Two years ago, when we all disappeared inside only to emerge to cheer on the NHS on Thursdays, there was very little good spirits. But a small ray of light shone in Shrewsbury where a BBC report spoke of a hotel that had responded to the government’s Everyone In campaign to bring homeless people indoors.
Others have also signed up, mostly budget hotel chains with cheap carpets. The four-star Prince Rupert Hotel features medieval half-timbering and sumptuous four-poster beds. Left empty, the pipes and systems of such an old pile could easily malfunction. So, with the support of Shropshire Council and a local homeless charity, its owner Mike Matthews has pledged not only to house the town’s homeless but, like a very good Samaritan, to welcome as guests.
“Can I take your luggage, sir?” a porter asked the first man to show up with a filthy backpack and a sleeping bag. About sixty people, unaccustomed to beds and regular meals, came during the first confinement, roughly divided between alcoholics and drug addicts. Factions tended to disagree. Both brought chaos and crime with them. The baths overflowed regularly. Stuff was set on fire. The rooms reeked of spliffs and unflushed toilets. There were needles and bottles everywhere. Somebody brought a boa constrictor.
Guests could be disruptively loud or catatonically quiet. They had matted beards and missing teeth, scarred limbs and sometimes light fingers. The worst bruises were inside. “Those effin’ doorknobs are worth more than me,” said Dave Pritchard, 39, covered in tattoos.
And that’s the knot. Society does not see much merit in such lives. On the street, they were regularly kicked in their sleeping bags, or urinated on them, or simply told to get a job. Without exception, these men and women bore the indelible scars of childhood: abuse, rejection, abandonment, cruelty – the full assortment of trauma. One had been on the streets for 35 years.
Every time someone’s heartbreaking story is told in The Rupert Street Hotel for the Homeless, you can’t imagine a worse start to life. Then another goes and overtakes him. Drugs, they shrugged, brought easy oblivion. Between them they had many children, to whom their access was mostly forbidden. Only Simon, a wizened eco-warrior who was at school with the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, and who drinks three bottles of plonk daily, had volunteered for a life outside.
The year of living the hotel with compassion is told with speed and enthusiasm by Christina Lamb. Grounded by the pandemic, the Sunday Times’ chief foreign correspondent stumbled upon the story while attending (via Zoom) a Woman of the Year luncheon. His signature usually appears in the hottest hotspots – Kabul, Aleppo or Dnipro. Shrewsbury looks like a seaside entry on this list but, as she points out in a blistering coda, the UK is far from free from the problems plaguing the developing world. His book is both journal and manifesto.
As the story unfolds, some of the staff can’t handle the chaos and the vamoose. Security guards are useless. But Matthews can call on two formidable wingers, his manager Charlie Green and accountant Jacki Law. Both in their 50s, having endured overwhelming hardship themselves, they have a lot of love to give. Putting their family life on hold, they are introduced to the language of addiction (“scrip”, “mamba”) and are trained to save someone who is overdosing on heroin. The three guardian angels have made it their mission, after briefly opening their doors between closings, not to let anyone leave until they have a place to go.
Film companies will no doubt be scrambling for the rights (skipping the less engrossing sections related to Matthews’ romantic woes directly). They should be wary of making it too uplifting. Yes, there is warmth, redemption and Christmas cheer. Titch, a little epileptic struggling with an addiction whose litany of bad luck found him homeless at 12 and often in prison, blew out the candles on his very first birthday cake at 32. It was prepared by Charlie and there is a great shot of it. But there are deaths along the way, and not everyone’s story is fully resolved, including Titch’s.
Don’t wait for the movie. There will be an avalanche of books on the pandemic. None will be as revealing, humane or moving as Lamb’s last dispatch from the front line. Miraculously no one gets Covid.
The Prince Rupert Hotel for the Homeless is published by William Collins at £20. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph books