The spectacle is awesome. A warehouse the size of three football pitches, piled with clothes, baby equipment and toiletries. Like the sea of flowers after Princess Diana died, the 40,000 boxes of donated goods, given by people in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, is a display of love, sadness and solidarity.
Every single item is an act of humanity. The urge to help people who are in crisis is one of the most natural. In the wake of all the disasters that have hit the UK in recent weeks, in Manchester, London Bridge, Finsbury Park and North Kensington, there have followed the most inspirational acts of bravery, kindness and humanity.
It’s now widely accepted that the initial response by the authorities to help the people in the aftermath of the fire was not adequate. The community fed each other, clothed each other, offered accommodation and held each other for comfort in the dark days that followed that terrible night. That charity kept coming and coming.
There are now more donated goods than the community can use and the authorities are appealing for people to stop giving gifts in kind. Understandably, the emotions invested by a community that has given, sorted, stored and distributed thousands and thousands of gifts to the people of Grenfell run strong. The community owns those three football pitches-worth of donated items, not anyone else. We need to do the right thing with them.
Behind the scenes there has been careful consideration of what best to do with that sea of gifts. Today, we announce a plan, agreed with the authorities and with the support of local community volunteering groups, to turn those gifts into cash. We will send our volunteers and staff in, working with community volunteers, to sort those items in order to sell them to raise money for the fire victims’ fund.
We will create three piles: the best new clothes will be sent to Grenfell for the families to choose from; other items will be sold through our shops, with every penny raised going into the London Fire Relief Fund, which is going back to the victims and their families; and any unsaleable items will be sold off as rag, to be recycled and the profits put into the fund as well.
In our shops, people will be able to see the items that have come through Grenfell clearly marked. We are urging people to shop for Grenfell, to help convert that sea of gifts into cash in people’s pockets so they can decide exactly what they need and will be able to buy it.
In drawing up this plan we have been mindful of three things: first, that before we sell a single item the people of Grenfell have access to all they need. That is now happening through the Westway Centre. Second, that we want to work with the incredible community volunteers who have been there since the early hours of that Wednesday morning. And finally, that people understand the enormous generosity behind the donations that have been given. Today we released drone footage, demonstrating the scale.
The plan to convert donations into cash draws on the Red Cross’s experience overseas as well as in the UK. Cash distribution is a proven aid method in a crisis situation: it often makes more sense to give people money to buy the things they truly need than to presume we know what they need and give them goods.
Most importantly, cash treats people with the dignity they deserve and gives them the power to decide what they need. That’s why the government and the fundraisers involved have worked so hard to ensure that there are now cash grants available to the people affected. By selling the donated goods, we can raise more money to let people choose for themselves what they need at this appalling time.
The Red Cross has been on the scene at Grenfell since 3am last Wednesday morning, called in to help staff the rest centres and assistance centres that have become a lifeline for the people affected by the fire. By being there our 200 volunteers have, in a small way, become part of that community. We will do the right thing by them and with them, ensuring that every item we can sell raises money to give back to the people of Grenfell.
Mike Adamson is chief executive of the British Red Cross