WESTMINSTER PEOPLE: Stuart Ball, manager at SoHostel
The ex-homeless hostel was taken over by One Housing and now provides beds for travellers. Profits go to other schemes that help the vulnerable
19 May, 2017 — By Alina Polianskaya
Stuart Ball in the roof garden of the backpackers hostel, which used to be a homeless hostel
Every day, a stream of people come and go from SoHostel in Dean Street, from young travellers and school groups to older people and families, off to explore London.
Based in the very centre of Soho, the 295-bed hostel provides an affordable spot for all kinds of people to stay and, since it opened in its current guise in 2014, manager Stuart Ball has been on hand to welcome them in.
But the building’s history goes much further back than that, as from the 1970s until three years ago it was a homeless hostel for long-term rough sleepers. Everyone there had varying support needs, ranging from alcohol and drug use to mental health problems; or they had simply been on the street for a long time.
Stuart, 45, who has worked there for more than 14 years and seen it through its transformation, recalls what it used to be like.
“You met some really good characters, people who have just fallen on hard times and didn’t know how to support themselves out of that cycle,” he says.
“Over the years I met many different people, those from the armed services, lawyers, teachers, everybody…
“The aim of the scheme was to stabilise people’s substance use or their mental health and then attempt to move people back to temporary or semi-permanent accommodation.”
“It could be difficult – you are dealing with people’s emotions, people who have dealt with abuse in their past, you got some angry characters sometimes. But also when you saw someone come in from the streets and then 18 months later move into semi-independent living, with their support network in place to maintain that, the rewards were extremely high.”
The hostel was taken over by One Housing and, in 2014, the homeless hostel was closed down.
“Westminster felt that there was an over-provision of homeless provision at the time. We had quite a few voids at the time,” Stuart says. “Also it was a very old building and it needed work doing to it quite substantially.”
Personally, he did not feel that lively Soho was an ideal location for a hostel for homeless people with support needs. The decision was made to transform it into a backpackers’ hostel, and after some refurbishment and a fresh lick of paint, SoHostel was born.
But the social purpose remained. Profits from the hostel now go into other One Housing schemes that help vulnerable people. The group runs Arlington, a large hostel for the homeless in Camden, which is where much of the money goes.
It has paid for the running of employment schemes, teaching those at the hostel skills such as construction and cleaning, to help get them into work, as well as art therapy classes. It has also paid for minibuses for day trips as part of the group’s older people’s and mental health schemes, and much more. As someone who was homeless himself for two years, the social purpose was vital for Stuart.
“It is a very important aspect and part of my passion for the job,” he says. He was living in a hostel elsewhere when he first got involved as a volunteer at the age of 28, before working his way through the ranks at what is now SoHostel.
“There is more of an understanding,” he says. Now general manager at SoHostel, Stuart describes the job as “very similar”, in some ways, to before.
“People come here expecting great customer service and knowledgable, friendly staff. But on the flipside, now you have people coming here on vacation and on educational trips – schools – so it is slightly different.
“The key thing for me is it is still serving the social purpose and when you explain that to the guests they really think it’s a great concept. The money they are spending here is not going to shareholders or a private company, so it gives them a bit more of a social conscience as well.”
Brightly coloured, and complete with a brand new roof garden and bar, the hostel is now a vibrant, buzzing place that attracts a wide range of guests. “You meet roughly 150 different people a day from all over the world,” Stuart says.
“If you are a people person then what better job could there be? We have a huge South Korean audience, which is quite unique, but also lots of Americans, Australians and people from Europe.”
Stuart adds: “We have some great karaoke nights, they get the competition going. Once we had two stag nights, one from France, one from Germany and they were really competitive, that was good fun.”