When Covid-19 started to sweep through the country, Emily Sayle was living under a tarpaulin draped between two trees in a Kent wood. Self-isolating as best she could amid the forest with other fearful homeless people, Emily had no income or job prospects – and as the country moved into lockdown there wasn’t much on the horizon to suggest her life would change dramatically for the better. Ironically, however, the pandemic that has caused such pain for so many unexpectedly transformed her prospects, bringing her a rare chance to get back on course.
It all happened thanks largely to a Government-led scheme at the start of lockdown to move rough sleepers into hotels to protect them from contracting the disease and passing it on to others.
Emily was given a room in a Travelodge hotel in nearby Canterbury which gave her a much-needed period of peace and quiet to think about more than just her constant struggle to survive. Helpful social workers and housing experts were just down the corridor to help her reboot her whole life.
And this week Emily shed a few tears of joy when she and her boyfriend moved into a place she can truly call home, a smart ground-floor flat with a garden, which her pet dog Mia just loves.
“It’s almost too much to take in, too much to believe, but somehow we’ve got a roof over our heads, a lovely home and some hope in our lives for the future,” says Emily, 32. “I am so excited I can hardly sleep at the moment. We can make plans. There’s so much to think about.”
Her 37-year-old partner, Vasilijs, from Latvia, takes out his mobile phone and flicks through images of the former “home” in the woods and says: “Look where we were just a few months ago and now this. It’s unbelievable. We are just so thankful to everybody who has helped us.
Emily in her new kitchen
She stayed in a Travelodge
“Now I can look for a job. We are smiling all the time. Life is like the weather, yeah, good.”
Emily grew up in Canterbury and went to school in the city but has been homeless for most of the past eight years, enduring a bleak existence and never quite knowing what the future will hold.
She met Vasilijs, a former soldier in the Russian army, a few years ago. He was able to get jobs in factories but with no savings, no address and no permanent prospects, they faced an uphill battle to get a foothold on the housing market. “We tried to make our home in the camp as comfortable as possible but it was not easy and it was not a good way to live,” he says.
Their world changed towards the end of last March when they were told the Travelodge in the centre of the city had been taken over as a refuge for rough sleepers with all 57 bedrooms available to help in the Covid-19 crisis.
“We were given room 11 on the ground floor in the dog section which meant we could keep Mia, which was brilliant,” Emily recalls. “I could not have bared to be apart from my Mia.
“We were a bit nervous to start with. There was a lovely bed, and a shower in the en suite – having the shower so near was just marvellous.
“It was all so different to what we had been used to when we were in the camp.
“The lockdown meant we couldn’t really leave the room at all to start with. Meals were brought to our rooms.
“The Travelodge gave us some breathing space, some quiet time just to think and get our lives a bit more organised.”
Strict rules were enforced which meant that no alcohol or drugs were allowed in the hotel. Residents were also told they could not go into each other’s room to reduce the risk of infection spreading.
For some residents, reliant on alcohol, the rules were hard but it helped them focus and meant that they were clear-headed when talking with experts on hand to help them with their problems, including drug and alcohol addiction.
Lora McCourt, community services manager for Canterbury City Council, has largely based herself at the Travelodge since March. Her team has been working closely with homeless people’s charities to help the new Travelodge guests.
“Right from the start it was a case of let’s all pull together,” says Lora. “We worked very hard capturing everyone we wanted to so they had the offer of safe accommodation. It was very busy.
“When we had got everybody in, we shifted our focus to – where are they going to go when this is over? We didn’t want them to return to the streets. The focus was very much on moving on.
“Now it’s a steady process of turning those move-on plans into reality, slowly emptying people out of the hotel and into the accommodation we have lined up for them.
“So far we have got 18 people in accommodation which is a huge success for us and for the city council.”
One of the benefits of being almost permanently based at the hotel is that she has got to know everyone so much better.
“I’m on first name terms with them and they call me Lora,” she says. “You really get to know people so much better and you have a better understanding of their situations and their needs.”
However, it has not all been smooth sailing. Thirteen people who breached the rules were asked to leave for a variety of reasons, including threatening or violent behaviour.
Part of the problem is how to deal with the easing of the lockdown when residents became aware that their new temporary home, which has offered so much stability in chaotic lives, will soon be open to the public.
As we chat Chris, one of the residents, comes over and says: “Everyone knows Lora. She has been so good to us. She is the best. People don’t know how they will cope without Lora and the others when it’s all over. We don’t want to go back to the way it was.” He hopes to start a job working with animals as he begins a new life, but it’s not clear where he will be staying in the meantime.
As we chat, Lora is informed that the city council’s deal with Travelodge has been extended so they can have the use of 20 rooms until the end of July.
As well as the 18 who have been permanently housed, two others have “reconnected” to areas where they used to live and the council is currently looking after 33 people at the Travelodge.
Most have housing plans which will be realised in the coming weeks, including living in rooms in shared houses or supported accommodation through partner organisations.
Head of community services, Marie Royle, says: “This has been an exceptional project so far and we are very pleased to be able to run it for another month, so that we can look after some of the most vulnerable people who need our support and make those housing arrangements they need for the future.
“We would also thank residents living nearby for their patience as we have developed this vital project. Looking after this number of vulnerable people in one location brings its challenges and we are grateful for their understanding.”
Her view came as something of an understatement to one elderly neighbour living near the hotel, who says: “There’s been police and ambulances coming and going for weeks.
“During the lockdown it was better but in the last few days it has been pretty unpleasant.
“It’s not all their fault but hats off to those looking after them at the hotel. They deserve a medal. It’s such a tough and thankless job but they have saved lives I’m sure. It’s certainly been an experience for us.”
There was only one confirmed case of Covid infection at the hotel and that person was isolated and cared for and did not infect others.
Two charities, Changing Lives and Porchlight, have been working at the hotel with the council to provide solutions.
Porchlight worker Chris Thomas is optimistic about the prospects of the Travelodge residents.
“There have been difficulties, but overall this has been a great success story,” he says.
“We have hostels and shared housing across Kent with a total of over 166 bed spaces. These are places where people can stay long-term and get support for the emotional trauma caused by homelessness and any other issues they are facing and be helped to rebuild their lives.”
For Emily, Vasilijs, and Mia the dog that process has begun already.
“We’re waiting for a washing machine and a cooker and somebody has given us a lovely picture for the wall in the living room,” says Emily.
“Everyone has been so kind. At last we have a place to call home.”