Abandoned in the B&B


Terry Taylor and Michael Hill spent their last days alive in a backstreet B&B in the West Midlands. They are among the 449 homeless people known to have died in the past year across the UK, and among 47 known to have met their end while in temporary bed and breakfast accommodation.

Jane Haynes investigates.

"All we really want is our own front door, somewhere of our own."

Fiddling nervously with his keys, Jason looks across to girlfriend Jo, who's sat leaning against the stained wall of his room in the Lion, a back street B&B in Kidderminster, north Worcestershire.

Taking a sip from his bottle of water, he waves his hand, gesturing down the corridor towards Room 205.

"The last thing I want is to end up dying alone like he did, rotting away."

A week earlier, during a torrid 72 hours, two of Jason's fellow residents were found dead.

There was nothing to connect the two men except that their life's journeys had brought them both here, with nowhere else to go and nowhere to call home.

They were just two among the hundreds of people who have found a haven and a bed at the Lion Hotel over the years. They include families on the verge of homelessness, and men and women struggling with addiction, trauma, mental health issues or fresh from prison for offences including violence.

For many this is a short-term emergency bolthole; for others it's a last resort after they've exhausted the goodwill and rules of every other housing option. Some end up here for months on end.

Terry Taylor, who was 53 when he died, had been living in a room at the Lion Hotel for over a year. Described by people who knew him as an ex soldier, he had ended up on the streets, a troubled and troubling alcholic.

Over the previous decade he'd been on an unrelenting treadmill of rough sleeping, drinking, crime and prison.

He'd been handed criminal anti-social behaviour orders because of his drunken activity in Worcester, Gloucester and Birmingham, and had spent considerable time in prison.

Last year, after his last spell behind bars, he was placed in The Lion, in the heart of Kidderminster, by housing officers at Worcester City Council.

Though he had failed to meet strict homeless eligibility criteria that applied then because he was deemed "intentionally homeless", the council chose to help him under discretionary powers because there were concerns for his welfare.

His room at the hotel, sparsely decorated, with just a microwave for cooking, became his sanctuary and, finally, his last resting place. At the end he was suffering from terminal cancer, and lived out his final days in his room, apparently rejecting attempts to move him into a hospice or nursing home.

After his death on July 4 this year, hotel owner David Murdoch posted to a Kidderminster community facebook page amid speculation: "A good friend, ex soldier, has passed due to terminal illness. Nothing to do with drugs. Awful that people cannot let folks live or rest in peace."

He added:"It's a beautiful day. Take a walk and spend ten seconds smiling for a good old soul, he would appreciate that."

Within two days of Terry's death, the hotel was rocked by the discovery of a second. Michael Hill was found dead on one of the hottest days of the year, with fellow residents alerted by a rotting smell from Room 205 on the second floor room.

Police and forensic experts descended on the hotel to investigate the death, amid concerns about how long Michael had been lying undiscovered.

There was a further complicating factor - just days earlier, June 27th, Michael had been arrested by armed officers in a swoop on the hotel and quizzed about a firearm-related threat against police made on social media. He was released after questioning.

His death was immediately referred to the Independent Office for Police Conduct because of the proximity of the two events. The case has since been passed back for local investigation and referred to Worcestershire's coroner, who has yet to formally open an inquest. While it is not known how Michael died, the hotel's landlord David Murdoch said the man had been affected by his arrest and had asked to be left alone.

The two men are among at least 449 people who have died homeless in the last year all across the UK, more than a person a day, according to an investigation by the award-winning Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

They include a former soldier, an astrophysicist, a travelling musician, a father of two who volunteered in his community, a chatty Big Issue seller, and others.

Some were found in shop doorways in the height of summer, others in tents hidden in winter woodland. Some were sent, terminally ill, to dingy hostels and yet others saw out their last days in hospital beds. Some lay dead for hours, weeks or months before anyone found them. Three men's  bodies were so badly decomposed by the time they were discovered that forensic testing was needed to identify them.

They died from violence, drug overdoses, terminal illnesses, and suicide, among other reasons. One man’s body showed signs of prolonged starvation.

The deaths have been recorded for the period from October 1 last year to September 30 this year. Campaigners fear the real figure could be significantly higher.

The Dying Homeless project was initiated amid dismay that homeless people were dying in high numbers, both on the streets and while in temporary accommodation, yet there was no requirement on local authorities or central government to record and capture those deaths in an official record.

In Birmingham, only two deaths of homeless people have been formally recorded and reported upon this past 12 months, and a total of 11 across the West Midlands region since October last year.

