Housing

Londoners rally to support 16 survivors of fatal fire on edge of homelessness

"It should not be down to how many bodies you have to count before you have a duty of care," said one attendee.

Londoners have rallied round the 16 survivors of a fatal London fire who are now facing homelessness, demanding the council provide support six weeks after a blaze tore through the tiny flat where 18 slept.

Campaigners from London Renters Union, local councillors, trade unionists and housing activists joined forces outside Shadwell town hall in east London to demand action as the survivors are on the verge of being turned out on the streets.

Speakers pointed out that the fire could have claimed more lives, and that it shouldn’t take a tragedy on the scale of Grenfell Tower disaster for the survivors to be looked after.

“The reality is everyone in this council is going to get to go home to their nice warm homes and have a bed to sleep in,” said Kwajo Tweneboa, who has gained tens of thousands of followers on social media highlighting the shocking state of social housing across the UK.

“We were told a situation like this would never happen again [after Grenfell], but six years on we are here advocating on behalf of sixteen individuals who are homeless after a fire.

“Ultimately we know what it is that they deserve, and sadly at the moment their voices aren’t enough.”

Firefighters called to Maddocks House in the early ours of Sunday, March 5, discovered at least 18 people had been living in the flat, which had bunk beds crammed into its two bedrooms and lounge.

Inhabitants were sharing one toilet, and the arms of one tenant were covered in scars from bedbug bites sustained in the flat, even after six weeks away.

One man, Mizanur Rahman, was rescued but later died of his injuries. Another is understood to have moved abroad after the fire and the remaining 16 were given temporary hostel accommodation in the borough. 

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In the wake of the fire, Tower Hamlets Council admitted fellow residents had complained about overcrowding in the flat. But the council issued it with a HMO license, and said it had acted on the complaints.

Despite that, the flat remained crowded to a level almost five times the legal limit. The council launched a criminal investigation in the wake of the fire

One survivor, Shahed Ahmed, said he had been living in the uK for 19 years and would be meeting the council on Friday. While hoping for an extension, when asked what he’ll do if he didn’t receive one he said simply “I don’t know” but appreciated the show of support from the protest.

Shahed Ahmed (left) and Mohammed Rubel Ali survived the fire in Shadwell on March 5. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

Kimia Zabihyan, who acts on behalf of Grenfell Next of Kin, a  campaign group set up to support family of those who died in the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, said she had come from west London to support the survivors “just as east London stood in solidarity with us”.

“It should not be down to the tombstone imperative of how many bodies you have to count before you have a duty of care,” she added.

Since the fire, the survivors have endured a cycle of packing up, extended deadlines, and searching in vain for a new place to live.

Tower Hamlets Council has told them Thursday is the ”absolute last night” it will provide accommodation, and that it does not have any duty to support them.

The council has so far spent over £100,000 on hotel accommodation and allowances for the survivors.

The Big Issue understands 10 of the survivors have no recourse to public funds – including those who have come to the UK to study.

Campaigners supporting the survivors have also raised concerns over accommodation being provided to those with recourse to public funds.

Tower Hamlets council previously said a five-day extension to their accommodation – past the original deadline of Monday – would be a “feasible window” for the survivors to find a place to live.

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A Tower Hamlets Council spokesperson told The Big Issue on Thursday: “We recognise the extremely difficult situation the survivors of the Maddocks House fire have been faced with, and have done our utmost to ensure they have been supported and their welfare provided for since the fire took place.

“Since March 5, we have provided emergency hotel accommodation to 17 survivors, a weekly allowance totalling £1,250 per person, and welfare support and housing advice. Around £100,000 has been spent by the council cumulatively.

“Though the council did not have a legal obligation to offer this continued accommodation and support, we have done so until now under emergency powers to support those affected by the fire. 

“We have made sure that everyone has been informed ahead of time regarding the arrangements for the hotel. We have been in regular contact with the survivors and provided as much notice as possible, so they have time to find their own accommodation ahead of the hotel booking end-date.

“We have also done what we can to help signpost tenants to find alternative accommodation, and have been assisting five survivors – who are entitled to recourse to public funds – in finding long-term solutions to their accommodation.”

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