If the Covid-19 crisis has shown us anything, it is that during times of the utmost adversity, people are able to pull together with exceptional resolve, support each other, and succeed in tackling even the most difficult of challenges by doing so as one.
Throughout lockdown, we were privileged in this newspaper to report wonderful stories of symbiotic support within communities, organisations who went above and beyond to help those in need, and extraordinary individuals and groups who made it their mission to put the welfare of others first.
Through the actions of such incredible people, the most vulnerable members of society were given hope, comfort and surety that they would not face this terrible pandemic alone, and by and large the country proved once again that in the times of our greatest peril, we are able to win if we stand together as one people; one community; and, indeed, one family.
For many of us, the idea of family has been at the forefront of our minds throughout the coronavirus crisis. For one particular group of individuals, it is a concept that has changed forever.
Mike Matthews and his team have run the historic Prince Rupert Hotel in Shrewsbury for 25 years. The former home of Rupert, grandson of King James I, the Grade II listed establishment has built up a reputation over many years for combining old-world charm with modern comforts and offering one of the finest dining and accommodation experiences in the region.
However, earlier this year as the seeds of lockdown were sown, the Prince Rupert – like other hotels across the country – prepared for an enforced closure.
Little did Mike and his dedicated team know however, that their hotel would soon be put to another use, and one that would come to change their lives implicitly.
“Back in mid March it became apparent that the Government would initiate a lockdown period and that there would be an instruction for all hotels to close,” said Mike. “As you will appreciate, it is quite a complex procedure to close down an historic 70-bedroom Grade II listed property with three restaurants.
“Indeed, I would guess that it was the first time in its 900-year history that the Prince Rupert would be closing its doors to guests.
“I immensely enjoy being a hotelier and consequently I paced my living room throughout the night wracking my mind for a way to keep the hotel open. But, to no avail.”
As it would turn out however, the Prince Rupert was far from destined to sit empty.
“The following day, and very much out of the blue, I received a telephone call from Tim Compton of Shropshire Council,” said Mike. “Tim simply asked the question – ‘A long shot Mike, but would you consider housing the homeless and rough sleepers of Shrewsbury during the expected lockdown period?’.
“That afternoon I met with Tim and listened carefully to what he had to say. The Government had instructed all local authorities to find safe homes for all the rough sleepers. This was for two reasons – firstly, to stop them from contracting the virus, and secondly to stop them from spreading it.
“Their immune system was very diminished and they potentially would have little chance of surviving should they become infected.
“I glanced over to Charlie, my hotel manager, and once I saw her smiling face I turned back to Tim and simply said, ‘Let’s do it’. We would eventually provide a safe home for all 33 rough sleepers in Shrewsbury.”
Because of Mike’s decision, the Prince Rupert Hotel was now to be opened to a very different kind of guest than those to which it was accustomed, and it was not long before the hotel’s new residents began to arrive.
“Within a 24-hour period the first individuals arrived at the hotel,” said Mike. “Blankets in hand and maybe also a sleeping bag and rucksack, they looked weather-beaten, dishevelled, extremely malnourished and clearly in need of a hot bath.
“We showed the first individual to their room and on opening the door he burst into floods of tears, as did my three staff members. It was the first time he had been given access to a bedroom in over 20 years.
“Later that night one of our early arrivals left his room and returned to the shop doorway he had slept in for 15 years. He was Polish and did not speak any English. He did not realise that he could remain at the hotel.
“We found him, brought him back to the hotel and handed him a letter which we had translated into Polish. It said, ‘This is now your new home and you are welcome to stay in the hotel’. On reading this he smiled all the way back to his bedroom.”
Mike’s decision to welcome the homeless community of Shrewsbury through the doors of his establishment did of course not come without criticism or concern from others. Indeed, the magnitude of what they were taking on also required an element of sacrifice and a huge level of commitment from Mike and two of his key team members.
He explained: “Myself and my two key assistants, hotel manager Charlie Green and accountant Jacki Law, agreed to leave our own homes and families and move into the hotel on March 17.
“In effect, our lockdown period would be spent within the hotel. We made this decision to avoid any risk of potentially taking the virus back to our families and also to ensure that we would be in a position to provide wrap-around support on a 24/7 basis for our new guests. Charlie has cooked every meal without a day off in five months.”
