Lou Macari starred for Celtic, Manchester United and Scotland
In 2016, he set up a homeless shelter in Stoke-on-Trent
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the 71-year-old into big changes
He’d become a legend at Manchester United, gone to a FIFA World Cup™ with Scotland and starred during the greatest era in Celtic’s history. A creditable 18-year managerial career had followed, and Lou Macari was still keeping himself busy with TV and hospitality work at Old Trafford.
He had, in other words, earned the right to relax. But in 2016, a local news report in his adopted city of Stoke-on-Trent took the former midfielder out of his armchair and into the streets.
“Local councillors were arguing about how many homeless people there were in the area,” Macari, 71, recalled. “Some said over 100, others said it was around ten, and I wanted to find out for myself. Within minutes – without even properly looking – I had found over 30.
“It made me realise that some people were downplaying the problem, that there were a lot of people suffering, and I asked myself if there was anything I could do to help. My first thought was just the obvious: ‘Can I find a building to at least put a roof over their heads?’ And then, ‘Would it be possible to feed them too, get them some new clothes?’ I just wanted to do something.
“Anyway, I spoke to a friend on the city council and, within a month, we had a building. It wasn’t great – it was very small, cramped and not ideal for what we wanted – but we made good use of it over three-and-a-half years. No-one lived in luxury but we did exactly what I’d wanted: fed people, clothed them and put a roof over their heads.”
The Macari Centre quickly became a vibrant and truly invaluable addition to Stoke’s community. Its importance to those it sheltered was quickly reinforced to the man in charge, too, when he began an annual ritual to raise money and awareness.
“We do a charity sleep-out at Stoke City’s stadium once a year in late January, early February, and we do it in the concourse area, so there’s shelter above,” Macari explained. “But it’s extremely cold given the time of year and it gives us a very small taste of what it’s like for people living on the streets.
“Even doing it for just one night, it takes me about five days to recover. It really knocks you for six. And then you think about people sleeping outside in the British winter, in freezing cold and pouring rain, night after night. It doesn’t bear thinking about.”
That foreboding prospect did, however, loom large for the Macari Centre’s residents when COVID-19 arrived in the UK. The cramped nature of the dormitory-style shelter led to government instructing its closure, and left its 71-year-old patron frantically searching for alternatives.
The solution arrived during a drive through the country. “I was going past a field and it had these pods in it. ‘Glamping’, I believe it’s called,” he explained. “And as soon as I saw them, I thought: ‘They’d need a bit about them to resist the cold; they could work well’.
“I just had a hunch that they could be the solution to our problems, and they’ve been brilliant because we’ve been able to give people – some of them for the first time in their lives – their own place with a number and their own name on the door.
“It gives the residents their own space, and a massive thing is that we’ve been able to give each person a TV in their pod. The League Managers Association helped out there through one of their sponsors, sending us 46 televisions, all brand new, and now we sometimes don’t see some of the residents for a couple of days! It’s changed their lives in a lot of respects.
“We’ve had great feedback on how they’ve been enjoying new set-up with the warehouse and pods – the fact they have their own space to retreat to and have a bit of quiet time. We’ve seen them decorating the pods and taking a real pride in making them their own.
“It’s great too because it’s provided them with an address, which they often need if they go to the likes of the job centre or the bank. It’s giving them a chance at a better life than the one they had anyway, and that’s all I ever wanted to do.”
Macari has achieved that initial aim, and more besides. With winter already biting in Europe, and the pandemic leaving thousands more in dire straits, the need for problem-solving heroes like him has never been so pressing.
Images courtesy of Tom Reece at Broadcast Cameras