A Shrewsbury hotel owner has vowed to continue to provide accommodation for rough sleepers after 4 July until they are able to find permanent homes.
Mike Matthews, who has run the Prince Rupert hotel in Shrewsbury for 25 years, was asked by Shropshire Council at the beginning of lockdown if he would consider providing accommodation and meals for local people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.
He has since housed up to 31 homeless people in his family-run, 70-bedroom, four-star hotel in the heart of the town.
Speaking to The Caterer, Matthews (pictured with two senior managers and five of their previously homeless guests) said that before he agreed to open up his hotel to rough sleepers, he had been aware of the town's homelessness problem from walking around Shrewsbury itself but, like many, had never actively set out to do anything about it.
He said: "The minute I heard about the situation it appealed to my nature. I didn't want to close the hotel, that was the priority to me – I was desperate to keep the hotel open. I thought it was a real shame to have to close this beautiful building."
Matthews and his senior management team made the commitment to isolate themselves from their families in order to care for their new guests as safely as possible.
"We quickly saw this as a project and moved into the hotel ourselves so we could form a family unit around them. Staying at the hotel 24/7 provided an opportunity to get to know these individuals. "
He said that his current guests are men and women in their late 20s to early 60s, some of whom had been sleeping rough for 40 years. Matthews and his team have provided a "shoulder to cry on" late at night for those who have struggled with alcohol and drug issues for much of their lives. He has even found jobs for them to do around the hotel.
"Focusing on keeping busy helped them. They asked us to keep them busy – it was all part of the rehabilitation process," he said.
"It's been a highly rewarding, enriching experience that I'm so pleased I've had. I've seen people who are so vulnerable. It changes your mindset."
Despite the government's confirmation today that the hotel sector in England can reopen its doors to the public on 4 July, Matthews has vowed that his current guests are welcome to stay until they find permanent accommodation elsewhere, saying that it will be a "gradual" return to normality for the business.
"I've told the council that we will not be saying they will be leaving. They trust us – if we took a brutal approach it would be quite shameful. I've been told that we were the first hotel in the country to open our hotel to the homeless and we'll be the last to close."
The hotel has been privately owned by the Matthews family since 1996 and comprises three restaurants, tearooms and a fully-equipped leisure suite.
Matthews added: "I genuinely think that within our local communities we have to look at these individuals as part of the local community. No one's sitting on a street because they want to."