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.
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.
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.