Paul Williams, aged 38, died just before Christmas. He was found dead by a homeless support worker outside the Bull Ring in the middle of the city, on December 17. He died, freezing cold, of a cardiac arrest.

A second homeless man, whose details are unknown, was reported to have died on a railway line in Birmingham in June this year, according to sketchy reports from a charity.

The office of the coroner for Birmingham was unable to shed light on this death based on the scant details we had. Nor was the coroner's office able to provide any information about any men or women who had died with an address of "no fixed abode", nor indeed any other information about potential homeless deaths without us being able to supply a name or more specific details.

Earlier this year the Birmingham Mail reported on the deaths of seven people in relatively short order whose demise was almost certainly linked to their use of the drug mamba, or spice. It is presumed at least some of those victims were homeless at the time of their deaths, but establishing this has so far eluded investigations.

In Dudley, back in January, a homeless man known as Steve who had been sleeping in a tent on a housing estate was found dead.

Other deaths reported via the Bureau network include:

* A 46 year old who suffered a cardiac arrest in a homeless hostel after sleeping rough for some time. He died in Hanley

* Laura Cairns, who died in Leamington Spa shortly after moving into temporary accommodation;

* Danny Hutton, 26, from Burton, who died in February in a room he was given to escape the freezing winter temperatures. Fundraisers paid for his funeral.

* A male in his 40s who died in Leamington Spa

* Jayne Simpson, 53, who was found dead near a bank in Stafford on July 7.

* Alain Ettiern Simmonds, 48, died on June 2 at a hostel in Shifnal, Shropshire. The Shropshire coroner and West Mercia Police put out an appeal for any information about any relatives after none could be traced.

News of deaths is often shared between homeless people, closed communities, charities and health services, who are in turn reluctant to share unverified information.

Without journalistic endeavour, for example, the deaths of Terry Taylor and Michael Hill would likely have gone unnoticed and unreported, and their passing would have been as invisible as they were to many people in life.

Among the residents living alongside both men was Jason Baker, 46, who was placed in the hotel by Wyre Forest District Council in June.

The death of Terry hit him particularly hard - they had known each other for more than 20 years.

"We were on the streets, sleeping rough in Worcester, years ago. He was a nice bloke, especially when he was off the drink. He's been really poorly, he said he had cancer and it was terminal. This isn't the place for a dying man."

Jason added:"I don't know much about his background, he was originally from Ireland but I don't know how he'd ended up on the streets.

"I was walking out of the hotel on that Tuesday when someone called me back and said 'Terry's gone.' I walked into Terry's room and he was lying face down on the floor, you could see he had died."

"It was horrible to think he'd just died all alone like that. Too many people are just left on their own, their life should be worth so much more than that. I don't want to die like that, just abandoned." .

Life inside the Lion

The Lion Hotel, Kidderminster

The Lion Hotel, Kidderminster

The 21-room Lion Hotel is a popular choice for local authorities looking to provide emergency accommodation for homeless people. It's also used by probation and prison support services as a stepping stone to more permanent accommodation.

In 2015 it was the venue for a Channel 5 documentary The Great British Benefits Hotel, focussing on its role as a temporary home for people on benefits.

The TV programme featured an interview with David Murdoch in which he says: "My standard is they are placing people in a hotel, and I will give them that service."

Opened in 1988, the hotel originally welcomed visiting tourists and workers, but for the last decade has almost wholly taken people paid for through the housing benefits system or other housing services, including those requiring emergency temporary accommodation.

"We changed our business model," says Mr Murdoch in the programme.

The programme featured interviews with residents who included a couple hooked on heroin and crack cocaine; a mum with mental health issues and a drink problem; a teenager who had been in care and, more recently, a young offenders' institution who was looking for a fresh start; and a man in his 60s who was looking for a job after a string of health problems.

Mr Murdoch spoke warmly of his quest to help them find their feet - and some residents spoke equally warmly about the help he had given them during their stay.

But unlike most hotels, this one features heavily in the logbooks and records of the local police.

Crime and violence

Over the last five years there have been 307 recorded crime incidents at the Lion, with many others going unreported.

Concern for the safety of a resident has been the reason logged for 85 incidents - a term used to describe a report of someone being at risk from others or themselves.

There has also been one report of rape (2017), one attempted murder (2018), 26 assaults and two robberies, all committed on the premises or requiring police to attend the premises.

The Lion's police incident rate averages around one a week. A total of 70 arrests have been made since 2013, including six for burglaries, eight for assault and 18 for theft.

Police, local councils and other agencies, including drugs and alcohol support and homelessness services, have discussed the Lion hotel at frequent private meetings.

As recently as July Wyre Forest District Council was asked to respond to a councillor’s questions about police activity at the Lion. Councillors were reassured by housing officers that the incident rate was not exceptional.