As well as committing to physically being there to support them around the clock, Mike, Charlie and Jacki made a crucial decision as to how the hotel’s new residents would be treated during their stay.
“We took the decision to operate the hotel as normal,” Mike said. “We would refer to our homeless individuals as ‘guests of the hotel’ at all times. And we would provide them with the same level of service that is offered to all of our regular guests.
“We also initiated a programme – we referred to it as CCR (Care, Consideration and Respect). We would ‘care’ for our new guests in every way possible, we would ‘consider’ all of their individual needs and we would also provide them with ‘respect’.
“In effect, we were treating them with dignity. For many it would be the first time in their lives that they had experienced this.”
As would naturally be expected, the experience came with a few initial teething problems. Yet Mike, Charlie and Jacki quickly found that their approach in treating their new and vulnerable guests with patience and without prejudice would lead to something incredible. A group of individuals whose natural ability to trust in others was often compromised by brutal and damaging past experiences began to open up to them.
Gradually, a bond of trust was built.
“We would talk to them in an honest and friendly way which in turn created a trust and a bond between us,” said Mike. “They began to realise that our only agenda was to care for them, to provide them with new clothes, a safe home from the virus and three hearty meals a day.
“With that trust, they began to feel settled and, perhaps for the first time in years, they felt happy.”
Lockdown progressed and the new residents of the Prince Rupert came to feel more and more at home in the hotel.
Many were helping out with duties, supporting Mike, Charlie and Jacki wholeheartedly in their efforts to create a sanctuary and community in which they could feel safe and secure, potentially for the first time in their lives.
Weeks rolled into months, and during this time many of the hotel’s guests were able to take the first opportunity they had had in years to reflect, rebuild themselves and look at the future with hope.
With the record of an address at the Prince Rupert, as lockdown came to an end many were even able to begin to more confidently explore employment prospects and arrange hopefully permanent future lodgings.
As the Government began to ease lockdown restrictions however, a decision would need to be made on what would happen at the hotel, and to its current residents, once it was permitted to reopen to the general public.
For Mike and his team, who had invested so much in the welfare of their guests, this decision was easy.
“It would have been incredibly difficult for me to bring all of our guests together and inform them that as of July 4 the Government is permitting hotels to reopen to regular guests and that they would all have to leave as of this date,” he said.
“Prior to the build-up of this announcement my guests had all been asking the question as to whether they would be forced to leave and I had given them a personal assurance that they would remain at the Prince Rupert.
“To have broken that pledge would potentially result in them losing any form of trust in both myself, my team and possibly humanity for the remainder of their lives.”
And so it was that Mike, Charlie and Jacki made the commitment that no guest would leave the Prince Rupert until they had a new home to go to – however long this took – and that their mission to help some of society’s most vulnerable and often misunderstood members would continue until it was complete.
Visiting the Prince Rupert this week, I was privileged not only to meet Mike, Jacki and Charlie in person, but also a number of the residents who since lockdown have come to call the hotel their home.
I have never been more humbled, impressed or inspired.
Beverley, 53, is a grandmother of eight who, before coming to the Prince Rupert, had been living on the streets for three years.
For her, living at the hotel has been a lifeline that has allowed her to look to the horizon for the first time in an age.
“Before I just lived every day for every day because there was nothing else to look forward to,” she said.
“I’ve been here since May. Here there is a bed. There are regular meals. The hospitality is amazing. The people here are brilliant – they are all here to help us. They have built trust and it’s like a big family atmosphere here.”
Beverley is still waiting for a property of her own to move on to, but thanks to the efforts of Mike, Charlie and Jacki, she has her eyes firmly set on a target at which quality time with her grandchildren is the centre.
“I couldn’t say thank you enough times,” she added. “Being here has given me a goal in life and something to look forward to. I know when I’m leaving here I’m moving into my own property and without these people it wouldn’t happen.
“I’ve got grandchildren in Shrewsbury. I want to be close to them. I want a place where I can have my grandchildren to stay overnight.
“I just want to have a door to shut one day and say ‘It’s mine’.”
Michael, 38, moved into the hotel in March. Since he first arrived at the Prince Rupert he has secured a job as well as a flat which he hopes to move into soon.
