Bristol’s infamous Bearpit has undergone an image change in recent years – but rising homelessness means it’s now a site of conflict between wealthier incomers and some of the city’s most vulnerable people.
Words & Photo: Alec Saelens
Bristol’s Bearpit, long an infamous place that pedestrians might think twice before passing through after dark, is now both a cherished hub for political artwork and, increasingly, a site of successful independent trade.
Marking the entrance to the city at the end of the M32, tall buildings of corporate hospitality and retail’s big players look down on it: Holiday Inn, Debenhams, Primark, Premier Inn. Across the way is Cabot Circus, 14 hectares of privately owned shopping space strapped in a network of CCTV and policies banning all sorts of outdoor activities. Its owner, Bristol Alliance Limited Partnership, backed by the Chinese state’s own capital and using the tax haven of Luxembourg, now plans to expand into Broadmead with residential units – none affordable.
Heading out from the other side of the roundabout, within a couple of minutes’ walk, six companies run student-focused lettings businesses in eight large buildings that provide beds for almost 2,500 short term renters. Renting one of those flats in the luxury category for 51 weeks can cost more than £13,000 a year. The smallest building will take a minimum revenue of above £2m.
Yet amid fast-paced urban development, private wealth sits in marked contrast with a population of some of the city’s most vulnerable. The arena-like space can be seen as an exaggerated microcosm of some of the city’s growing social divisions.
Battle for the Bearpit
Over the past few years, millions of pounds have poured into regenerating the Bearpit’s physical environment. The council injected the most money, whilst various groups contributed through smaller initiatives.
In 2010 the Bearpit Improvement Group (BIG), which formed out of meetings between residents, local groups, the council and police representatives, was granted a license by the council to run a ‘community action zone’. Its mission was to improve the image, atmosphere and use of the space by making it “welcoming, safe, diverse and inclusive”. The group set out to reshape the space incrementally through public art, play, greening, physical redesign and the reintroduction of trade to a part of the city that had historically been a marketplace.
But over time, cracks emerged. As Miriam Delogu, speaking on behalf of the traders in the Bearpit, recalls, “We all had a common vision at one point, but over the years that has changed.” She adds that different members of the original BIG collective had different priorities around how the space should be managed, with the traders’ focus being – understandably, perhaps – on protecting their livelihoods.
The group of independent traders eventually broke from BIG, and in late 2016 received a new license from the council to operate autonomously as the Bearpit Bristol CIC (community interest company). It obtained a £112,000 loan from Resonance, a ‘social impact investment company’, to create a “safer and more welcoming environment” by increasing trade, footfall and profitability – and delivering a training programme for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Bearpit’s unsavoury reputation had been on the wane since the formation of BIG. But in 2015 a stakeholder group with interests in the Bearpit was created to tackle rising anti-social behaviour, following numerous incidents of harassment. This new group comprises of representatives from the traders, the council, the police, the surrounding hotels, city marketing agency Destination Bristol, local drug and homeless support services and BIG.
On the margins, in the centre
Most of the trouble has stemmed from drug and alcohol use associated with homelessness. Along with other public spaces in the area, which is home to many support services, the Bearpit has long acted as a meeting point for some of Bristol’s most vulnerable people.
“The problem with homelessness is that you’ve got nowhere you can relax,” says Will Mathieson, 65, who has been homeless in Bristol for four years and is now staying a stone’s throw from the Bearpit at the Compass Centre. “There is nowhere where you belong.”
Nationally, estimated rough sleeper numbers have risen 132% since 2010. While Bristol’s figures have fallen from 97 to 74 in the year to December 2016, the city still has one of the highest rates in the country. Last year the outreach team from charity St Mungo’s supported over 1,000 people at risk of rough sleeping in the city.
“A very significant proportion of people who are homeless have alcohol and/or drug problems,” says Maggie Telfer, the chief executive of Bristol Drug Project (BDP). “If you have nowhere to live, getting treatment will not be top of your list.” A November 2016 Bristol council report says 36% of people in homelessness support services also have substance misuse support needs, with less than half of those actually engaging with drug services. Conversely, many people are refused homelessness support due to problems of substance misuse.
Another 2016 report from the council shows Bristol still has the largest estimated rate of opiate and/or crack users of England’s ‘core cities’, and drug-related deaths have been rising. While Telfer says that, increasingly, alcohol is the sole reason for referrals to BDP, drug issues in the city have also been complicated by the rise of synthetic cannabinoids, such as Spice. Whilst the strong, cheap and addictive drugs were outlawed under a government ban on so-called legal highs in 2016, use among street homeless people is rife in cities across the country. More than 120 incidents of anti-social behaviour and public disorder around the Bearpit were recorded by the police in 2016.
Changes in the area may have helped make some of those incidents more visible. Neighbouring St Pauls is now undergoing extensive regeneration – or gentrification, depending on your viewpoint – including large-scale student accommodation being built in a road next door to Brunswick Square.
Empty properties that have historically been squatted and provided temporary homes for people are being redeveloped, Telfer points out. The eviction of a squat near Brunswick Square in 2015 saw around 60 people left scrambling to find shelter. “It’s like a balloon,” Telfer says. “If you squeeze the air out of one bit of it, it’ll pop back out elsewhere. Moving people from A to B is not an enduring solution.”
Delroy Hibbert, a longstanding St Pauls community member, says he has “sympathy for some of the people because they are vulnerable and struggling with addiction”. But, as a former local youth worker, he adds that “there are a lot of people who are young and alienated and get drawn into this kind of thing, and they are not homeless”.
Strategies proposed by the Bearpit stakeholder group have included an increase in policing and the banning of individuals from the Bearpit. However Danny Kushlick, head of external affairs at Transform, a Bristol-based advocacy group for the legalisation of drugs, raises concerns: “There is a long-term historical problem because both problematic drinkers, but more so people who use illegal drugs, are being stigmatised, and that comes with the territory.”
The idea of safe and welcoming spaces, together with policing, have led some to draw parallels with the discredited ‘broken window’ theory that informed mayor Rudy Giuliani’s approach to dealing with crime in 1990s New York. The premise was that removing visible signs of social and environmental dereliction in spaces helps to reduce these same problems.
But Mathieson says those simply condemning the sanitisation of space are off the mark. “I belong with the traders and the people who are trying to improve the Bearpit,” he says. “I’m factually with the homeless population but I don’t use smack or crack.” He goes on to criticise the ways that local support services operate, claiming that providing free food and shelter in the area simply helps to perpetuate problems.
The council has put forward plans to improve coordination of homelessness and drugs misuse support services as part of its next round of commissioning in October 2017. But budget reductions of 12% will affect the capacity of these services. The number of contracts for drugs and alcohol support services in the city already fell from 16 to 5 back in 2013, leaving services in the outskirts of the city and directed at minority groups to find alternative sources of funding or close down. Kushlick says he’s concerned about the struggle to deliver more services in times of budget restrictions.
For now, then, the Bearpit looks set to continue as an uneasy meeting point between inner-city Bristol’s growing wealth and its increasing social exclusion. Addressing the broader issues affecting the locality, Kushlick highlights “the pragmatic challenge of enabling good relations between business people, capitalism, and people who exist on the margins of society”.
“That isn’t a relationship that is easily held together,” he adds.