Inspector Jake Wright, responsible for community policing in Kidderminster and the rest of Wyre Forest, said: "While the number of incidents at the Lion may be considered high and police resources are routinely involved, the reality is that the people housed at the Lion usually have complex behaviours, a range of vulnerabilities and, often, criminal histories.

"There will necessarily be a need for responses from the police on a regular basis. We work closely with other agencies to make sure our response is appropriate to the needs of residents and the wider community.”

The view from the inside

From the outside the Lion looks like a typical low-end bed & breakfast hotel. It's located in a relatively quiet part of Kidderminster town centre, opposite a new St Basil's hostel housing under 25s. Also nearby is a bistro cafe, a newly refurbished apartment block and the town's youth house providing a range of services for young people.

Just yards further along the street is the site of a now demolished leisure centre, which the council have earmarked for a multiscreen cinema.

It's a short walk from here to the local office of Swanswell, the drugs and alcohol recovery service which currently has the Worcestershire-wide contract for helping addicts and alcoholics.

The whitewashed frontage of the Lion still looks identical, if a little grubbier, to when it featured in the TV documentary.

Then the hotel looked especially spick and span. Now though the threadbare carpet and walls look heavy with dirt and dust; there's a splatter of sick on one stair.

On the day of my visit, it has been just a few days since the deaths of residents Terry and Michael. As we walk upstairs, past the deserted reception area, the first inkling of something untoward reaches my nostrils. By the time we reach the second floor, the deathly smell is almost overwhelming; something rotten, mixed with zealously sprayed cleaning fluids.

We move swiftly past the source, Room 205, and are soon in the relative oasis of Jason's room. Curtains are up at the window (provided by the resident's sister Bev Boucker - there were none when Jason moved in). There's a double bed that takes up nearly all the floorspace in the bedroom. A microwave sits on a shelf above a small fridge. There's a small bathroom with loo and shower - both show signs of significant wear and tear and are full of drying washing and a few plates and knives jostle for space in the vanity sink.

Jason has been here by this time for more than four weeks. There is no cleaning service provided and residents have to take care of their own washing, including their sheets and towels, relying on a laundrette or relatives. They also have to make their own breakfast.

Said Jason: "In the other hostels I've lived in, there's a communal lounge area, TV room, and a dining room, everything's catered for, so you can focus on getting well. This is the first one I've been in that you have to cater for yourself but you haven't got the facilities to do it, just a microwave. I'd like to eat healthy but it's hard."

Residents like Jason have to pay a fortnightly contribution towards their stay, which is on top of the housing benefit paid on their behalf. In exchange they are each given a pack of assorted mini cereals and a four-pint bottle of milk each week, which counts as the 'breakfast' element of B&B.

Jason described walking into his room in the hotel for the first time when placed there, with just a small bag of belongings. "I opened the door and there was nothing nice about it really. The owner is nice enough but there's no extra help, nowhere to eat, or anything like that."

He claimed: "If you're trying to get off drugs, you are shoved in a place where nearly everybody takes drugs or drinks. We are both trying to get off drugs, and yet I'm put somewhere where 90% of the people are either drug users or alcoholics."

Jason says he's been in other hostels around the county but has fallen foul of strict rules for residents.

"I'm not perfect, and it's places like this (the Lion Hotel) that are where people like me end up. It's like we don't deserve any better."

"A hotel of choice"

During the past five years, Wyre Forest District Council has placed 176 residents at the Lion, at an estimated total cost of around £22,000.

Nearby Worcester City Council has spent considerably more on placing residents at the Lion, spending £45,732 last year alone. Over five years it has so far spent £150,633.90 on placing people there.

According to historical council records, Mr Murdoch was also part of a consortium that secured a £270,000 contract in 2011 to provide emergency homeless accommodation for Wyre Forest.

Other local councils and public sector organisations in Worcestershire and beyond also use the Lion as a preferred option.

Typically residents stay for up to three weeks, although hard-to-house people have ended up staying for six months or more.

The premises, as a Bed and Breakfast hotel, is subject to regular fire and safety regulatory inspections, which check on issues like fire doors, emergency evacuation plans, and so on. At the most recent inspection this year, no issues were found.

However, there are no requirements for the hotel to meet any specific standards relating to the welfare of residents staying there, nor to meet any other checks.

The hotel is also not contracted to provide any support to residents, and is not obliged to check on their welfare. The owner's responsibility is simply to provide a bedroom and breakfast.

