Bristol is Booming. Sleep on Our Streets. The UK’s Homelessness Crisis Continues.
The gap between rich and poor continues to increase, is there anything we can do about it?
Bristol has a growing, prosperous economy, but this prosperity doesn’t extend to its most vulnerable residents.
Sunday morning in Bristol, England. White sky with bright patches. The city sleeps, streets empty, shops shut.
By Cabot Circus, one of the city’s malls, security guards crowd together in high-vis. A man lies on the pavement, face to the sky.
“Is he dead?” I blurt, accidentally.
The man’s eyes flicker. His nose is crusted, mouth open. Around my age, white, wearing a parka. Spice, I think.
“He’s breathing,” a security guard says. “Just on another planet.”
“Is an ambulance coming?” I ask. He nods, hands in his pockets, and I walk on. What else can I do?
The city centre is empty and silent except for the occasional herring gull. A serviette drifts by on icy wind and a man scurries past, arguing with himself.
On a bench, another man sits upright, a fully-zipped sleeping bag over his head. Litter and duvets crowd the doorways to big business: TSB, Select, Superdrug. Bristol at the weekend feels apocalyptic.
Nowhere to go
Living in the city center it’s impossible to ignore the homelessness crisis — tents appear in St Matthias Park then are cleared away by the council — but that’s not to say I didn’t try. Not because I’m callous, but because the problem seems insurmountable. Give a pound, a spare blanket. What else can I do?
In January the Big Issue published an article about the neurology behind our mass dehumanisation of those without a roof over their heads. “Our minds are ‘trained to disconnect’ when we see a homeless person,” the authors write, summarising recent research from University College London. We disconnect to protect ourselves from being swallowed by pity for ‘the homeless’.
A problematic label, writes Joe Smith, for The Bristol Cable, since “homelessness is an experience. For some, it may be long, short or repeated but it does not define you. Language like [‘the homeless’] only exacerbates stigmatisation and the idea that homeless people are ‘other people’.”
Unable to ‘disconnect’ any longer my boyfriend takes some Dominos pizza to the park; I volunteer at a pop-up night shelter nearby.
What can I do?
It’s here I meet Paul Blake, a local man who had to move out of his home after the breakdown of a relationship last September. Lucky by Bristol’s standards, he sleeps on a mat on the floor in temporary accommodation, with up to 12 other men in a large room.
The building serves other purposes for the local community, and so guests must leave the premises at 7.30am. Various groups throughout the day mean they aren’t allowed back inside until 21:30. That’s fourteen hours without a place to go.
Paul sits in the Galleries with a friend or charges his phone in McDonalds, eking out a hot drink. “Cut our hands off, why not?” Paul says. “We ain’t going to use them cos we ain’t got nothing to use them with.”
Keen to improve conditions, Paul began a petition at the end of February, demanding that Bristol City Council recognise there is not adequate shelter in the city centre for people without homes.
Overstretched and underfunded
Current daytime provision in Bristol’s city centre is spread between the Wild Goose Café, the Methodist Centre and the Compass Centre. There are gaps in the schedule on weekday afternoons, and very little available at weekends.
Paul believes a central day center with laundry and shower facilities as well as space to rest, socialise and seek help for complex problems would help combat homelessness, at the same time as it decreases begging and shoplifting. He dreams of the whole community playing a part.
“Have you seen DIY SOS?” he says. “Get the plumbers, electricians in, gas fitters, kitchen fitters, see if we can get all those sort of people from the community to help get the building up and running so then it will be a sense that it is a community place for people to go,” Paul says.
His hope is infectious, and when I ask him how he keeps it up, he lets out an ambivalent laugh.
“If I let myself go then I could be down as low as the others, down to drugs, but I have an incentive.” He shows me his screensaver: a small, smiling girl. “My five-year-old daughter,” he says. “That is how I keep going. I keep thinking of her, how I miss her, how I wanna get a one or two bedroom flat so she can come and stay with me on weekends. She might be five years old, but she’s my rock.”