“I was on the streets until somebody said to me that they were putting people up at the Prince Rupert,” he said. “I came up here and they welcomed me with open arms. That’s why I have got where I am now.”
During his time on the streets Michael has sadly been a victim of cold and aggressive behaviour, having suffered unprovoked physical abuse at the hands of passers-by.
“I’ve been on the streets and had people throwing things at me and being abusive,” he said. “I’ve been kicked in the face. But you’re a human being the same as everybody else.”
Michael’s view of rough sleepers comes from his own profound experience as a member of this community. He believes that there is often a public misconception around the reasons that people are out on the streets.
“I think a lot of people think ‘they want to be like that’,” he added. “For a lot of people, it’s not that they want to be like that – they’ve got no choice but to be like that. A lot of them need stability.”
Hannah, 42, came to the Prince Rupert in May with her carer after her landlord unfortunately lost the property she had been living in.
“I’d had my home for 23 years and I lost it around the time of the Covid situation,” she said. “I had nowhere else to go other than here. I have osteoporosis so I can’t be out on the streets. I have a stick that I use to walk with and I sometimes have to use a wheelchair.”
During her time at the hotel she has got to know many of its other residents and has developed a deep understanding of the situations they have faced and how being at the Prince Rupert has helped them.
“A lot of these people didn’t feel safe anywhere,” she said. “Some of these people are ingrained rough sleepers, and to have them even start having a bath was massive. People are moving on but only because of being here.”
Of the team at the hotel, Hannah cannot speak any more highly.
“Mr Matthews has the patience of a saint, as does Charlie and as does Jacki,” she added. “Without them I would have been totally at a loss. We’re really, really lucky to have what we have here.”
During his time as a resident at the Prince Rupert, 31-year-old Richard has been working in the hotel’s kitchen, weeding the car park and helping with the cleaning.
“Charlie, Mr Matthews and Jacki welcomed me with open arms,” he said. “I’ve never had a proper place that I can call a home since the age of 12. The staff here have supported me. They celebrated my birthday with me – I’ve never had that in my whole life. It means a lot. They’ve made me feel like I’ve found the family that I never had. Jacki’s my mum now.”
Though having been through some terrible experiences before he came to the hotel, Richard’s time at the Prince Rupert has given him a determination to live the rest of his life to the full and in the best way he can.
“With whatever I’ve got left now, I’m going to make it good,” he added.
For Mike and his team, their time so far in supporting the homeless community of Shrewsbury has had an impact on them beyond anything they could ever have imagined.
“The entire experience has meant a great deal to us,” said Mike.
“I am immensely proud of the dedication and commitment which we have made over the past five months. Whilst our remit was just to provide accommodation and food it quickly became apparent that we could make a real difference to people’s lives.
“In my wildest dreams I never thought for one minute that I would spend five months living with the homeless and those most vulnerable. I cannot even put a measure on how it has changed me.
“I feel both humbled and honoured to have been given this opportunity; to live alongside individuals who literally have nothing – just a few clothes – to get to know them as people, to support them when they were in their darkest moments, to laugh and cry with them, to see them eat so well and to witness the improvements.
“It has been an absolute privilege to have created the family that for many, they may have never had.”
Unsurprisingly, for Mike, Charlie and Jacki, the misperception of homeless people held by many of the public is a view they would passionately seek to be eliminated, as they believe a true understanding of these often helpless and extremely vulnerable individuals is key to leading them to the better life they deserve.
“Essentially, we all enter this world the same,” said Mike. “For some, the path that is provided for them is not one which is chosen but regrettably forced on them.
“I have learnt from talking to my guests that some never knew their mother or father. They had no relatives. Or, at an early age they were simply discarded. They became orphans.
“Some were abused physically and mentally. In their teens they had no choice but to escape and to live on the streets. They have not selected this journey and consequently we – society and the local community – need to recognise this and put in place systems which capture these individuals before they reach the streets, and provide that critical support which they so dearly require.
“During the past five months I have discovered that they need friendship, a family to belong to, assistance with everyday living and a feeling of security. They need someone to teach them how to shop, prepare food, budget their finances, be shown personal hygiene and more than anything a safe environment in which to live.
“In time, their confidence will return and they will be able to move on to live in their own home and return to work. It is this process which, in my opinion, is essential if we are to finally solve the issue of rough sleeping within the UK.”