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The controversial Torquay hotel housing 40 homeless people

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A hotel which used to welcome coachloads of tourists in Torquay is now one of the biggest providers of temporary accommodation for the homeless.

It is currently home to 40 vulnerable people. In total Torbay Council says it is providing a total of 177 households with temporary homes at the moment. It says there are “15 or 16 rough sleepers” in the Bay at the moment.

In recent weeks DevonLive’s Hidden Devon campaign has been looking into homelessness and reported on a number of those rough sleepers who have included a couple who have been sleeping outside New Look in Torquay, a woman with Covid sleeping in her car after fleeing domestic violence and an out of work chef who has been sleeping in an abandoned car. Homeless charities report that a former McDonalds worker is still sleeping in a tent in the woods with her partner.

Those working with the homeless in the Bay have always disputed the low level of rough sleepers in the council’s annual estimates and said that the huge numbers who were taken off the streets following the Government funding in March give a truer picture of the numbers involved.

Those include the 40 currently staying in one controversial hotel in Tor Church Road – whose owners have asked that it should not be named because of the vulnerable people living there.

They say they are providing a service and are proud of the work they do with the homeless – some of whom have substance abuse and/or mental health issues exacerbated by being homeless and the current pandemic anxieties. They say they are helping many to move on with their lives.

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When Lockdown Mark 1 was announced back in March, the Government issued ‘Everybody In’ instructions to Local Authorities – and Torbay Council had under three working days to make sure that every homeless person was off the streets.

One of the ways they did that was by reaching out to some of the big, old Victorian hotels in Torquay. The larger two were on Babbacombe Downs and in Tor Church Road.

That was nearly nine months ago, the hotel in Tor Church Road remains a temporary home for 40 people and DevonLive discovered that this one building perfectly illustrates many of the core issues around the complex and often divisive arguments around the issue of homelessness.

The biggest issue is the shortage in Torbay of affordable housing and the council is calling on the public to help

As part of DevonLive’s Hidden Homeless investigation we spoke to some of the hotel’s homeless guests, neighbours, the hotel managers, Torbay Council’s housing specialists and a homeless charity.

Devon Live campaign Hidden Devon is shining the spotlight on homelessness in 2020

Previously we have spoken to women living in tents, shop doorways and even dealing with Covid while sleeping in cars. We spoke to Chris James who has lived in a car for months, while he vainly tries to find a flat to rent.

Tara Harris, Torbay’s Assistant Director Community and Customer Services, agrees with the homeless that the main problem is finding affordable accommodation to rent.

She asked DevonLive to put in a call to action to anybody in the Bay with rooms to rent to get in touch before Christmas.

Ms Harris said: “Hence a call to action to landlords or property owners that are looking for tenants and may be able to assist those in need.

“It would be great to work with as many landlords as possible to enable us to assist with finding accommodation for as many people as possible before Christmas.”

If you can help, let the Housing Options team know about what property or properties you have available by email to Lisa.furse@torbay.gov.uk or call 01803 208747 or 07909937582.

What one thing would you change about Devon? Click here to have your say

The hotel managers

The hotel asked not to be named

Although the name of the well-known hotel has come up repeatedly during our Hidden Devon investigation, DevonLive has agreed not to name it here because of the vulnerable people who live there, many with multiple complex needs.

A spokesman said they are not ashamed of the hotel but asked for it not to be named: “We are very proud of what we did during lockdown. We have helped at least 10 to 20 people to move on with their life.

“We don’t just take people for their money and don’t care. That’s not what we do. We are doing it for the community as well.

“If we didn’t give them somewhere – where else would they go? They would be a burden on the community and on the council.

“We check them in and sometimes they don’t even have have a mobile phone, which they need to call helplines to get advice about what they need to do.

“We try to speak to them and help them if they need to see mental health specialists or drug and alcohol specialists.

“We have helped a lot of people to move on from here.

“The police tell us that we are one of the best run places for the homeless. We don’t allow people to smoke or have drugs.

