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When the virus shut down an English city, this hotel turned itself into a homeless shelter

The Fownes Hotel. (Julie Merrick/Courtesy photo)

The Fownes Hotel in Worcester, England, has been through many transformations. In the 1880s, the red-brick factory located by the Birmingham Canal made gloves for the queen. A century later, after the glove industry declined, the building was converted into 61 bedrooms and over the years has hosted a variety of guests — the newly married, British tabloid fodder and even an American 1980s television star from “The A-Team.”

During the global pandemic, however, the hotel has undergone its most substantial transition — becoming a shelter for the homeless.

“We’re well fed, very well looked after,” said Terence Marriott, one of the 50 or so guests staying at the hotel. “They need a medal, I tell you. They really do."

In the United Kingdom, restrictions have yet to be lifted for hotels to accept bookings. So for three months, the Fownes has operated at near capacity, made up entirely of homeless men and women who needed a place to sleep when the novel coronavirus shut down the city. Several of the guests, referred to as “rough sleepers” by the local charity that pays a reduced rate for their rooms, have volunteered to perform small errands around the premises as time during the pandemic crawls from one day into another.

“Any little job. They actually come in and actually say: ‘Is there anything for me to do? Is there anything at all?’" said assistant hotel manager Julie Merrick, who recalled a previous guest with a unique skill. “Some of these guys have got trades, so [a] bricklayer because he couldn’t go anywhere, he couldn’t do anything … he wanted to help. He re-laid a patio and he built walls.

“He was just appreciative, I think, of the fact that he had a roof over his head, he was sleeping in a bed.”

Merrick has worked at the Fownes for almost 14 years. She was around when the Olympic torch passed through the hotel on its way to London for the 2012 Summer Games. She also remembered when actor Dirk Benedict, the handsome one known as “Face” from “The A-Team,” stayed for well over a month. But the Fownes has never received as much international attention as it is getting now as a hotel for the homeless.

“We didn’t stay open to make a profit,” Merrick said. “We stayed open to do a duty.”

In late February, the River Severn flooded and the hotel by the canal took in residents who were displaced. Then, in March, the contagious spread of the coronavirus led to lockdown measures across the country. Because the Fownes was operating with a remnant of flood victims still occupying rooms, the hotel could accept the request to take in the homeless.

“Everybody has a different story. Everybody’s in here for different reasons. Not everybody was living on the streets. That’s what a lot of people think,” Marriott, 55, said. “There were just unfortunate circumstances that led a lot of us to be at the Fownes hotel. That’s just the way it is. It’s life. Certain things happen to people.”

A skeleton crew still works at the hotel after half the staff has been furloughed. Along with the hotel workers, two security guards work within the hotel, building a rapport with the guests through 12-hour shifts and going through great lengths to stay safe when they return home.

A doctor called upon a priest to make a plasma donation. The patient says it saved his life.

While the guests, who can come and go into the city as they please, are expected to practice social distancing, fights do break out and Daniel Riley, the guard who works the 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. shift, has to step in with sterile gloves. Every night when he goes home, Riley said he strips off his clothing and heads straight to the shower to limit his chances of bringing home the coronavirus to his wife and three young children.

“It has been quite stressful, obviously,” Riley said. “I’ve got a family.”

Inside the Fownes, Marriott believes he has found his new family.

Every now and then Marriott will raise his hand to do a small job, such as helping a housekeeper take the linens from the upper floors to the bottom. During a recent trip into the city, he decided to brighten the day of one of his fellow guests. While in the British equivalent of a dollar store, Marriott thought of a woman living at the Fownes who had never been homeless before when he found a small, pink tobacco tin.

“I saw that and I thought I’m going to get that to cheer her up. I’ll tell you something: It was probably the best gift she can ever get. She absolutely treasures it,” Marriott said. “It’s little things like that we do for other people which is what’s remembered as well. To me, it only cost one British pound, but to her, that’s amazing.

“Everybody in here is so supportive of her, gives her so much help, it’s brilliant,” he said. “It’s [the] little things.”

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