A Shrewsbury hotelier has spoken of a ‘unique experience’ which would be great for the town in years to come. The hotel’s response to coronavirus and its effect on homeless people would in time become ‘world famous’ – and mark a happy ending for everyone, said Mike Matthews.
The proprietor of the 15th century Prince Rupert Hotel told members of Shrewsbury Severn Rotary Club in a Zoom talk that they responded to the plight of as many as 90 homeless people at one stage. He spoke of how the outbreak of coronavirus had raised doubts as to how he could keep working as an hotelier. But to have closed down the Prince Rupert would have been a ‘nightmare’ due to security and engineering issues. “I thought how can I keep it alive and how can I keep working as an hotelier? I was worried about paying the staff, the bank and wine suppliers while following government guidelines but the furlough scheme came in and solved one of the problems. My bank and good old fashioned bankers have also come to the rescue.”
He told Rotarians how he had received a phone call from the local authority who were looking to find a safe and secure home for homeless people in Shrewsbury. Those who were homeless were getting very poorly and were vulnerable to spreading the virus. “Something just appealed to me. It has been extremely challenging and these are not easy people. I had never before engaged with someone who is homeless, but if my team is willing to help I will have a crack at this and let’s do it. The following day I looked at the mechanics and the nuts and bolts. I said let’s do it. The programme was incredibly challenging and exciting. I didn’t know where it was going to lead us, but I am willing to do that.”
Within 24 hours nine individuals, who were extremely unclean, bedraggled and undernourished, had come through the door, and he, his manageress Charlie and accountant Jacki decided they had to move into the hotel to be with ‘extremely vulnerable individuals.’ “It was extremely difficult for everybody in those early stages. After 35 years of sleeping rough, to walk into a 4 star hotel was an incredible feat and full marks to Shrewsbury Ark and the council.
The homeless needed an extreme amount of understanding. Now there were 34 individuals staying at the hotel. We swept up all the homeless people in Shrewsbury and brought them through our doors. It is a project we will never have again. Let’s just see how we can move it forward. It was great consideration and respect which guided our efforts. We called them guests and referred to them by their names. We created a family unit. It was the first time many – and for some the first time ever – had had a family. I realised I had met individuals who had nothing, but had become heroes and warriors. They had lived a primitive, scary and precarious lifestyle, a tough existence and you become institutionalised. We realised we had a one-off opportunity to get them out of that spiral and we rehabilitated them as best we could. We provided a transitional process.”
In 11 months 90 individuals had gone through the Prince Rupert doors and 60 had been found homes which Mike described to Rotarians as a ‘positive statement’ and ‘great news for the town.’ When they were down to nine they would sit in the bar. “They were superb with our regular guests. The improvement we saw was really quite outstanding. The experience has affected us incredibly. It was a very humbling experience for us all, but incredibly rewarding. It was mentally challenging at times because of drugs and alcohol. There were others with severe mental illness. But it is the most rewarding part of my career to date. I also discovered how kind Shrewsbury is – the kindest town in the UK is how I would describe Shrewsbury from now on.
We are looking to open our doors in April and hopefully all our homeless guests will have found homes and a happy ending for them all. This doesn’t mean that next year there won’t be more. This is with us in modern society for years to come and I suspect this will increase. But we have created a template for hopefully the government to follow. I hope people in government have been listening to what we have done. It has been an incredible experience for us all – an incredible experience that I will never have again. When it is time to hang up my boots and career that 11 month period will have been phenomenal.”
He told Shrewsbury Severn Rotary Club that contributions had been received from Shropshire Council who were determined to keep the scheme going as long as possible. “It doesn’t cover everything, but it stops us from closing the doors altogether,” he added. Most pleasing, Mike told Shrewsbury Severn Rotary Club, is the nomination of Charlie for the UK Woman of the Year which he described as an ‘incredible achievement.’ At the same time, the hotel has been congratulated by Dame Louise Casey, government social welfare expert. “It is an incredible story none of which we understand because we run an hotel,” he said.
He added that one individual was an ‘incredible character.’ He had spent 45 years living on the streets. He was now 62 and had been sleeping rough for 45 years. “But he was a wonderful man, very educated.”