In London, the blackened skeleton of Grenfell Tower haunts the horizon of the city, looming in the rearview mirrors of commuters as they sit, wedged on the Westway.
An estimated 80 people lost their lives in the blaze that ripped through the Tower’s 24 storeys on the 14th June. Two days after, Theresa May promised (with as much emotion as she could muster) that everyone affected would be housed within three weeks. But in the weeks following, the fulfilment of this promise seemed less and less likely. With the council offering accommodation which was outside of the borough, too expensive, in tower blocks, and even unfinished, many residents rejected offers, choosing rather to stay in hotels.
Four months on, in London’s richest council, (with usable reserves of a staggering £274m) only two families have moved into permanent homes, with 150 still in limbo, traumatised, confused and homeless.
Grenfell forced the UK public to glimpse into the tangled, multi-faceted and ever-changing labyrinthe that is to be poor in the UK today, and the scythe of homelessness that hangs overhead. As David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham so aptly put it; Grenfell acts as “a window into the lives of one group of the population that relies absolutely on the state for where they live, the conditions in which they live, and safety and security.”
As we stare down the barrel of a cold, difficult winter, one wonders if the state quite understands its duty. It’s a winter which will be made more difficult still by continued cuts to local funding, rising homelessness, relentless strain on the NHS, and food-bank usage continuing to spiral. And the glistening cherry on top of the government’s trifle of ineffectiveness? Universal Credit.
First trialled in February 2015, Universal Credit was hailed as a nifty solution to the notoriously difficult welfare system, it promised to replace six individual benefits, and merge them under one payment. Crucially, Universal Credit can be claimed whether an individual is in or out of work - it was designed to avoid the “cliff-edge” of the old system, whereby people on a low income would lose all of their benefits in one foul swoop as soon as they started working more than 16 hours.
Which all sounds wonderful in principle. Unfortunately, the roll-out has been plagued with controversy since its conception, and with a ‘mind-numbingly irresponsible’ 6-week wait for claimants before they receive their first payment, it is particularly unforgiving for our most vulnerable (usage at some food banks is up 82% since roll-out).
This week opposition has reached a veritable crescendo, as charities and MPs warn Theresa May that continuing its ‘chaotic’ roll-out will result in evictions and homelessness for claimants.
Videos emerged in June showing US state policeman forcibly dragging a disabled woman from her wheelchair as she protested Trump’s latest healthcare plan. Warm in the arms of our beloved NHS, we usually tut and raise our eyebrows at the state of healthcare over the pond. But now, this feels worryingly close. Disturbing reports published in The Guardian this week tell us of disabled Universal Credit claimants left waiting without enough money to charge their electric wheelchairs, questioning if ‘the government wants to finish us off, either by driving us to suicide or leaving us homeless and freezing on the streets’.
Decisions will be made in the New Year as to what will happen to Grenfell Tower. For now - still under criminal investigation - it stands, held in place by props, wrapped in scaffolding to stop ash and dust from escaping. A reminder of the tenuous position which is occupied by individuals who are state dependent, and of the tragedy that can occur when that duty is neglected.