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Voices: A view on van-living


Isabel Burnett speaks about her experiences living outside the traditional housing market – in a van parked up on the street.

Photo: Bristol van/bus dwellers

“F*ck off you crusties!” The familiar call of a particular lycra-clad cyclist whistles through the air as he commutes past me. Again, this morning, I heard a distinctive throat-clearing and loud phlegm-spit outside my home.

I live in a van. Lots of people in Bristol do. We do this for a multitude of reasons, whether it is cultural background, choice, or necessity. The most obvious reason is financial insecurity. Everyone knows rent is unaffordable and many working people struggle to pay it. Van-living affords some people a way to survive. It allows independence from the rental market and some freedom to move around, it costs the Council nothing, and it costs the environment significantly less than living in a house. Yet it also brings with it a level of precarity and marginalisation.

anonymous note reads:time to move on! you are taking the piss now, this is not a campsite for crusty's, Bye x

I love living in my van. I know other people in vans and we have cups of tea, share meals and generally help each other out. People walk past and smile; they inquisitively peer in, admire our homes, and stop and chat. As I generally feel supported by my community it is easy to find the cyclist’s call – “F*ck off you crusties!” – humorous, but otherwise I might feel vulnerable.

I felt that way when my van was graffiti-tagged and I had a window smashed. Last summer, when parked around St. Andrew’s park, I received rude notes and even an elaborate fake Council-letter warning me about an imminent ‘van removal project’. I did not move on, and I later came home to my tyres stabbed. When I replaced them the same thing happened again. I called the police but their response was minimal. I have since learned that about 10 other vans got their tyres slashed by residents around the same period, in the same well-to-do area. We’re sometimes treated badly simply because we live in vehicles.

Earlier this week my van-neighbour awoke to a policeman opening his door, allegedly “looking for someone in a caravan”. It is against the law to enter a home without permission or warrant. My friend protested that it was rude to just come in without knocking. The policeman retorted that it was rude to live on the street without paying council tax, implying he felt he could act with impunity. He drove off before my friend got a chance to get dressed and speak with him properly.

I imagine my van-neighbour would have liked to say the following: Van-people pay vehicle tax, VAT, and our wages are taxed. We may not pay council tax, yet services such as rubbish collection and recycling are less readily available to us. But this is beside the point: why should our status as fellow human beings deserving of dignity and respect hinge on our levels of financial contribution to the state?

Many people who live in vans have jobs, or study, or both. Others volunteer with community projects or pursue creative interests, finding they have more time to do so as it is cheaper to live in a van than pay rent, and so less time must be spent earning a wage. Others run travelling circuses, shows, or festivals, and so need the flexibility of being able to move around. Others do not have jobs and may suffer financial hardship or personal problems. Basically, we are just normal people with the same level of diversity as any community. The assumption that those who inherit or choose this lifestyle do not deserve basic respect is downright discrimination.

fake note from council saying: van removal project, for disposalFake note from council.

Whilst the angry cyclist and odd graffiti-tagger is all I have to worry about currently, other people are not so lucky. Caravans are regularly issued Council notices forcing them to move on, they are broken into, and sometimes arson-attacked. People who cannot afford to live in houses are sometimes violently targeted because of it. In the last few weeks, a tent in Castle Park was burnt down, and another one near the old Sorting Office on Cattle Market Road has been set ablaze, leaving a couple homeless and their ID, bank cards and baby photos all destroyed.

Though discrimination towards homelessness people or those living precariously is not legally akin to that because of race, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, etc, it is undeniable that arson attacks such as these are motivated by hate. The odd bout of “f*ck off you crusties” does not compare to having your home completely burnt down, but verbal abuse and threatening notes – like criminal damage – can constitute hate-crime. And I would expect our local police force to be there to support people against abuse who are living in whatever way they can – house, flat, van, boat, squat, caravan, tent, or sleeping rough – rather than intrude into their home without permission and berate them for not paying enough tax.

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  • Amazing article, thanks for writing it! Came at a good time for me as someone tried getting into my partners van last night whilst we were asleep. We told him to jog on and luckily he closed the door and walked away but it still put me on edge for the rest of the night.
    I hope this helps to open some peoples eyes, I will be sharing it as much as I can :)


  • Van living should be recognized as a legitimate lifestyle choice. Every council should provide safe, well-lit parking lots with a toilet, shower, and laundry facility and free wi-fi. The users could pay a small annual fee to get a pass for use of the lot. This is much cheaper than building council housing. There could also be a national level annual fee that would allow users access to all such lots. EVERYONE should be in favor of this. Disgruntled homeowners who don’t like to see the vans parked on their street will be placated. Van life people will experience more community in the lots.


