Inside a hotel housing rough sleepers during Covid-19 with vendor Donny

The 54-year-old spoke to The Big Issue about being involved in Sadiq Khan's efforts to get 'everyone in' – and how still hearing from his customers is making all the difference

Days before the UK Government announced a full lockdown of the UK, we took the difficult decision to temporarily pull street sales of The Big Issue to protect our vendors from the spread of Covid-19.

The same weekend, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan kicked off an operation to get homeless people into accommodation where they could social distance and, if they became unwell, self-isolate.

Our vendor Donny Hilton, 54, is one of the people who is benefiting from the scheme. Outreach workers from charity St Mungo’s offered him a room in a Holiday Inn nearby, where he can stay for the next three months.

“They came and spoke to us, showed us pictures of the place and we knew lockdown was coming anyway,” Donny told The Big Issue. He had been living in a squat 10 minutes from his Oxford Street pitch. “It’s a lovely room. You’ve got a double bed, plasma television, a shower.

“It’s nice but you do feel isolated,” he added. “Especially when you’re used to being outside all the time. But my next-door neighbours in the hotel are people I know already. I’m isolating but it’s good to know they’re there.”

Donny said he feels lucky – he’s receiving three meals a day from food chain LEON, has his sheets and towels changed regularly and knows he will be given free transport tokens if he needs to go anywhere.

“It’s been well organised and there are a lot of volunteers I can see working really hard,” he said. But Donny has type 2 diabetes and so still worries for his health.

“I know I’m at greater risk of being hit hard by the virus than some, so that’s what’s really scaring me at the moment,” he said. “I’ve only been out twice, to the shop and back.

“We never expected something like this. Not in our lifetime.”

The vendor, who has been selling the magazine on and off for 17 years, is keeping himself busy reading newspapers and books – he just finished The Rig by Roger Levy (“It’s about the end of the world!”) – and is trying to fit in as much exercise as he can do in his room. He said he is struggling to sleep because he’s so used to being busy.

I am biased. But I have the best customers

But Donny is feeling the love from a network of his regular customers who are rallying around him in these tough times. They have been calling and emailing the vendor to check on his wellbeing and offer some conversation and company. One, Lauren, has even made plans with Donny to take him some fresh clothes and toiletries next week to prevent him having to make another trip to a shop.

“It feels really strange, not selling The Big Issue any more,” he said. “I enjoy selling it. You meet some great people.

“When you’re not there for a few days, once back on your pitch they’ll come and say they missed you. They get worried when you’re gone. It’s like you’re part of the community.

“And I’m biased. But I have the best customers!”

Donny said he really misses his customers and the daily interaction he had with people when working on his pitch every day.

He worries he could struggle while isolating in the hotel, too, though he knows it’s something he has to do for his own health and that of those around him. “When you’re used to going to work and coming back home to your mates, a set up like this could get really hard.”

Donny is from London but worked in San Francisco for three years as a night porter in a hotel before a divorce meant he returned to the UK and soon got badged up to sell The Big Issue.

One of his regular customers, Joanna Moncrieff, has been speaking to Donny on the phone to check on how he’s doing. She started buying the magazine from him around a year ago, and told The Big Issue they have plenty in common – primarily an interest in London’s history.

“I’ve had some great chats with him,” Joanna, who is a walking tour guide, told The Big Issue. Last year she gave him a list of free talks and social history walks and in return he said he would give out her business cards to anyone who might be interested. And when the weather got cold earlier in the year – as she wrote in a blog about how she came to know Donny, Joanna trawled the charity shops to find a jacket for Donny to help him keep warm.

“I’m sure I’m not his only customer who misses chatting to him,” she said.

Donny is on working tax credits and will receive £55 a week until the end of July – it’s not a lot, he said, but it’s “not too bad when you’re not doing anything”.

Aware that there are some customers whose contact details he doesn’t have, he wanted to tell them: “I’ll be back! Hopefully very soon.

“I miss selling The Big Issue and I miss the people I’m lucky enough to meet on my pitch. Stay safe everyone and count your blessings.”

We can only keep supporting vendors like Donny with your support. Head to bigissue.com/subscribe for details on how you can receive the latest issue direct to your door or device. Alternatively you can get a copy from The Big Issue Shop or from Sainsbury’s, McColl’s and Co-op stores across the country.