“With homeless people there are a lot of drug and alcohol addictions and we constantly have to keep an eye on this.

“We used to be a coach hotel until lockdown started and the council approached us and asked us to give temporary accommodation because of Covid. This is only a temporary situation I believe.”

The spokesperson claimed the guests were the victims of prejudice in the neighbourhood: “We have had a window and door smashed and we have a suspicion that it was one of the neighbours.

“One of them even told us that we should close our front door and only allow the guests in through the back door. People have a lot of prejudice.”

She said arson threats have been made on Facebook.

The neighbours

Neighbours – who also asked not to be named – said that living opposite the homeless hotel was ‘hell’.

One couple said: “Police are there all the time. ambulances are there all the time. There are people outside shouting all the time. They are all outside arguing between themselves all the time. We’ve seen them throwing rocks at each other, spitting. It’s not very nice to be looking across at it all day.

Another said: “All the residents have been trying to sort it out but when you go to the council you get the impression they’re not listening. The other night there were three police cars and two ambulances and this is the norm.

“I have lived her for 21 years and this is the worst year,” another said. “It’s been hell. The council gave them permission for this without any consultation with the residents.

“The whole area has dropped – there are people hanging around the graveyard getting drunk and having sex outside in the churchyard.

“The only saving grace was the rain – the summer evenings were terrible. We couldn’t open our windows because of the noise. The language is terrible. Would you like it outside your front door?”

What do you think about the homeless situation where you live in Devon? Have your say in our survey here

Homeless guests

Kirsty Rule, 24, making her bed outside New Look in Torquay

One of the former guests told DevonLive the hotel was “worse than an open prison” and described security guards on the doors. He said the hotel was “clean enough” but after airing his views publicly he was given notice to quit by Torbay Council on the grounds that he had broken his tenancy agreement by drinking on the premises.

Another guest said: “I’m not going to complain. The conditions are pretty terrible but I’d rather be there than on the streets. I’m just trying to get along and not get involved in any negativity. There are security guards on the door. Life is difficult in there because of the mixture of people from all different backgrounds – there’s always something going on and some drama.

“I have been in there since the start of the first lockdown and I just want to use it as a stepping stone out of homelessness.”

Torbay Council’s housing department

Devon Live campaign Hidden Devon is shining the spotlight on homelessness in 2020

Homelessness in Torbay falls within the Community and Customer Services department.

Tara Harris is the assistant director who revealed that there are currently 177 households in temporary accommodation, including 30 families.

“If we go back to the more ‘normal’ numbers 12 months ago, there would have been probably 70 to 100 households.

“The number spiked in early March at the beginning of Covid when we had the ‘everybody in’ policy.”

She said one of the biggest single providers is the Tor Church Road hotel, which is housing 40 people currently. None of those are family groups.

“Homelessness is affecting everybody at the moment – it’s not just one particular group or section of society. People think it’s a certain type off individual or background but it’s not and it’s very difficult for people and it’s not about stereotyping in any way.”

Dave Parsons, who manages the council’s community safety team, described the huge challenge of getting ‘everybody in’ and off the streets in March: “I think we were asked on a Thursday afternoon to accommodate all the people who needed housing by the Saturday morning.

“We asked where? What accommodation have we got access to? This hotel had availability and space when we needed it and we met out deadline.

“We work with people who have got a lot of stuff going on: substance misuse, mental ill health or varying degrees, and part of that is exacerbated by living on the streets.

“It’s often a challenge for the local authority to find places that are willing to take them. But we have moved 77 people out and into permanent accommodation, even though finding that accommodation is a challenge.”

There is also financial assistance available to help people who are struggling to pay their rent and prevent homelessness from occurring. Click here to link to Torbay Council’s DHP (discretionary housing payments) and find out what it can assist with.

Campaigners working on the frontline

Kath Friedrich of PATH

Kath Friedrich is the founder of PATH Torbay, a local community, non profit charity run and supported totally by volunteers.

