Thousands of rough sleepers were given rooms in hotels as part of the UK’s emergency response to coronavirus during the first lockdown. The unprecedented effort was described by some as a silver lining to the dark clouds of Covid-19, reports the BBC.
“At the beginning, we were thrown in at the deep end – nobody had ever done this before,” says Kath Meighan, thinking back to March 2020 after a busload of rough sleepers had been dropped off at the Holiday Inn in Gorton, Manchester. “It was seven days a week for 12, 13 hours a day. I remember the first month and my manager said, ‘I think we’re gonna have to talk about your overtime,'” she laughs. Kath had been tasked with running the homeless provision at the hotel for a housing association called Riverside, and about 500 people came under her care over the next 14 months.
Initially, it was what Kath describes as “our more chaotic individuals” – rough sleepers with drug or alcohol addiction, or mental health problems, or all of these things. For some it was years since they had slept on a bed, had their own room, private washing facilities or regular meals. They required intensive support not just for health issues but also with setting up bank accounts and benefits claims, and different agencies came to the hotel to provide it.
What had been the hotel reception area turned into a one-stop shop, where residents could get the help they needed without the formality and forward planning required for appointments. And it worked incredibly well, Kath says. Of the 500 who passed through the hotel, 100 were evicted – for things like persistently smoking in their rooms or anti-social or aggressive behaviour – and around 90 left the hotel of their own accord. But roughly half of those who stayed have been moved on to other accommodation, usually supported housing or temporary accommodation. Those people wouldn’t have had the same opportunity if the pandemic hadn’t come along.
Over the summer, as the first wave of coronavirus in the UK eased, many of the hotels in Manchester stopped providing accommodation for homeless people. But a handful of them – including the Holiday Inn – were kept going. Around that time, Kath noticed a change in the types of people referred to the hotel. There were women – and some men – fleeing domestic violence, which had surged during lockdown. And there were also people in work, who had been kicked out of rented property despite the government’s ban on evictions.
“We still had people, you know, ‘He just told me to leave,’ or ‘She told me to leave.’ And so I saw a complete shift in the type of people who had become homeless. They were now homeless as a direct result of the pandemic.” The hotel had capacity for 55 homeless people, and never had fewer than 49. None of them showed symptoms of Covid for the first nine months, but just after Christmas Kath and two other members of staff came down with it, and one of the homeless guests had to self-isolate.
“We’d done so well to keep Covid out of this hotel for so long,” Kath says. “We went from March to January without anything and then it just happened in January.” Kath’s symptoms were atypical. “No cough, no shortness of breath,” she says. But she was the only one to end up in hospital. “Had to be me,” she jokes, “because it had to be the drama queen.” After a few days semi-conscious, Kath says she woke up to find staff telling her they were preparing her for intensive care and asking if she wanted to speak to anyone in her family.
“I knew what they were telling me. I didn’t want to have that conversation. Just to think about this is really upsetting, because I heard those conversations. I heard them and I asked myself, why do they keep putting people who are dying beside me? Why do I have the dying patients, the people who are dying from Covid besides me? But they weren’t – everybody was dying. Everyone was dying.”
The residents at the hotel were just told Kath was taking a break. They had seen her putting in long hours. She was the go-to person for everything – “kind of the mother figure,” as she puts it – and she thought they would worry if they knew the whole story. Thankfully, Kath began to recover and by late February, she was back at work. It wasn’t long before she got confirmation from the council that the homeless provision at the Holiday Inn would be wound up at the end of May, with no new guests given a room from mid-April.
So why has the Holiday Inn said goodbye to its last homeless residents? “The Holiday Inn is an established commercial hotel,” says Moh Hussein, Manchester City Council’s interim director of homelessness. “If the answer is, ‘A hotel,’ the question is, ‘Where should I go for the weekend,’ not ‘Where should I live?'”
But people working in the homelessness sector in Manchester, including the police who’ve worked closely with Kath and the Holiday Inn, say it has been invaluable as a means of getting people into longer-term accommodation. Moh Hussein accepts this, but he says the reason for the hotel’s success is that it was clean and self-contained and didn’t come with the reputation that some of Manchester’s established accommodation for homeless people has – not the fact that it was called “The Holiday Inn”.
But why didn’t the council find a similar place to ensure no gap in provision? “Essentially, we would have to have found a building that we already owned that we could quickly redesign and repurpose and it would have to be empty to start. But that is the direction of our travel,” Moh Hussein says.
Kath is adamant that the model can and should be repeated. “It didn’t need to take a pandemic,” she says. We proved it can be done on a large scale. Can we have another hotel? We want another hotel – and we can make it work. We just need a purpose-built building just like this with rooms, security, a good team. And let’s go again.”