Arvind Howarth looks at the experiences of rough sleepers in Bristol’s town centre
Believe it or not, not all homeless people are rough sleepers, and not all rough sleepers are beggars. But for those who have ended up sleeping and living on the streets, money is not easy to come by. In Bristol’s city centre with its flamboyant drinking culture, I can’t help but be struck by the contrasting experiences of the late night partiers and the rough sleepers trying to get by at the outskirts of the scene.
Over three weekends, I photographed and talked to people living on the streets, in particular a guy called Tony and his dog Floyd. Here are some excerpts from those conversations, along with my photographs and observations.
I asked Tony if having a dog made life on the streets easier. He said: ‘definitely. I don’t really hang about with anyone else. That bloke…up there, he’s about my only friend really. He’s the only person I can trust. Well, him and my dog…and I can’t trust him not to chew things.’
A rough sleeping girl, I’d rather not name her, tells me she was awoken one night by the growling of her dog. There was a man standing over her sleeping bag looking at her. She asked him what he was doing and he said he was looking for a lighter. It might have been true, but the story shows how exposed and vulnerable it would feel to sleep in the open, and I can see why having a dog makes sense.
She and Tony both describe how a pet can make it harder to find temporary accommodation, as most shelters don’t allow them. Tony also suggests that it is his dog that is preventing him from undergoing residential drug rehabilitation, which takes four months.
During my time with Tony, it is clear Floyd is a very popular dog and, just like A Streetcat Named Bob, attracts people over for strokes and playing (and then they’re more likely to chuck coins into Tony’s porcelain upturned palm). It’s not up for debate anyway. ‘If I didn’t have him I’d have chucked the towel in a long time ago’, explains Tony.
When I first interview Tony, he had recently been the victim of a crime: ‘Just two geezers…was talking to me, then they dropped back and they pulled back into the centre…I cut across…to Queen’s Square, and they walked back…going back to the centre and then all of a sudden I’m on the floor, one of them’s run up and smashed me in the jaw from behind, I’ve just gone bang, knocked me clean out and then when I got up I go ‘why’d you do that?’ and they started beating me up, trying to get me money off me and everything […]Some bloke was in Queen’s Square on the grass bit. He went ‘Oy, what are you doing?’…He got beaten up worse than what I got beaten up.’
I ask him if he called the police: ‘The man who tried to stop it, when he got beaten up he rang the police…but the police, they sounded like they were from out of Bristol so there’s not much they can do really. And, you know, for me, a homeless person, they don’t really give a shit. It depends what copper you get but in general they don’t care.’
And on the police generally: ‘Well, there’s one copper down here that always, just like, moves everyone along. Just like, one copper…he’s not any higher ranking than any other copper, he just moves everyone along. Every other copper, as long as you’re not being aggressive, being a nuisance, they just leave you to it…and you know, you tidy up when you go…I just think he’s one of these jobsworth people’
And did Floyd help during the robbery? ‘No he’s useless. Well, I brought him up so soppy from coming down here…when I got robbed and beaten up he just ran round in circles, he thought it was a game. But in a way I’m glad he did that because he could have got his head kicked in.’
I am photographing a chap who is sitting outside a supermarket facing a cash machine queue. ‘Beggar! Beggar! Get a job!’ shouts a well-dressed middle aged woman in a broad Bristolian accent as her and her group move past to the next bar. Her male friends force smiles and keep sauntering, hands in pockets, like they’re having a nice night taking in the sights. The ‘beggar’ frowns for a while but the anger on his face quickly fades to tiredness.
While I photograph a man called River by another cash machine, one of the men waiting to get out cash says loudly, ‘he’s just waiting until he gets enough money for another beer!’ It seems to wash off River, who says he needs £18 to get a bed for the night.
Tony later tells me that on the whole, people in Bristol are kind but when drunk, people can turn nasty: ‘Half past three [am]…well, it could be the best time or the worst time. If people are drunk then they’ll give you money. But then they’re drunk and they want to give you grief…’
He tells me the most common abusive comments he hears are ‘get a job’ and ‘have a wash’.
Then he tells me this: ‘one of them said to me once, “when was the last time you had sex?” and I said “it was the last time I saw your mum.” It took three if his mates to drag him away. But then, one of his mates came back and gave me a tenner and said it was really really funny…that was alright.’
Tony has a caseworker with the Bristol Drugs Project, an independent local agency providing free services to people with addictions.
He also attends soup runs most evenings, courtesy of the Bristol Soup Run Trust, a charity that provides sustenance and advice to Bristol’s homeless every night of the week. ‘Sometimes it can be packed, there’ll be like 50 people there, other times there’ll be like ten people there, you never can tell…it’s not bad, I’m not really a fan of soup so I stick to sandwiches and coffee.’
Links to Bristol homelessness support