    • Devon County council have halved the site on Haldon hill and licenced it, rent is about 400 a month plus ctax it’s not a bad space but far from ideal and that ain’t cheap neither


    • Is there a group that campaigns for living space for vans and caravans? I,ve just studied a 10week community development course at Ashley down college, and I,ve learnt that by using Community Developent program, the world is your oyster for asking and campaigning for what you want.
      If we campaign, then people with land will know we are looking for land,and offer it for use. Then we have something substantial to negotiate over.
      As a tatting hoarder, I,m looking for a yard for working in,and caravan living. A workshop warehouse for collecting, storing and up cycling for reuse or creative art. With land for self sufficiency.
      An intentional disparate community of sorts living together like this in vans so obviously possible.
      All we need to do is cause the logistics of creating the statements of what we want, finding out what the possible lines of enquiry are to follow , and gather up for action to make dialogue with the relevant parties.
      If anything like this is happening, or if anyone wants to try for something, please text me. Nicola 07733939740
      Or email


  • Emily Jarrold-Wallis

    Hi, I used to live right by St andrews park and my vehicle (a turquoise van) lived on the road outside my house for three years. I moved home to Cornwall when I was pregnant with my son, and then last summer I was staying in Bristol in my van and parked up by the park for the night. I woke up to someone messing around with my van, but they swiftly left and I thought nothing of it. Until later when my front tyre went down. Then one of the back ones, then another… (I have six wheels on my van) this cost me over £200 as I had to get 3brand new tyres fitted to enable me to get home. They had been punctured with a hypodermic needle. Over the following month all the other tyres also went down, costing more money. I’m just glad none went on the motorway, and nobody was injured. Crazy as whichever narrow minded local resident did this must have driven past my van parked up by my house when I lived there for over three years, it’s pretty distinctive, why didn’t they recognise it as a local resident vehicle? It’s outrageous really, if someone like me vandalised their car they would press charges. I’d maybe even get an asbo! Great article, xxx


  • Thanks for the kind comments (and rather scary stories) everyone. One of the elements being explored here is the discrimination angle, so if you’ve had problems, harassment or abuse because of living this way then I understand that Bristol SARI and the travellers team at the Council are sympathetic.


  • Always disturbing to read of such awful attitude and behaviour, makes you wonder how much longer it will be before someone decides to take things too far. The vans around Bristol were one of the things that really attracted me to the city when I first moved here 6 years ago. I thought it was quite unusual and really highlighted how tolerant people are in this part of the country are. I’ve since got to know a few people who have spent some time living in vans around Bristol and they’ve always found new friends and a great supportive community.


  • My experience of van dwellers is somewhat different, we had a van illegally park on our land, the owners then preceded to inform us that ownership was theft (How original) and that we were monsters for having animals… they didn’t care enough about nature to stop them ripping down trees or defecating where they pleased though, and when they left (escorted off) it was apparently the police who were fascists… but please, by all means present the picture of perfect living where no one does any wrong doing whilst dwelling in a mode of transport.


    • in all communities there are good and bad, the people you had the misfortune to deal with were breaking two of the golden rules of the road, don’t use live wood, it doesn’t burn properly anyway, and faeces should be buried. After twenty years ‘on the road’ on site with new agers,or on my own, I find it scary how judgmental ordinary folk can be, and how readily they resort to violence.


      • The two golden rules broken were not harassing other people or stealing from them (occupying their land and preventing them from working it) but rather two things completely unrelated to living in harmony with other people. How selfish.

  • Messes with nothing better to do, as long as your road legal it’s your choice, would not be mine, but harmless as long as your clean tidy who gives a damn better a road legal sleeper than a dodgy non legal vehicle, good luck to you brave persons who are saving money and probably living a better quality of life, choices we all have them !! Just because it’s not ours doesn’t make it wrong house buyers buy property by what’s marked in boundries not what’s parked legally.


  • one negative experience for you Bob, many negative experiences for lots of us who have and do live alternatively. We are often judged just because of the vehicle we live in, or the choice we make to not live in a house and not for any other reason, not because we trash places, not because we are inconsiderate, not because we cause problems for others, not because we make an area unhygenic…


  • Yeah, you’re kind of skirting around obvious issues though- I’d love to support the article you’ve written but by ignoring the level of antisocial behaviour coming from van residents you kind of come away looking in denial or covering it up. In practice it isn’t always this idyllic pillar of the community picture you’re painting, for local families it’s noise drug use and antisocial behaviour from people who make little financial investment in the upkeep of the area.