 In a statement, Worcester City Council confirmed it had placed Terry Taylor at the Lion Hotel. "The council didn’t have a legal obligation to house him, as he had become intentionally homeless.  However, it used its discretionary powers to help find him accommodation because of concerns about Mr. Taylor’s welfare."

A spokeswoman added: "The Lion Hotel has no obligation to provide any welfare support to residents.  In situations where the council has a legal obligation to rehouse someone, they will maintain regular contact with that person and in some cases will make a referral for a support worker to be provided."

In April this year, the Homelessness Reduction Act came into force, giving councils greater responsibility for preventing homelessness. This has led to soaring numbers of applications for help locally, almost certainly replicated across the country. It also led to an increasing demand for emergency accommodation - meaning more and more individuals and families are likely to end up in Bed and Breakfast accommodation.

Responding to a request under the Freedom of Information Act, Wyre Forest District Council revealed it had accepted 164 households for homelessness support in the four months from the start of April to the end of July. This was a fourfold increase on the same period last year.

It placed 66 households (individuals, couples and families) into temporary or emergency accommodation. This too was nearly a threefold increase on the comparable time the previous year.

Demand for homelessness support is rising in Worcester too - in the first quarter of 2018-19 (April to June) the council received 384 approaches from people at risk of homelessness, up a third on the applications in the same period in the previous year.

Some of the applicants in Wyre Forest will have ended up in specialist hostels, like the council's newly opened New Street premises in nearby Stourport. Here residents have access to an in-house support worker, who offers practical and emotional advice and signposts health, counselling, housing and legal help. By contrast, in a typical B&B, signposting and support usually takes the form of a typed list of contact numbers.

Stephen Brown, spokesman for Labour in Wyre Forest, said: “The staggering increase in homelessness in the district is disturbing, and should ring a loud and clear alarm bell. That bell should be loudest in the council cabinet and in the offices of those in charge at Westminster of our social and housing policy. If they do nothing, this flood could turn into a tsunami of misery for vulnerable people in Wyre Forest, made homeless, many of whom are in work."

He added: "I am deeply concerned about what’s happening in our communities, to our most vulnerable people, and to those most in need of help, especially in low paid jobs. They have an increased risk of homelessness and it’s supported by this evidence."

Polly Neate, chief executive of national homeless charity Shelter, told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in response to its national investigation: “This important investigation lays bare the true brutality of our housing crisis. Rising levels of homelessness are a national disgrace, but it is utterly unforgivable that so many homeless people are dying unnoticed and unaccounted for.

“Unstable and expensive private renting, crippling welfare cuts and a severe lack of social housing have created this crisis - and at Shelter we see first-hand the suffering it causes - from families trapped in cramped and dingy B&Bs, to those forced to endure the dangers of sleeping rough.  

“To prevent more people from having to experience the trauma of homelessness, the government must ensure housing benefit is enough to cover the cost of rents, and urgently ramp up its efforts to build many more social homes.”  

Chief Executive Jon Sparkes at homeless charity Crisis added his voice to the concerns. “We are deeply saddened and shocked beyond belief to hear of the deaths of all these individuals. To think of just one person dying due to the consequences of poverty and homelessness is appalling, but to learn of the sheer scale of those who’ve lost their lives in the past year is nothing short of horrifying. This is a wake-up call to see homelessness as a national emergency.

“Behind these statistics are 449 unique human beings, ranging from teenagers to people in their 90s. Not only will 449 families or significant others have to cope with their loss, they will have to face the injustice that their loved one was forced to live the last days of their life without the dignity of a decent roof over their head, and a basic safety net that might have prevented their death. No-one deserves this."

He added: “To honour the memories of all those who’ve lost their lives to poverty and homelessness not just in this year, but in all preceding years, we must act now to bring about a positive change. We must insist that these deaths are officially investigated and recorded. The Safeguarding Adult Review (SAR) system, which is currently used to investigate the deaths of vulnerable adults, should be extended to include cases where a person has died whilst homeless and living on the streets. This will allow us to have a more accurate picture of the number of people who die on our streets, and will give the authorities, councils and homelessness services valuable information that could help them prevent the deaths of rough sleepers in the future. But ultimately, we must urge the Government to do what it takes to end rough sleeping and all forms of homelessness once and for all. We know it can be done, and in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, there is no excuse for this tragedy to carry on.”

Jason's Story

Jason Baker has been homeless, in prison, or living in temporary accommodation of one sort or another, for pretty much his whole adult life.

All of his offending history is linked to his drug addiction. It was a path he first tiptoed down in his teens, experimenting with class B drugs until discovering heroin. By the time he hit 20 he was totally in its thrall.

