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A van dweller argues that community and council engagement could find solutions that suit Bristol’s diversity and tolerance.

The issue of van dwellers’ presence on the streets of Bristol has hit the headlines, both locally and nationally, over the last fortnight. Pressure is building on the council to implement solutions that will appease both house residents and van dwellers – but what could those solutions look like?

Following a community meeting in Greenbank two weeks ago, attended by Easton residents and some of the van dwellers who are currently living on the road next to the cemetery, many of the problems for both van dwellers and local residents came to light. On Monday 2nd, local councillors met to discuss vans and caravans in Ashley Ward. They read out an open letter from a group of van dwellers outlining their ideas.

The van-dwelling population in Bristol is a growing one. Though van-dwellers have their different needs and motivations for living this way, low wages and high rental prices are common factors. The housing crisis is becoming increasingly visible in Bristol with many tents around the city centre and live-in vehicles – including my own – dotted around Easton, St. Werburghs and elsewhere.

Common concerns of residents include van-dwellers’ access to and use of facilities and worries about anti-social behaviour.

Addressing concerns

Common concerns of residents include van dwellers’ access to and use of facilities and worries about anti-social behaviour. While van dwellers (and many local residents) would surely appreciate more public toilets, taps and bins, some residents worry that such council provision would attract unsustainable numbers of van dwellers to the streets. Others feel that providing toilets is a basic necessity to maintain hygienic conditions in the city. However, many van dwellers are quite self-sufficient and have compost loos and showers in their vans or else use amenities at friends’ and families’ houses.

The vast majority of van dwellers are respectful and conscientious members of their local communities, though the odd story of public defecation inevitably arises and gets linked with those parked up on the streets. Van dwellers are not a homogenous group. Some more vulnerable people who suffer with mental health problems or addictions find refuge in vans or caravans and others hold down full-time employment alongside a van-dwelling lifestyle.

Another issue is that of ‘overcrowding’ of live-in vehicles in certain locations, such as Greenbank cemetery. Van dwellers often park up together to feel secure. As reported previously, discrimination against van and caravan dwellers is not uncommon. It was pointed out at the meeting in Greenbank that “a caravan has recently been burnt out under the M32”, and many caravans have their windows smashed. It is much safer to be in a group when parked up on the street.

Rather than being provided for by the council they could actively provide the council a money-saving service.

Seeking long-term solutions

Some vehicle dwellers’ need for basic security and residents’ concerns about overcrowding of vans and caravans on a few of Bristol’s streets are now being discussed by the council.

One possible solution is the use of council-owned land for van dwellers to live on. Currently many sites around the city are left dormant, sometimes for years, before they are developed. While some van dwellers like being able to move around regularly for work or personal reasons, others would much prefer the privacy and safety that small and temporary plots of land would provide.

Laws and bureaucracy around live-in vehicles on sites can be complicated. An idea put forward by a few van dwellers in their open letter is that the council could hire them as non-profit live-in security. Currently Bristol City Council use taxpayers’ money on security for empty sites. Instead they could save money by allowing van dwellers to live on and secure these sites for free. Rather than being provided for by the council they could actively provide the council a money-saving service. If van dwellers were on a secure self-managed site rather than the street they could rent their own toilets and bin facilities. A second idea is that the council make it legal for owners of industrial sites to rent to van dwellers who could make use of empty sites.

Until the council provide affordable housing it is likely more and more people will resort to living in vehicles, caravans, tents or rough-sleeping. If the council fail to provide adequate sites for van dwellers it is likely more council money will be spent evicting them from empty sites and even more on sites’ security. Hopefully the engagement between van-dwellers, local residents and the council will facilitate long-term solutions to the issue characteristic of Bristol’s diversity, tolerance and creativity.

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  • Abel says:

    I’m an ex van dweller and now live in a house.

    I have high tolerance especially as I know how hard it is to live on the side of the road, most people who live like that really want to live on the road side and would rather be on a secure site with some amenities like water and toilets. I’ve written to Marvin and the council on several occasions suggesting that rather than moving people on they provide an alternative as is suggested in this article, I’ve never had a reply.

    Sadly the people living in caravans near my home have sometimes given a bad name to people who live like this and have made local people feel more hostile towards the people living in vehicles. For a few years we’ve had defecation in bags left on the street, needles, condoms, rubbish, public nuisance, theft from vehicles and recently my car was burned out by a caravan fire. This was potentially a drug user with mental health issues who accidentally caught fire to his caravan or possibly a disgruntled local who took the law into their own hands (there have been a few mysterious caravan fires locally over the last few years).

    I guess what I’m saying is that some people bring the cause of the responsible van dwellers into ill repute and its hard for people to identify who are the ones to support and who are the ones to oppose. So there needs to be understanding on both sides. I used to go to community meetings when I lived in a vehicle and get involved in the local neighbourhood so that people could get to know me and understand I was just like them but just lived in a slightly different way. This helps break down the barriers and enhances understanding. I want to support this way of living especially now it’s so expensive to live in Bristol, for young people who are starting out and for most people who are from here can’t afford to rent or buy in some areas.

    The Council should be supporting this cheaper, lower impact way of life and also should be supporting the people who have drug and or mental health issues too especially those who are vulnerable in vehicles (or otherwise) with little or no help. Surely its cheaper to support people through these problems rather than deal with the aftermath when they have gone so far down the road that something extreme happens. The caravan that burned had been moved on by neighbours complaining at their previous park up around the corner and the police had been called several times resulting in him moving a few streets away. This is not treating the problem, it’s just moving it around the corner, If there had been help for the guy then my car would never have been burned out resulting in fire brigade attendance, police and an insurance claim. If the guy had been helped none of that would have been necessary thus saving community (and my own) money and time.

    There are lots of issues here but mainly that there are lots of sites around Bristol that are awaiting development – the council should be using them to create places for people to live rather than evicting people who actually can be an asset to an area if given a chance. The sites that I have been involved in have had good relations with neighbours, police, lowering crime rates, tidy sites, creative communities which enhance an area and we left sites cleaner than how we found them. If people who live on the road band together and approach the council and developers with a coherent plan/structure then it would give credibility to their cause. That’s how we made it work. Show that you can manage a site respectfully and well as a collective. Forge strong groups that can communicate and come up with the goods.

    Its possible for this model to work well with effort on both sides, communication, understanding and a little bit of investment from the council would save police time wasted moving people on to the next street allowing an understaffed police force to concentrate on the important issues in Bristol and making our streets safer.

  • monica says:

    I have a lot of empathy for van life, and don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing – van’s give you freedom from mortgages and ridiculas rent prices, not to mention some freedom to move around and why shouldn’t people have alterative living situations? however, what er concerns? me is it’s very very very unlikely that BCC will do anything to help the van dwellers.
    It’s a bit late in the day, but people have to access what’s going on – undernether the progressive veneer BCC have a different idea of what they want from the city, they are quite happy to play into the ‘cool’ image of the city, where it suits them finically but they have to bid on investment from central government and do deals with multinational corporations – those billion pound arms companies up at the uni. Higher rents are a good thing according to councils, they can rake in the highest council tax bands and make more per household than lower rate or affordable rates/or those in ‘social housing’ – it makes the area look ‘desirable’, the more ‘desirable’ the higher the house prices, people who are in the property market, those looking to sell their house as an asset want to get the highest price going and one strong factor is the surrounding area and how ‘desirable’ it is. by and large the council view van dwellers as ‘undesirable’ and wont do too much to protect them or enhance their quality of life.
    I’m thoroughly disappointed that people are looking to the councils for solutions, rent strikes and collective action is the only way to go.

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