    You’re right, there does need to be more access to legal sites, the current provision is tantamount to ethnic cleansing, as the legal definition of gypsy will now mandate that individuals must move in a certain amount of time to be included in that definition and receive support- but there’s no sites to move to. Nowhere to move to, no move, no longer covered under legal definition, ergo, no gypsies, no support provision required, problem solved! There wasn’t always a call for legal sites though- many moons ago there were these idyllic places you could live without harassment; they were called sites and to be fair, they were a lot easier to access for Romani communities before dreadlock squad moved in.


    • Hi, thanks for your comment. Sorry to hear you’ve had negative experiences of people who live in vehicles. I wanted to focus this piece on the discrimination we receive. I’ve never had a problem with noisy/messy van neighbours, but some have faced discrimination.
      I’m sure some vehicle-dwellers are loud/ take drugs – the same as some people who live in houses! If some of these people didn’t have vans they may well be doing the same thing on the street.

      I agree completely there should be more provision of sites.


      • I know this is an old post, but I still will say something.

        I live in a motorhome, full-time off-grid, I,m no fixed abode, no family or friends and am now unable to insure the van. I have been told today to let the van go, and go homeless. I do not wish to live in a house or flat or give up my home for that matter.

        I have no idea how anyone insures their vans if they live in them full time. The insurance company states, that you have to be registered at an address, be it, family or friends.

  • As long as they are not blocking entrances or piling up rubbish on the street, I cannot see a problem. It really pisses me of when people attack others who they deem “different”; it is pure ignorance and moronic behaviour. Live and let Live.


  • No problem with it really, actually a bit jealous, but wouldn’t be keen on it outside my own home if it involved visitors to the van making noise and anti social toilet behaviour.


  • This is truly upsetting, I know loads of people in vans and have always wanted a converted van.
    I admire the beauty in the clever designed, space saving conversion techniques used. I can’t believe that this occurs, that in this country people would attack people for their choices. Then I realise that sadly I am being naive and of course horrible people would do this. Best of luck and thank you for this article


    • So Bristol City Council is so hard up it can’t put money into parks. The money is going to residual services like childcare, community care, emptying bins, keeping street lights working. A van dweller, who pays nothing towards these dwindling resources, pulls up at the best spot next to a park he pays nothing to maintain, and wonders why people might just be a little irked….


  • Recently parked up at St George’s park in Bristol. Within two minutes of putting on my handbrake I had neighbours knocking on the door asking how long we’re planning to stay. After reassuring them we were visiting friends round the corner, they asked us to park elsewhere. So we asked why, we invited them in for a cuppa and got chatting. It soon became apparent that previous van dwellers in the area had been extremely rude to local residents, left rubbish, & were going to the toilet in all manners wherever they pleased (including near kids playground). We reassured them- we hadn’t parked in front of houses, we dispose of our rubbish, we have our own bathroom. When you turn up to this preset prejudice based on your own communities actions you can understand why there is animosity. However that cuppa tea and chat helped, and the other five neighbourly ‘enquiries’ when we enter or left the van over that weekend were all treated in the same manner… with kindness and compassion to help the understanding that we aren’t all the inconsiderate idiots who give us a bad name.


  • Ethnic cleansing by economic means, whether in housing, or travelling, is a fact. wake up people, our commons sensibility is being actively eroded to the private gain of a minority of people, justified by flawed and incomplete ‘economic’ theory.


  • Best thing about vehicle dwelling is being able to move, 12 yrs on the road and if i need to park up in urban areas i dont do it in residential, “travellers” in Bristol never go anywhere, except maybe Boomtown. Why park in shithole streets (sorry Bristol but youre a dump, Your the only city I’ve visited on the planet where someone has tried to mug me.) when theres so much beauty 15 minutes up the road?


