REOPENING: Former hotel to reopen as facility for local homeless people
A former hotel in Minehead town centre will soon reopen its doors as a vital facility for local homeless people.
The YMCA Dulverton Group acquired the Gascony Hotel on The Avenue back in January for £720,000, after the existing owners decided to retire.
Since then the charity has been revamping the property to provide much-needed accommodation for homeless people, with grant funding being provided by central and local government.
Up to 18 people can be housed here at any one time, providing a stable and secure base before they can hopefully find permanent accommodation of their own.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service was granted an exclusive tour of the Gascony Hotel on Thursday morning (May 6) as construction continued at pace on the new rooms.
From the outside, much of the hotel looks exactly the same as before – the signs advertising it remain in place (for now), as do the outside tables at the corner of Tregonwell Road.
Inside, some of the quirky details have been kept in place – including a chandelier in the ground floor hallway and some of the wallpaper in the bedrooms.
But upon stepping through the rear entrance – which has been widened to allow wheelchair access, with a brand new ramp – it doesn’t take too long to realise the extent to which the YMCA has transformed this Victorian gem into a facility fit for the 21st century.
The charity has turned the building’s idiosyncratic nature to its advantage, using the unusual size and shape of the rooms to provide accommodation for couples and take account of a range of disabilities and associated needs.
Peter Stevenson, the charity’s head of development, said: “The quirks are lovely and make it more homely, which is what we’re trying to achieve – we want to make it feel like a home rather than an institution or a hostel.
“The particular challenges we’ve faced here have been around making sure we have good fire compartmentalisation – obviously the fire standards when this building was built are slightly different to how they are now, particularly post-Grenfell.
“We had asbestos surveys done, but once we started the work we found asbestos where we weren’t expecting it, so that was challenging.
“I’ve worked on a number of construction projects over the years, and I have never experienced teamwork like this with the professional team and the various contractors working together to solve problems and help each other out.
“I can’t thank them all enough for being so positive in their approach. If all construction jobs were like this, the world would be a happier place!”
When the pandemic hit, the government moved to transfer all rough sleepers and known homeless people into temporarily accommodation as part of its ‘everyone in’ policy.
The YMCA took over the running of the Canonsgrove Halls of Residence near Taunton to provide accommodation and support for that end of the Somerset West and Taunton district, while in Minehead the charity’s own Beach Hotel was shifted overnight from a commercial operation to a vital hub.
The first guests of the Gascony Hotel will be moving from the Beach Hotel as the pandemic restrictions ease, as part of the ‘next steps’ programme which the government has put in place – and the facility will focus on meeting the needs of local people going forward.
Mr Stevenson said: “Rather than kicking everyone back out onto the streets again, we can move them into longer-term housing and not undo all the work that’s been done by ‘everyone in’.
“The YMCA has always been pushing for something like ‘next steps’. If you go back 12 years ago, there was hardly any rough sleeping in the country, but funding for housing support services has been steadily cut over the years, and – surprise, surprise – rough sleeping has gone up.
“The government has been talking for quite some time about ending rough sleeping, but I think the pandemic just gave everybody the kick they needed. Responding to an emergency like this, you find money where previously you couldn’t find it.”
The Gascony’s transformation has been funded by grants from Somerset West and Taunton Council, Homes England and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), along with the charity’s own money.
The building has been designed to provide en suite accommodation for residents, allowing them to isolate more effectively in the event of any future pandemic or associated lockdown.
Everyone who moves into the Gascony will have a risk assessment to ensure the available rooms can meet their needs, with the charity seeking to have “the right people in the right places” so they can be properly supported.
Every room has its own kitchen and bathroom, with the charity providing “comfortable furniture” for all occupants and encouraging them to live as independently as possible.
The town centre location makes it easier for residents to access local services and feel part of local life – with Mr Stevenson giving assurances that the facility will be properly secured to prevent any disruption.
He said: “I think generally people are supportive. Naturally there’s nervousness from some people, and there will always be some people who will be resistant, mainly out of fear.
“I wouldn’t criticise anyone who’s concerned – we’re very mindful of that and we want to make sure that the property is managed well and the residents behave reasonably.
“If you have a group of people who’ve had a bit too much to drink or are shouting in the street, the assumption is that they’re going the people to be from the YMCA. But more than nine times out of ten, that’s not the case.”
Looking to the future, Mr Stevenson hopes that the government’s approach to housing and homelessness will take account of the complexity of the problem and lead to more funding for vital support services.
He said: “Just putting a roof over someone’s head doesn’t sort out perhaps decades of trauma.
“Alongside the accommodation there has to be an appropriate level of support to help people get their lives back together in terms of their general well-being, mental health, drug and alcohol problems, getting into employment – you name it.
“You need funding to be able to respond to a need when it happens, and I think sufficient governments just haven’t got that. It’s not just about bricks and mortar – it’s about piecing together broken lives.
“There is a revenue stream with the ‘next steps’ programme, but that’s only for two or three years and then it stops. If there’s not something to replace that, we’ll have to scale back the support we can offer.
“My hope is that there will be a realisation that, actually, if you want to stop this permanently, we have to have revenue to support people to put their lives back together.”
For more information on the YMCA’s work, including how to set up a regular donation, visit www.ymca-dg.org.
Words: Daniel Mumby, Local Democracy Reporter
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