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Gaurdian Newspaper// Feature story

The start of something new: a homeless family's respite at a boutique hotel amid the pandemic

Article published: 7th May 2020

Written by: Luke Henriques Gomes  Photography by: Dan Springs

 

For Aubrey Roe and his two youngest daughters, the contrasts have been sharp: stress and relief. At the pointy end, the coronavirus pandemic has been the frightening peak of a two-year search for a safe place to live.

Roe, Tylah, 16, and Adamma, 15, had stayed in backpackers’ hostels before they ended up at a boarding house in March. “The house was extremely rough,” Roe says. “But we had nowhere to go, so I explained our situation and [the owner] agreed to let us in his home.”

After just three weeks, though, Roe says he asked the police to remove their belongings because of the anti-social behaviour of the other boarders. “I’ve always been protective of my daughters,” he says, trailing off.


It was late March. The Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, had locked down the state. Only a few days later he would shut the state’s borders.

Around that time, Roe ran into a staff member from an Indigenous advocacy service outside the Perth hospital where Adamma receives treatment for a heart condition. The service had some good news. Relief.

Frustrated by the response from the state government, housing campaigners had taken things into their own hands, striking a deal with a boutique hotel in Fremantle to house people with nowhere else to go during the pandemic.

Hotelier Patrick Prendiville saw it as a chance to fill the empty space, allow staff to return to work and to make a difference. Perth advocate Jesse Noakes, who wrangled the arrangement with Prendiville, quickly moved in to run the whole show.


And so it was that Roe and his two daughters drove down to Fremantle on Tuesday 31 March, arriving at a 4.5-star boutique hotel and hoping for the start of something new.

The Roe family were the Hougoumont Hotel’s first guests since the lockdown began. In time, 32 others, all homeless in the pandemic, would join them.


The hotel provided food and social workers were on hand to assist with the sorts of things that people down on their luck might need: they filled out public housing applications and did health checks. Other clients were helped with drug rehabilitation.

“It just gave people a bit of a rest,” says Noakes. “A chance to retreat into their bubble if they wanted to. It was the first night to get a decent night’s sleep without worrying about who’s coming around the corner.”

Roe says it gave him time to think. He has raised his two youngest daughters on his own since they were toddlers. Tylah and Adamma’s older sister is studying at Notre Dame, he says proudly, while their two older brothers have carved out careers in the oil and gas industry.


“It gives you time to reminisce and relate to things that are going on,” he says. “Life can be hard at times, but it can also be nice.”

In their two years of house hunting, the family chanced their arm in Carnarvon, 900km north of Perth, and then back in the state capital, where they were staying at the time news broke about a new virus in a city 7,000km away in China.

The boarding house, where Roe says there were problems with other residents taking drugs, was a low point.

“Thinking about all the other kids with houses was stressful and sad,” says Tylah. “But we got through it. It was stressful that we had to stay in hostels and backpackers, not really having a very stable place to live. With the coronavirus around, it was even harder to think about.”

Safe in the hotel, the girls shared a room. They watched movies together and caught up with friends on social media. Tylah, who loves to draw, spent time creating different characters, while in the room next door, Roe was glued to the news.

His interest goes beyond the macabre. Adamma’s congenital heart problem has twice forced the family to Melbourne for treatment she couldn’t get in Perth. “She has several parts of her heart missing,” Roe says. “She’s an extremely sick little girl.”

Nearby in Perth, the state government decided to hold its own trial to put up 20 homeless people at another hotel, the Pan Pacific. Noakes had expected the state government to eventually step in and also offer funding and other services to the Hougoumont project, which was burning through the cash of local organisations.


But the help never came. And this week, the government announced it was discontinuing its own hotel pilot, noting mixed results.

Without state government help, the money ran out at the Hougoumont after a month. The Roe family moved out on 22 April, but like other clients, they are still being supported by the Indigenous advocacy service where Noakes works.

They are staying in another hotel in the meantime. But there have been new setbacks.

In a letter seen by the Guardian, Roe was told last week he remained barred from public housing because of debts and an accusation of aggressive behaviour, which he denies. He was also rejected for a house in the private market despite being the only applicant.

Still, sitting in the Perth office of the advocacy service last week, Roe was feeling more optimistic than he has in some time.

“We’ve got a smile back on our faces,” he says. “We are looking forward to the future.”