Keen to help Paul get more signatures I implore friends, colleagues and acquaintances to sign and share it across their networks.
Councillor Paul Smith, Bristol’s housing ‘czar’, signs and retweets Paul’s petition. On the phone, he tells me he is keen to improve day shelter provision, but believes that the only approach is to extend the reach of existing organisations with premises, particularly the Methodist Centre.
“Otherwise, we have to find a building, a building won’t be found and nothing will happen,” he admits. “Because even if we set something new up, we’d have to find a way of staffing it.”
Meanwhile, Paul goes on the radio, on TV. George Ferguson, Bristol’s ex-Mayor, signs and retweets. Momentum seems to be building for the petition.
But the next week when I meet Paul to take his photo the petition has only 305 signatures. ‘Save Fay’s St Andrews Park Tea Garden’ has 5103 signatures. I can’t help wondering if Bristol has its priorities right.
At this rate, it would take Paul over a year to reach his target; he has until June 23rd.
As we talk, the enthusiasm I’ve met with before is missing. “Sometimes I just don’t want to be around people, you know?” he says. “When I feel like this, I just listen to music, walk around.”
I take a picture of Paul holding his rucksack in Castle Park. In the background, two tower cranes loom over the development at Finzel’s Reach. I photograph a tent before we go. Bristol is booming, sleep on our streets.
I leave Paul listening to music on a bench. At least today is sunny. Walking away, I try to imagine what it would be like not to have a home to go to. I wonder what Paul is listening to.
Trained to disconnect
At an event organised with Shelter in the Galleries Mall where he spends most of his time, we collect almost three hundred signatures. If we can get a person to listen to our pitch, most will sign.
It’s hard to break through their city veneer. People avoid us. Seeing us approach they set their gaze on a point in the distance and march by.
“They think we want money,” Paul says.
They are trained to disconnect, I think, recalling the Big Issue article, and the dozens of people I walk past every day in service of attending to my own goals and schedule.
“The thing with petitions isn’t just about the number of people signing in it, it’s about the quality of the argument and the proposition,” Councillor Paul Smith said when we spoke.
Later that evening, I wonder, is Paul’s petition strong enough to capture the attention of the city? It isn’t fair that he is the one lumbered with the responsibility of inspiring the city to care about the plight of its homeless. He has enough on his plate trying to find himself and his daughter somewhere to call home.
Across the UK, stories about the homeless crisis continue. Bristol’s press continues to report on the way Austerity is affecting the poorest and most vulnerable of our society. We are all concerned about people sleeping rough, so why has Paul only secured five hundred signatures?
The petition embodies one of the main difficulties that Paul, as a person without a home to call his own, faces in his struggle to get the support he deserves: his voice simply isn’t being heard.
One dawn I woke to tents being cleared, like rubbish, from St Matthias Park where people had very recently been living. I couldn’t be sure whether these tents were still occupied, but it reminded me of the scenes in Calais’ ‘Jungle’, when the poorest people’s makeshift homes were bulldozed by government employees, people with homes to go to.
When does a person’s property legally become rubbish? Perhaps when they have no legal rights in the first place.
There is a level of dehumanisation necessary for these jobs to be done, for the city to continue business as usual, for regular citizenship and employment to carry on.
If we acknowledge and witness the human misery of our cities; if we allow it into our hearts, what would happen?
If it’s a defense mechanism that allows us to disconnect in order to push ahead with our own aims then surely we can choose kindness.
Meanwhile, Paul campaigns tirelessly. I bump into him one day and he tells me he has just got out of the hospital.
“I had an epileptic fit,” he says. “It’s a good job I’m so friendly with all the security guards — they really helped me.”
When I interviewed him to write this, I asked him his favourite thing about Bristol.
“It’s the community,” he said. “So many people have helped me with my petition.”
As of today, signatures stand at over 1000.
Extended and updated version of an article first published in The Bristol Cable.