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Hard times for the homeless throughout the pandemic

Adrian Williams

Adrian Williams

adrianw@baylismedia.co.uk

Over the pandemic homeless people in the Royal Borough have been largely housed in temporary accommodation – yet they have still encountered daily struggles worsened by the virus.

The number of places for homeless people to visit during the day has declined, with some hubs needing to reduce their hours of operation due to lack of volunteers.

Many homeless people have struggled with isolation as a result of not being able to gather together as a community, as they normally would.

Over the months of the pandemic, some homeless people have stayed in hotels or specialist accommodation, while others have decided to stay on the streets.

Luke Wetheral has been at John West House, a homeless shelter in Howarth Road, for the past several months.

“It’s a bit of a desolate place,” he said. “There’s a lot of space, so people spread out, but that makes it like an empty shell. I just stay in my room.”

Luke has struggled with the fact that the Brett Foundation, which supports rough sleepers in the town, has had to reduce its hours, opening just three evenings a week.

Its regular volunteers are over 65 and shielding while other volunteers are only available when they are furloughed for a month or so, creating inconsistency.

“It’s hard for the lads when they get used to you being open, then you’re shut,” said Sue Brett of the Brett Foundation.

This cuts out an avenue of respite at a time when there are fewer options for socialising.

“With COVID going on people aren’t approaching so much and they don’t want to chat for as long,” said Luke. “It makes you feel like you’re a criminal.”

John West House is set to close temporarily due to Government restrictions of dormitory style accommodation throughout the pandemic.

Its dormitory has a capacity of 12 and was occupied by four or five people until mid December.

They have now joined other homeless people in a hotel in Datchet, according to Councillor Ross McWilliams, lead member for housing.

The acquisition of more rooms at the hotel has made it possible to move everyone being supported by Brown CIC, which runs John West House, under one roof.

“It makes sense that everyone’s in the same place,” said Cllr McWilliams.

“And because they are in separate rooms in the hotel, that is like being in separate households.”

Though the closure is temporary, Cllr McWilliams said it gives the council an opportunity to think about what it wants to do with John West House.

Currently the long-term plan to be discussed over the course of the next year is to expand it by adding a second floor to the whole building.

“It’s a reaction to the times, but it also gives us an opportunity to make plans – though the massive caveat to that is COVID-19. The longer it goes on, the longer it will be before John West House can go back to being used,” said Cllr McWilliams.

However the moving of homeless people from John West House to hotel rooms is not ideal.

“It causes a lot of instability for them, and they like stability,” said Debbie Gee of Maidenhead Foodshare.

James Morris has remained on the streets throughout the pandemic, choosing not to take the offer of accommodation.

He said he ‘didn’t want the chaos’ of sharing with people who may have substance abuse issues.

For James, hot water has been the biggest obstacle for life on the streets during COVID – when cafes close, that access to hot water follows.

Library closures have also been a challenge for him.

“I’ve spent 30 years plus in the library,” he said. “Without it, I wouldn’t have an education.”

Despite missing being able to socialise more with people, long-time Maidenhead resident James feels there have been some upsides to the pandemic, such as the support of local people.

“The world has become a more respectful place.

“Members of the public are great and Thames Valley Police have been absolutely fantastic,” he said.

“The volunteers around here deserve a Queen’s Award.”

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