At first, Tom’s two young sons saw setting up home in a large metal box as an adventure. Forced to leave their home in the north of England because of a family breakdown, the three had loaded their possessions into a van and headed to north Wales, Tom’s place of birth.
They could find nowhere to stay so Tom (not his real name) put their few bits of furniture into a storage container in a yard in Denbighshire. And then, seeing no other option, moved himself and his two sons, both under 12, into it. “I found a container to put the furniture in while I tried to find somewhere for me and the boys,” he said.
But it was the height of the Covid outbreak and Tom could find no temporary accommodation. “I had no option but to sleep in the container with the boys. They thought we were camping so were quite happy to begin with.
“The first couple of days were great but it soon got boring. There was no power supply so couldn’t use a lamp or warm it. Luckily, we had lots of bedding so kept quite warm.”
Of course, they weren’t supposed to be living there and had to work hard to stay hidden away. “The boys hated having to be quiet in case we got found out. We stayed in the container for seven weeks. I never thought I would ever be in a position where I couldn’t provide for my family. Or that I would be sleeping rough in a cold storage container with my kids.”
Tom’s experience may be extreme but ask around the food banks in Denbighshire and there are plenty of heartbreaking stories. It was tough before. Covid-19 has made it even more difficult for many.
The Good News Mission in the seaside town of Rhyl is running a scheme called Foodshare. The idea is that it collects donated food, including items past their “best-by” date, and charges people £1.50 for £5 of food, £2.50 for £10 and so on.
Natasha Angell, who is helping run the project, said before coronavirus it helped 25 families a week. Now they are up to 150. “Families who have always worked are here needing help,” she said. “It’s been a nightmare. People are sometimes having to choose whether to have food or turn the lights on.”
Before the Covid-19 crisis, the food bank run from the Foryd community centre in Rhyl could comfortably store its supplies in a corner of its cafe. Such is the increased demand now that the food bank store has spread out and fills the main body of the former Presbyterian church that the community centre is housed in.
Racks are jammed with a dizzying array of tins, bottles and boxes ready to be packed and handed out. “We’ve got more pasta than Italy at the moment,” joked the project manager, Fiona Davies, grimly.
At the start of the year, the food bank was providing about 50 parcels a week. Now it is more like 130. One section, labelled “limited cooking facilities only”, is stacked with instant noodle and soup packets aimed at the scores of homeless people living in hotel rooms who have no choice but to keep “cooking” basic. The food bank provides paper plates, cups and tin openers.
Davies is deeply worried the situation will worsen over winter, especially if there is a significant second Covid spike. “We’ve had a huge increase in people using the food bank,” she said. “We’re working with people of all ages but especially lots of young people and families.”
She added: “As people come off furlough, we expect many more people to come here. One of the problems in Rhyl is that so many jobs are connected to tourism. Lockdown means we’re effectively facing the equivalent of three winters in a row. There are a lot of frightened people out there.”
Nick Edmunds, 38, was being handed his share of supplies. His face lit up as he looked through the bags of groceries and toiletries. Bright and articulate, he has in the past worked in a bank, supermarket, fast-food restaurant and as a piano mover.
Ill-health and bad luck has left him unemployed. He is desperate to get back to work but not optimistic. “I think I’m a good worker; I find it easy to get on with people. But it’s not easy. Before coronavirus it felt difficult to get work. Now it seems just about impossible. When I used to work in the bank I didn’t have a clue that places like this even existed,” he said.
Edmunds is on universal credit but once he has paid his rent and utility bills he still does not have quite enough to eat. “I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t come here,” he said.
A myriad of reports have warned that the brunt of the Covid aftermath in Wales will be felt in places that can least cope.
The cross-party House of Commons Welsh affairs committee warned that Covid-19 had created a “perfect storm” for key sectors of the Welsh economy, highlighting how the crisis has dealt a sharp blow to seasonal industries including tourism and hospitality and that the “scarring effect” of the pandemic was likely to extend into sectors such as aerospace, higher education, steel, retail, the creative arts and car manufacturing.
It concluded that the worst effects of Covid-19 could fall on those least able to afford it and there was a “real prospect” of unemployment returning to levels not seen for decades.
Even before Covid, many people in Rhyl were struggling. At the end of last year, a Welsh government report pinpointed the town as having the top two most deprived “small areas” in Wales.
In March 2020, across the town’s five wards, 1,045 people were claiming unemployment-related benefits – about 7% of the working-age population. By June, the number was up to 1,645 – 11%. In the Rhyl West ward it rose from 485 in March to 635.
People do not seem to feel frightened at the prospect of catching Covid-19. But fear is a word often used when thinking about the possible economic impacts of a second wave.
On the seafront, the Westminster hotel used to welcome wealthy Victorian holidaymakers. In the age of Covid, it is a hostel for homeless people. Luke Taylor, 30, who was born and bred in Rhyl, was having a cup of tea in the sunshine outside the hotel and hoping for a call from an old boss.
A construction worker, he is not used to being out of work. “But there hasn’t been anything going on since the middle of March,” he said. He spends his time cooking in his hotel room and waiting for things to improve. “It’s a waiting game. It’s very tough in this town at the moment.”
The town even lost its football club to Covid-19. Founded in the late 19th century, Rhyl FC has in the past topped the highest tier of Welsh football and played in the qualifying rounds of the Uefa Champions League. But it had to be wound up in April.
Adam Roche, the managing director, explained that the club depended on fans coming through the gate – and staging tournaments and European games for other clubs once the season had ended. “Covid meant all that was lost,” he said. “It was an emotional moment when we had to wind it up.”
All is not hopeless for football in Rhyl, at least. A phoenix club has been formed – CPD Y Rhyl 1879, which will have to play in the fourth tier of Welsh football and hopefully fight its way back up.
Asked if the club expected to still attract the same number of fans (a few hundred), Roche said: “We expect more. There is a momentum around the club at the moment, a new sense of optimism.”
Denbighshire county council is also keen to focus on the positive, pointing to extensive regeneration work going on in Rhyl. Millions of pounds has been invested on the seafront. There are new hotels in the town, a waterpark and a kitesurfing centre.
Some of the residential areas have been boosted to try to attract more people who want to make Rhyl a permanent home rather than a place to pass through. The council accepts that since its Victorian heyday and its healthy post-second world war bucket-and-spade years, Rhyl has declined – but it insists it is on the way back. It sees the town as being at a “tipping point” and promises its plans will not be derailed by Covid.
Mel Evans, principal manager for strategic employment at Working Denbighshire, said: “It may take longer but there are jobs out there.”
Evans looks for the bright side. One consequence of so many homeless people being forced to move into seafront hotels was that the agencies have known exactly where they are and can target help at them. “That may fast-track their move back into employment,” she said.
The future is a little brighter now for Tom and his family. “I plucked up the courage to speak to the council and I was given a room in a local hotel,” he said. “The boys are doing OK. We have been told that we are on the list for a house when one comes available. The hotel room is basic and we have to buy lots of takeaway meals as we have no cooking facilities but it’s definitely better than the container. I hope it hasn’t affected the boys. I would never ever have wanted this.”