There was something inevitable about how things went from there. To the despair of his family, Jason spiralled down into the gutter, turning to burglary and shoplifting to meet his daily drugs fix and living almost wholly on the streets.

"I've suffered most of my life with alcoholism and drug addiction," said Jason.

Freshly shaved, in a clean t-shirt and jeans, his skin kissed by summer sun, Jason added: "If you'd seen me two years ago you would have seen a different person. You probably wouldn't even approach me. I was filthy dirty, I had a big massive beard, I didn't have any respect for any authority, or for anybody at all. I didn't even speak to my sisters or care about anyone."

Seeing death at close quarters has also been part of the life he's led.

"When you live like this, it's every man for himself. Unless it's your pay day and you can help each other out a little bit. It doesn't go far though.

"We had a squat in Worcester and I still think about my mate Biff all the time...I found him crouched over a settee dead, just like Terry was. My friendship with Biff was different, we knocked around together, but they are the same, they are friends, and the notches are going up and up and up.

"I saw little J in Worcester and we looked at each other and said 'it's mad, there's only me and you left,' and I thought, I don't want to think like that but he's right; out of all the older people who used to be on the streets, we are the only ones left.

"It's all down to the government not doing enough, I think. It's the worst I've ever known it."

Jo, who has young children, is working especially hard to sort herself out so she can build on her relationship with them, and getting a place of her own is a vital part of her plan. "I'd never want them to come here to visit."

Earlier this year they both emerged from new spells in prison, determined to break the habits that have blighted their lives. Both Jason and Jo say they are currently on prescribed methodone and trying to stay free of drugs.

"But it's really hard," admits Jason. "I'm surrounded by drinkers and people on drugs, temptation is hard to deal with, so I just shut myself away as much as I can and see Jo as much as possible. It's depressing in here."

He added:"I have got clean once before in my life, thanks to the help of a Christian organisation in Cardiff who really looked out for me, made me feel worth something again. I was clean for two and a half years, and was getting on really well, working and feeling fit and healthy for the first time. Then their funding was stopped and they couldn't do anything else for me so I ended up back in Worcestershire, and things went back downhill. I'm really determined now to make this work."

His sister Beverley said the siblings were estranged for 13 years, after Jason's addictions and criminal activity "broke our mum's heart".

"It took a long time to forgive him but he's really trying to turn things around and I respect him for that. I am struggling myself to make ends meet, with my own health issues, and my daughter has been really poorly so needs lots of care, but I make sure he has a cooked meal every day and look out for him and Jo. I want to make sure he is okay and he stays safe and well."

"Hearing about these people dying like this makes me so sad and angry. It's like they don't count for anything, they are not worth anything."
Bev Boucker, Jason's sister

Jason is hugely grateful for the help given by his sister and other relatives.

"The situation for the homeless is now the worst I've ever known it, not just here but all around the country. It's really hard to get into decent places where you can properly concentrate on getting well.

"I'm really lucky and grateful that my family still want me in their lives, after everything I've done to them and everything's that's happened. They are struggling themselves and don't have anything much, but they do what they can to help me. But most people like me don't have anyone, their only friends are other homeless people. It makes it really hard to get better or to change anything."

Mr Murdoch, owner of the Lion Hotel, was offered the opportunity to participate in this feature but declined to do so. He was also shown the content of this feature prior to publication and advised he was objecting to his name, hotel and information about the deaths being included.

 

 

Dying Homeless

#makethemcount

Dying Homeless illustration by Andrew Garthwaite.

Dying Homeless illustration by Andrew Garthwaite.

Last winter the award-winning Bureau of Investigative Journalism launched a long-term project called Dying Homeless to seek out and record every death of a homeless person in the UK.

The deaths of Terry Taylor and Michael Hill take the known toll since October last year to the end of September 2018 up to 449 - the equivalent of around 37 a month. There may be many more not yet notified to the Bureau or its network of journalists and publications.

Maeve McClenaghan, who leads the Dying Homeless project for the Bureau, said "We found that there is no centralised record of when and how people die homeless across the UK."

She added: "There is no obligation on councils or coroners to log these deaths. Therefore our count, sourced from publicly available information, is likely an underestimate."

The bureau is using the definition of homelessness from homeless charity Crisis, including people sleeping rough, those registered as statutory homeless by their local authority, and those who are living long term as 'hidden homeless' including sofa-surfing.

The Dying Homeless project has now prompted the Office for National Statistics to request access to the database in order to use the findings to help produce their own estimates on homeless deaths, a move that could result in a huge step forward in the data around homelessness. The ONS hope to release details later this year.

If you have information about any other cases in the West Midlands this year, please tweet @janerockhouse or email janerockhouse at icloud dot com