As she helped package up parcels and plated up hot food from PATH’s HQ in Union Street, opposite the old magistrates’ court house as St Mary Magdalene church, she said she was frustrated at the number of clearly vulnerable people who are still not being given temporary accommodation:

“What annoys me is when there is medical evidence of mental health issues – why do they continue saying no until the homeless person becomes a police problem, or a Torbay Hospital problem?

“They wait until they start getting lots of complaints before they act – and that’s not fair on local people or the tourist industry. And it’s certainly not fair on the person who is in a massive crisis at that time.

“They wait until they start getting lots of complaints before they act – and that’s not fair on local people or the tourist industry. And it’s certainly not fair on the person who is in a massive crisis at that time.

“We definitely don’t have enough housing that’s suitable for people with mental health conditions and who need decent assisted living places.

“We see a lot of young people who have had a very very chaotic upbringing. There should be a duty of care for these young people who turn 18 and often, because of their background, their maturity is stunted and they can’t cope with living alone.

“They make wrong decisions and they lose their flats. What’s dreadful is that they don’t even get full housing benefits until they are 25 and they are left to there own devices. It’s all complete madness.

“It’s this ping pong-ing that is so wrong. When somebody becomes 18 they are judged to be responsible – but there’s no wiggle room to provide care for somebody who’s had a gut-wrenching journey through life up to that point. They are rejected by their parents and rejected by the care system and they are in a type of trauma.

“The problem is that the patterns follow them through life. This is why we see so many older men particularly back on the streets. They all have similar upbringings and get into a cycle of crime coming out of prisons.

“We are not breaking that circular circuit. They talk about breaking the cycle – well Torbay Council needs to break it’s own cycle.”

Chris James has been sleeping in this abandoned car for months - but he's still trying to keep smiling

For Kath the answer is simple. The homeless need to be listened to: “They should take more notice of them on that first phone call – before they lose the will to keep trying and think that nobody cares.

Kath disputes the council’s figures on the number of just 15 or 16 rough sleepers.

“It was all very nice having everybody in during the first lockdown. But who’s number crunching that now? For the first time we had the true figures on who is homeless. We found out that as we always knew those annual head counts of street homeless were under-representative of the true figures.

“In reality there are countless more people who are not counted. That includes young sofa surfers; young girls that have to sell themselves to avoid sleeping on the streets, girls who have to give favours for a space on a sofa. girls who have to steal for people, girls who have to pick up drugs for whoever has the tenancy in a flat.

“The are very, very vulnerable older gents who get pushed from pillar to post by unscrupulous rogue landlords who are the only ones who will take them on without a guarantor.

One of the biggest providers of temporary accommodation for the homeless is a former holiday coach hotel in Torquay

“They are not counted as street homeless. When they try to get housing they are asked ‘Can you go back to your family?’ Even where it is obvious there is a criminal record or violence in the family home.

“These are all reflections of our broken society.”

She explained that people are only helped if they are deemed “vulnerable enough” : “If not they are left on the streets.”

“Then they are reliant on things like the rogue landlords who will take them without a guarantor.”

Hidden Devon

Devon Live has launched Hidden Devon, a series of campaigns highlighting issues that lie beneath the surface of our county.

The first concerns the issue of homelessness in the county’s cities, towns and villages – exacerbated by the grim impact of the global pandemic.

Not only do scores of people sleep rough on streets, in parks and even on farmland, there are those labelled ‘of no fixed abode’ for other reasons. They may have fled to a refuge, they may have been temporarily housed in a bed and breakfast or they may simply be living in one of region’s dedicated homeless hostels.

How to give

A big part of our campaign is recognising the institutions across the region that are desperately trying to help those in need. In many instances, they are staffed with volunteers giving up their own free time.

You can donate to various charities including PATH Torbay via this link, the Julian House Christmas Appeal covering Exeter and other parts of Devon via this link, or St Petrocks in Exeter via this link.

Are you a charity that would benefit from our fundraising? Contact us at newsdesk@devonlive.com

Find more Hidden Devon stories here



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