s long shadow
The fire, and its aftermath, have put many local residents under unbearable strain
FOR two weeks, the families of those who died came to tell their stories to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. The father who was flying home from Egypt while his family burned; the parents whose daughter had moved from Italy to London to make a life; the young man who stood and watched the flames as his mother and sister were trapped inside. Translators muttered live renderings of the speeches to friends and family unable to speak English. Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the judge who is leading the investigation, sat on stage and listened, seldom speaking except to offer words of condolence.
Since the fire at Grenfell Tower last June 14th, which killed 72 people and injured 70, official investigations have made slow progress. A review of building regulations produced cautious recommendations last month. Sir Martin’s inquiry into the causes and aftermath of the fire published preliminary findings on June 4th. A criminal investigation, which is considering personal and corporate manslaughter charges, will probably conclude no earlier than 2019.
Less noticed than these legal proceedings is a parallel effort to tend to the minds of the many people affected by the fire. Such was the scale of the horror, the local arm of the National Health Service estimates that 11,000 people may end up suffering from mental-health problems. Most will be cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but others will suffer from anxiety, depression and the exacerbation of existing conditions. As John Green, the psychologist leading the NHS mental-health response, notes, “it wasn’t just the fire”. What followed may have made things worse.
In the immediate aftermath, survivors struggled to find the support and quiet they needed to deal with what had happened. In the absence of co-ordinated assistance from the government, charities rushed in to help people, but often overwhelmed them. The area buzzed with volunteers bringing absurd quantities of clothing and food, as well as journalists looking for stories. In the end, says Cathy Long, who lives locally and is writing a report on the fallout of the fire for the London School of Economics, “we needed a relief effort to deal with the relief effort.”
A year on, 129 of the 210 households that survived the fire remain in temporary accommodation or hotels. Many have yet to be offered somewhere they consider suitable; others struggle to make big decisions about where to live. It is a worrying situation, says Alex Diner of the North Kensington Law Centre, which offers free legal advice, as there is a well-established link between housing and mental health. “They face the most difficult housing situation imaginable,” he says. With residents absent and a school beneath the tower forced to move away from the neighbourhood, businesses are struggling, too. Of the 50 or so he is working with in the area, at least three have shut and four have moved away since the fire, says Allen Pluck of the Portobello Business Centre. “The place is a little bit like a ghost town.” Many residents work in the gig economy, so lack the support and stability offered by salaried jobs.
In response to these circumstances, locals have turned to one another. Grenfell United, a community group, organises a monthly silent walk, which “provides a chance to reflect and remember in a dignified manner,” says Natasha Elcock, who lived on the 11th floor. Religious establishments have provided support, and work together more closely than before the fire. The Al-Manaar mosque, a short walk from the tower, now runs children’s holiday camps with the West London synagogue. Such is the sense of community, “People pop into the mosque like it’s the pub,” says one local (meaning it as a compliment).
But charities and community spirit can only do so much. NHS psychologists are studying the response to other disasters, including the Aberfan landslide in 1966 and the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2011. Many people in the area knew someone who lived in Grenfell Tower, or had once lived there themselves, which made the fire “far more traumatic” than, say, a terrorist attack in a big city, explains Dr Green. People with PTSD often try to ignore their problems and do not seek support. So teams of nurses have gone door-to-door to assess residents for symptoms. Around 1,000 people have been treated for a mental-health problem, many referred by these outreach efforts. The number is expected to rise.
There is now a focus, among charities and the NHS, on reaching those unlikely to seek treatment. Following conversations with Grenfell United, the NHS rebranded its “mental health” services as “health and well-being”, to avoid stigma—which is particularly common among first-generation migrants, says Lydia Giblin, a psychotherapist working with bereaved families. At the Al-Manaar mosque, imams lacked training to deal with traumatised people, so the mosque brought in counsellors used to dealing with Muslim clients, says Abdurahman Sayed, head of the trust that runs the mosque. The Curve, a support-centre led by the council, provides knitting groups, yoga and English-language classes, as well as therapy. It has had to overcome antipathy from locals, many of whom hold the council responsible for the fire.
The anniversary, along with the memories stirred up by the inquiry, is proving to be particularly anxious. The government has assured locals they will have the final say over what happens to the site of the fire, with a memorial the most likely option. For now, the blackened tower juts against the skyline, sheathed in white plastic. It is, says Mike Long, the minister at Notting Hill Methodist Church, “a visible scar”. There are many more invisible ones.