LONDON — It has been almost three months since the inferno that tore through Grenfell Tower, a public housing complex, killing at least 80 people and leaving hundreds more homeless. Yet, in that time, only 24 households out of 158 have been placed in permanent housing.
The survivors’ frustration at the slow pace, building through meeting after inconclusive meeting of the local governing council, boiled over late last month. Traumatized by the loss of family members and neighbors, they told the officials at a meeting they were looking for help rebuilding their lives but finding little or none.
“Where is the support,” one man shouted, pointing his finger at the leader of the local council. “When will we get our lives back?”
The outrage grew, finally becoming so fierce that the councilors just fell silent, staring at their feet.
Last week, government officials committed around $90 million to finding and buying properties to meet the needs of survivors, but said the whole allocation process could take up to a year.
Meanwhile, hundreds of survivors remain in limbo in 49 hotels scattered across London, and tempers already roused by smoldering class resentments have grown short.
“They say they will listen to our needs, take us into consideration, give us what we want. But each week we come back from these meetings with nothing,” said Rachel Layton, whose mother lived in Grenfell Tower and survived the fire and whose sister is still missing. “If all the residents had been rich this would have been sorted by now.”
In another recent meeting with council representatives, a chair was flung to the floor, dozens of people stormed out and one woman started hyperventilating in what she said was the start of a panic attack.
Why, many fumed, was the local governing body, the 50-member council representing the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea — one of the wealthiest in the country — unable to to provide even a firm time frame for when they would be rehoused?
The responsible authorities, whether with the local council or the national government, say they are doing everything they can, working at a pace set by the individual families, trying to identify all their needs so that they can be assigned top quality housing that matches their needs.
Many Grenfell families have turned down housing offers because the properties are either too far from their local community or because they are too traumatized to go back to go living in a high-rise building.
Some survivors are still so distraught by the deaths of their loved ones that they have not been able to submit their preferences for a new home.
Elizabeth Campbell, the council leader — who in past meetings had been called on to resign, after providing what residents said were unsatisfactory or incomplete answers to their questions and concerns — explained that housing was being allocated through a priority system that put survivors who lost family members first.
“All of them have seen houses now and have had the opportunity to go in and say, ‘This is what I want, this is what I don’t want,’” Ms. Campbell explained at the meeting last month. “The next in the order of priority are those who have got disabilities, whether they are mental or physical. The next will be families with children.”
The initial emergency response to the fire was handled so poorly by the council that the national government had to take over in an effort to contain an outpouring of public outrage.
Much of the anger was directed against the inequality in a borough that encompasses some of the wealthiest and the poorest sections of the city. That economic disparity was brought into sharp focus after it became clear that cheap flammable cladding and insulation had been used on the exterior of the building as a cost-saving measure during a recent renovation.
Many residents who have attended the council meetings week after week have called the one year time frame to house all the families unacceptable and have started to look for properties on their own.
Other survivors and community members are angry at how much money the council is spending on hotels. So far, the Kensington and Chelsea Council has spent more than $5 million on hotel expenses.
“It’s such a waste of money for a community that really needs help,” said Ms. Layton’s husband, Adam, a local resident and social housing activist. “There are so many risky towers like Grenfell that need urgent attention. The whole social housing system could use that money.”
The council has offered residents temporary accommodations in the area, but most survivors have said that they would rather not move twice and are choosing to stay in the hotels, said a spokesman for the Grenfell Response Team, a group of local and regional government representatives.
Asma Kazmi flinched on a recent evening here as she walked out of the community center meeting and came face to face with the charred remains of the Grenfell tower. The reality stung: She was homeless.
Turning her back to the building, she described her final moments in her apartment on June 14, when she was mixing batter and rolling pastries with her three children as they prepared for the pre-dawn Ramadan meal.
Then her neighbor’s fridge exploded, sparking the ferocious blaze that ripped through the 24-story building, filling the corridors and apartments with thick black smoke and trapping dozens of people inside.
“The kitchen was the heart of our household, and that’s what I miss the most,” Ms. Kazmi, 38, said as she walked away from the devastated building. “Now, I don’t even own a spoon. We lost everything, every single thing that we built.”
Since the fire, Ms. Kazmi, her husband and children have been living in a double room at a four-star hotel on a busy street in northwest London. The room is made up of two double beds, a single bed, a desk, television, mini-fridge, kettle and a large bathroom. In the corner of the room was a large pile of donations, including clothes, pots, pans and toiletries.
“What do I do with all this stuff? ” Ms. Kazmi asked on a recent evening. “I don’t have a kitchen, I can’t cook. Every day we eat junk outside,” she said. “I don’t want my children to get used to this. I don’t want to dress my children in other people’s clothes. I don’t want to do my washing in the sink. I just want my home and dignity back.”
On Thursday members of the council took survivor families on a tour of the latest properties they had acquired in the North Kensington area. The apartments were bright and spacious, with high ceilings and a modern finish. But one of the greatest challenges, according to one councilor, is finding enough good quality properties in proximity to one another.
“We are dealing with a very closely knit community, and they do not want to be split up, especially now in the aftermath of this trauma,” the councilor said. “They want to be close to their schools, friends, community centers — and that’s tough when there are so many people.”
This explanation rubs some former Grenfell residents the wrong way. At a recent council meeting, one shouted at the councilors, saying there were plenty of properties close together listed at local real estate agents. “Just cough up the money and do it privately,” he said.
The council says it is doing all that and more, searching for properties with local agents as well as developers, landlords and housing associations.
Back in her hotel room, Ms. Kazmi had put her children to bed. She asked me to whisper so I didn’t wake them, and joked that we could go and speak in the bathroom, the only other room in her new “house.”
“For the first month they cried every night and couldn’t sleep,” she explained. “They are children, they don’t understand what is going on. All they want to do is go home.”
Ms. Kazmi’s husband, Ceramah, said his eldest daughter, 10, had started to come to terms with what had happened, but his sons, 8 and 5, ask every day when they are going to go home.
“Yesterday, for the first time, I told them the truth. I said, ‘We’re not. We will find a new home.’ I think only Alihan, my older son, understood. He hasn’t spoken to me since.”