When Edward Daffarn wrote on his blog that the Grenfell Tower where he lived was a fire trap, his complaints were dismissed as scaremongering nonsense. Daffarn’s Grenfell Action Group blog had been warning from November 2016 that the building was a disaster waiting to happen, one of a catalogue of warnings that were ignored in the run-up to the blaze, which left 71 dead.
In an effort to try and learn some lessons from the Grenfell tragedy, Daffarn (and former Labour leader Ed Miliband) have this week joined a new commission scrutinising the social housing problem in Britain. Homelessness charity Shelter have launched the project to examine “the state of social housing in modern Britain and its future role in ending the housing crisis”. A report with recommendations will then be presented to the Prime Minister and Labour leader before the end of the year, Shelter has said.
Mr Daffarn, who is also a member of the survivors’ group Grenfell United, said: “Everyone who lived in Grenfell knows just how devastating the consequences are when the wellbeing of social housing tenants and leaseholders are disregarded.
“If we are ever to achieve any kind of justice and recompense for what happened, it will come through genuine social change and by ensuring that people … will never again be treated like second class citizens or experience such neglect and institutional indifference at the hands of housing providers.”
The Rev Mike Long, from Notting Hill Methodist Church, which sits at the foot of Grenfell Tower, is chairman of the commission.
“I hope this commission will hold a mirror up to society,” he said. “We need to take a long hard look at why communities such as Grenfell have felt ignored, forgotten and too often like second-class citizens.
“The experiences of residents here in Grenfell are sadly common in many other parts of the country, too.”
Understandably, ex-Grenfell residents and others are less than confident about the prospects of any form of commission generating meaningful changes to the housing crisis that is now consuming Britain.
Unquestionably there is an urgent to build more social housing, and the Grenfell saga has exposed yet again the injustice of large-scale landlords and speculators accumulating properties and hiking prices, which prevents people from getting a vital foot on the property ladder, with all the security that brings.
As well as the monetary dimension to the housing crisis, there’s also the rapidly deteriorating attitude of the establishment to social housing, and an ignorance and deepening misunderstanding of the circumstances of homelessness. In the past few weeks alone we’ve had plans announced for the forced removal of homeless people from the streets of Windsor to spruce up the town up for a Royal wedding, and Gloucester City Council has been posting notices around the city asking people not to give money to the homeless. In both cases the complaint has been that homeless people are neither without a roof over their heads, nor penniless.
Of course the reasons for finding yourself on the street can be many and complex. I know because, during my mid 20s, I probably qualified as homeless. At various times I lived out of the Simon Community night shelter in Reading, I squatted in a deserted Victorian mansion by London’s Highgate Cemetery, and I lived for almost a year out of the back of an old Commer camper van. I’d left home, my father had died, a relationship had collapsed, and I was ‘between jobs’. I’d been working and in a nice flat before I crashed into those events and – thanks to my track record and some very good people, I was able to patch up my CV, and get myself back on my feet.
However, those few years left an indelible mark on me, and have in many ways conditioned everything I have done since. At the time I dismissed this period in my life as kind of ‘wilderness years,’ almost a lifestyle choice. But I know now that I was homeless; transient maybe, but homeless all the same.
Many of the individuals I encountered whilst I was ‘down on my luck’ were not your stereotypical homeless person. The aggressive cash boom in and around London in the 1980s had thrown many a skilled worker and well-settled person onto the streets. Speak to many homeless people today and they’re not actually by any means social dropouts, they’re just you or me on a run of bad luck.
One of the first things you learn when your life collapses like this is that your so-called friends go with it, and the multitude of things that supported your life evaporate as well. You also start to learn what’s really important in life, and what isn’t. But most of all you gain an understanding that anyone, absolutely anyone, can find themselves homeless, and at pretty short notice.
You certainly find out who your real friends are. One of mine was a man called Lenny, an elderly gentleman (I choose that word deliberately) who lived under a railway bridge in Reading and was known locally as ‘Lenny the tramp’. I first met him when he was parked up in a ruined houseboat on the Thames that sank one night, and we all got stuck in to save his ramshackle belongings. Lenny was an extremely private, but highly educated, man who told us in no uncertain terms he wasn’t going to be moved to the night shelter, and the best he would accept was to shift his possessions under the nearby Cow Lane railway bridge, where he then lived for many years.
Lenny once had lots of friends, a family, and a good job, (he worked for the MOD), but it all fell away quickly and dramatically, and he became just another statistic.
Well meaning local people used to stop their cars under the bridge at Christmas to drop of huge bags of food and goodies – but only ever at Christmas. Lenny used to go mad at all the waste, and the stuff he couldn’t use or save. He would ask the Simon Community to come and collect the deliveries, and share them out with other homeless people.
He was once hailed as a ‘local hero’, when he found a ladies’ purse stuffed with money and took it to the police station – that kind of thing always makes good local news. Then, one night a bunch of young thugs set fire to his encampment, without bothering to check first whether or not Lenny was inside.
His death was really hard to come to terms with – and I never actually found out who Lenny was in the wider world – his surname, or the whereabouts of his grave. Lenny was at once a no-one, yet he was also the biggest someone, the broken body of Christ on the streets.
Thanks to friends, family and God’s good grace I got on with the rest of my life, but I’ve never forgotten Lenny, nor the help and companionship he gave me (and many others) in those bleaker times.
On this Homeless Sunday we are all asked to reflect on the problem of homelessness, and to become ‘a prophetic voice for change’. It might not go down well in Windsor or Gloucester, but I’d ask that you always stop and help anyone on the streets who puts out a hand in need. One day it could be you. RIP Lenny.
• Joseph Kelly is the CEO of The Universe Media Group, and Editorial Director of The Universe. This article appeared in The Universe on 26th January 2018.