East Finchley fire: Families left homeless criticise immediate council response but praise community as crowdfunder raises £3,000
PUBLISHED: 17:35 15 November 2018 | UPDATED: 10:20 16 November 2018
The families left homeless by the fire that destroyed the upper floors of Willow House in East Finchley last week said Barnet Council treated them "like ants to be squashed" in the immediate aftermath of the fire.
However, as community fundraising continues, those affected said the response from the town hall and Barnet Homes had markedly improved, and they also praised the work of the police and fire brigade during the blaze.
The families also called on Barnet Homes to ensure they were rehoused within the local community, where they “depend heavily on local support networks”.
The GoFundMe crowdfunding page has been set up to help with providing immediate assistance, particularly as a number of those affected have been as yet unable to return to work.
At the time of writing it has raised £3,000. More than £1,500 was donated within 24 hours of the fire.
According to a statement given to this newspaper by those affected, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, “council officers began pressuring residents into making long-term decisions”.
One resident was reportedly sent to a “hostel in Stonebridge with drug dealers outside”.
The statement, however, praises the community response to the disaster, which has left more than 50 people homeless, including young children and the elderly.
The families added: “We escaped in our pyjamas. We would like to thank the firefighters and the police who were brilliant, and the Rev Helen Shannon and her team from church@5 who were on site within five minutes, opening the local community centre to provide comfort, food, clothes and beds.”
Evacuated residents also wished to make clear their thanks to ward councillors Cllr Alison Moore and Cllr Arjun Mittra.
James Masters chairs the Grange Big Local charity, which, along with Community Barnet, has been instrumental in organising grassroots support for victims of the fire. He said it had been “devastating”.
“We are working with residents, a number of local groups, Barnet Homes and Barnet Council,” he said, “to support the people affected in the way they want.”
Helen Harte of Community Barnet also thanked local businesses, including B&Q and Tesco at Colney Hatch, for donations.
She said: “The amount of support we have received in our fundraising has been spectacular and we are grateful to everyone who has been so generous in their donations.”
In a joint response, a spokesperson for Barnet Homes and Barnet Council said: “Barnet Council and Barnet Homes have been working together to support all of the residents of 1-12 Willow House in terms of temporary accommodation, emergency compensation, and gaining access to their belongings, where safe to do so.”
They also confirmed the priority was to provide emergency housing in the borough to those affected where possible.
A Barnet Homes spokesperson added: “We appreciate how difficult the aftermath of a fire of this nature can be.
“Our number one priority was ensuring that all residents displaced by the fire were provided with suitable emergency accommodation options whilst longer term solutions were found. “Whilst some of the options that were offered were not accepted by some residents, hotel accommodation was always provided as a minimum.”
The cause of the fire remains under investigation by London Fire Brigade.
To donate to the fund, see the crowdfunder here, or contact Claire Meade with a request to provide needed items at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Full statement from families affected by the Grange Estate fire:
We are residents of Willow House on the Grange Estate in East Finchley. We lost our homes just before midnight last Tuesday, November 6 when we were woken up by residents from the block opposite banging our doors down as our building was ablaze.
We escaped in our pyjamas.
We would like to thank the firefighters and the police who were brilliant, and the Rev Helen Shannon and her team from church@5 who were on site within 5 minutes, opening the local community centre to provide comfort, food, clothes and beds.
We have also felt so encouraged by the response from the community as a whole, including the setting up of the GoFundMe page.
However, from the time when we arrived traumatised at Barnet House the next morning after no sleep, council officers began pressuring residents into making long term decisions.
Some residents were told to accept completely unsuitable accommodation in places as far away as Peterborough and Romford, without any legal advice. One resident was sent the next day to a hostel in Stonebridge with drug dealers outside.
We were made to feel not like residents who have just lost everything, but instead like ants to be squashed and got rid of as soon as possible. The fire was not our fault, but our belongings are still standing in water and will soon be destroyed unless we get help from the council/Barnet Homes to retrieve and protect them.
We are a group of people, all in different situations, who have prioritised coming together as residents and supporting each other as best as we can, with the help of volunteers from local community organisations, Grange Big Local and church@5. We have also been in contact with a member of Grenfell United who came to speak to us about their experience, and for this we are so grateful.
We are pleased that the council is now listening to us and have apologised for their inappropriate response. Yesterday senior Barnet Homes and council officers met with us. They have offered us accommodation for the next week while they consider what they can provide in the longer term while Willow House is being rebuilt and the causes of the fire are investigated.
Many of us have lived on The Grange for years and we have all worked hard to build our lives here. We must be enabled to stay in the immediate area as we continue to depend heavily on local support networks. We want to contribute to the rebuilding of our community.