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Reaching out to the homeless of Grenfell Tower

Like all of us in London, and the UK, every member of staff at HJA has been shaken and devastated by the tragedy of the last week for the residents of Grenfell Towers.

The fire that raged through the building, destroying so many homes and families, should not have happened, we should not have had to watch those images, or feel the pain of the survivors, the friends and the families that spoke out after the night.

While the shock of the events set in, all of us at HJA are thinking of the people who lost their lives and the people who lost their homes and their belongings. Speaking for myself, and I am sure I am not alone, the one comfort in the tragedy has been the evidence of generosity towards the victims of this tragedy. Pictures of donations of clothes and belongings spilling out onto the streets and people giving their time and opening up their homes has been a welcome balm to the wound that the images of the fire and the pain of the victims create.

Most recently my mind has turned to the rights of the people who have lost their homes and providing some suggestions of help and assistance for victims and their families.

Currently on the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) website there is little information on finding housing, although people are encouraged to contact the housing department if they have nowhere to stay.

The displaced of Grenfell

The tower was managed by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, but this does not mean that all of the residents were council tenants. The residents of the tower are likely to have been a mixture of private tenants, council tenants and owner-occupiers (leaseholders). If it is reflective of accommodation across much of the rest of London, there are also likely to be sub-letters, sofa-surfers and overcrowding as well.

Council tenants

RBKC has a housing policy that prioritises council tenants who are displaced to be re-housed in social housing. The property may be through a housing association, affordable rent or fixed-term tenancy. These are not as secure as the classic council tenancies and have higher rents.

However, due to the shortage in council housing, particularly family homes, many families will likely spend a considerable time in temporary accommodation (see below).

For all other residents who lost their homes, it is not clear yet if any of them will be prioritised for settled council housing, although they should be assisted with housing through homelessness law (unless other special provisions are created to deal with this disaster).

Homelessness applications

The Housing Act 1996 sets out circumstances where a local authority has a duty to assist the homeless people who approach them. A person must have the right immigration status to gain from this assistance. People on working or student visas, or EU citizens who are not considered workers or self-employed are not eligible for this assistance.

Single people and those who are not vulnerable are usually exempt from this kind of assistance, but the law specifically states that those who are homeless as a result of fire or flood will always be a priority for re-housing.

Those without a local connection may be referred to the last borough they lived in or have family in.

After approaching a local authority, you should be allocated a caseworker and provided with a decision in writing, stating what level of duty is owed to you, what the council is planning to do to fulfil that duty and your right to review.

Certain actions and decisions carry a right to a senior caseworker to review a decision. If you are refused help, please seek advice as soon as possible.

Emergency and Temporary accommodation

There has been promises from the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister that residents who have survived the fire and lost their homes will be re-housed as close to the borough as possible. RBCK recently rowed back on promises to house everybody in Kensington itself, fearing this would not be possible.

While early emergency accommodation is likely to be hotels or hostels , the government is likely to try and source mid-term (although still temporary) accommodation from private landlords for those affected. Those who are able to work or have savings may be expected to pay towards the rent.

Under the homelessness laws the council can refuse to assist you further if you do not accept an offer of accommodation. If you are offered accommodation you think is not suitable, you can still accept the offer and challenge the suitability.

Long term help/housing

In the longer term, families and individuals may be offered assistance to move to private rented properties, or remain in temporary accommodation . It is a sad fact that, due to the shortage of properties and the way they are allocated, most will not be able to access social housing even if they would benefit from it.

While households owed a housing duty are given some preference on the social housing waiting list, this is not usually enough of a preference to be made an offer. For leaseholders, it may be enough for temporary relief until insurance policies are redeemed.

The next few weeks and months are likely to be a confusing, uncertain and difficult time for many of the residents of RBKC. However, those who need help should be reassured that that there is professional help out there to help secure their next home, and that nobody should be going through this alone.

As part of the team of specialists in housing law, we are familiar with the problems of housing in the capital and we hope to offer our expertise and advice to help anyone who needs it. If you have read this and would like to talk about your particular situation, or have any questions to ask, please contact us on our free helpline on 0808 274 9308, set up for people affected by this disaster.