    • Agreed always tried to park in non residential areas if i could, parking in places like werbs isn’t really conducive to subtlety is it? Am in a house at moment but would happily head back to wheels should the need arise…
      And bizarrely Bristol only place in the world I’ve been mugged too….twice! Hospitalised with facial fractures once


  • i have lived in a van on and off for years and never really had any problems, in Bristol and out, maybe i’m lucky, i park in nice enough areas with green space near if possible. the negative experiences in this article are to do with tents, of course i have no problem with tents and what happened is horrible but i don’t think those incidents you describe are akin a n odd hekel at a van?? other than the st adrews slashing incidents i have had only good things often i will wake up pop my head out my window from my bed sayy hello to a passing pedestrian and get a great reaction. its too easy. if your nice people are nice. if they arent you have the good fortune of being able to move…… being in a van and all you can choose your perfect location! tough life x


  • Like most of us in van when u lose your council flat cause job close down for school holiday there no benefit so flat went bk on road a year now around bristol we park up for a night gone by morning lots of us work but as we r know as no fix abode there no help out there we pay taxes for what home is we’re u park it


  • You want them to move so you slash there tyres?


  • Hi anyone know of instance companies that will insure van as live in vehicle. Have found so far cannot do it. Have said to them I will live in van – no address they said where mostly I said mostly England. Gave them a postal address, long standing phone number, email, was paying bill outright. Would not/ could not insure me… Did some research and found unable to due to legislation. In end got someone else to insure me as was infuriating me. I.e they told them what they wanted to hear rather than the truth – company will no doubt honour it. Like last one said when asked for full refund on my car on basis they saie should have never insured me. Anyone know where can get insurance on basis for that van is my home and company happy to accept this?


  • You’ll ideally need a decent CO address, a mate uses ours. But family address was one i always used…telling them it’s going to be home will near always scupper insurance…too much risk.
    Adrian Flux were ok but bloody expensive


  • I live in an old but respectable motorhome – but it could easily be a van. The problem is that vehicles are supposed to move. If you park one up in the same place for more than a few days, then residents tend to get a bit angsty. You can’t blame them for thinking that undesirables have moved into the neighbourhood – it’s wrong to think that of course, but hey, since when did we live in a country free of prejudice?

    The trick is to keep moving. I never stay in one place longer than a few days and I never have a problem. In 10 years I can count the number of problems on the fingers of one hand. I couldn’t sleep at night if I knew that neighbours were resenting my presence. A van that moves is a van. One that doesn’t is inevitable going to attract attention.

    I just don’t think it is appropriate to just park a van anywhere and expect the locals to lump it. If you need to stay in one place, then you should do a deal with someone to park on their land. Or just keep moving. I regularly re-appear at many locations, and am either friends or on nodding terms with loads of folk. They don’t bother when they know you will be moving.

    Rural situations are much easier than urban. There are just more people in towns and cities, so statistically there is likely to me more idiots and more negativity. But moving around really does keep this to a minimum.

    You also have to be honest about the cultural and historical connotations – they exist whether you like it or not. The UK, like most other countries in Europe has a Roma population, often referred to as gypsies. Their sites and vehicles are a common sight around the country. Their culture is featured on TV. There are occasional high profile stories in the media about their occasional confrontations with authority. Then we have “hippies”. Most people over 40, especially homeowners, will remember the scenes from the Thatcher years where so called new age travellers were involved in clashes with the government, as they clamped down on rave and festival culture.

    Both these images are etched on the collective consciousness of the population, so you only have to look and act remotely like them, regardless of reality, and you will be tarred with the same brush.

    So I believe that successful van living needs to be tweaked so that you don’t quite fit these stereotypes, and if you get it right, then everybody is happy. And be careful what you wish for when it comes to demanding legal rights and sites and facilities. If successful, then the next logical step is to be legally obligated to use them, and prevented from parking anywhere else. Sliding gracefully under the radar is the way to go with life on wheels. Activism and the demanding of rights and recognition is not necessarily a good thing.


  • Hello from a fellow Van Dweller.

    I’m disgusted at teh treatment ‘New Travellers’ recieve from mainstream society and the authorities. Having been battling for weeks with Cornwall Council, I have decided to start a new Project in Cornwall.

    The council has been told they need to create a site spicifically for new travellers in the County but have no plas yet to do so.

    The Cornwall New Travellers Project is in the early stages of forming a legally constituted group to address the issue. Our aim is to apply for funding to turn an already authorised site into a resource/support/site for new travellers.

    We need to reach people in the southwest who have suffered any form of discrimination. Please, if you feel you can share your experiences, get in touch via our site at

    Thank you.


  • Providing sites for van dwellers would encounter the same issues as providing sites for travellers. The sites would have to be in areas with reasonable access to schools and other amenities to comply with legislation. You’ll soon find a legal challenge being made against the Local Authority if the sites don’t measure up. Finding land for such sites would be in direct competition with housing development and homes for families.
    This explains why the City Council don’t take action to move the street dwellers on. They can’t or won’t provide sites fro them.


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