Photos: Hannah Vickers and Feed The Homeless Bristol
I meet Darren outside the Aldi in St George. He’s sat quietly with a hat in front of him and his dog, Charlie, lying at his side. He’s had less income from begging since people started going out less because of coronavirus. He says the city centre is so quiet, it’s like Christmas Day.
“I went into town yesterday and I didn’t even make the bus fare home. So I’m hungry, Charlie’s hungry. We’re trying to do the best we can at the moment, but it’s dead. It’s eerie, it’s midday.”
This was Monday afternoon, a few hours before Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown, so it’s likely that it’s even quieter now. Shortly after I’d spoken to Darren, Bristol City Council announced plans to acquire 450 rooms to house Bristol’s rough sleepers and homeless, so they could self-isolate. As of the evening of Thurday 25th March, the council have secured almost 150 rooms and are negotiating another 100 currently, said Paul Smith, cabinet member for housing. The council estimate they will need 450-600 rooms in the event that people become sick in homeless hostels. They are in discussion with national hotel chains as well as many smaller, independent hotels, B&Bs and AirBnB providers. The council has also promised to ensure people’s food and support needs are met.
Bristol’s Mayor Marvin Rees said: “We know how difficult it is for homeless people at the best of times, but if people are rough sleeping it is very hard to self-isolate. This is really worrying, and all of us need to pull together to protect the many vulnerable people in the city.”
Bristol homelessness charities say that rooms are desperately needed, because, while the rest of the city goes indoors, people sleeping on the street don’t have that option. In fact, they’ve seen their options dwindle. Big Issue vendors have lost their customers and many street homeless, like Darren, are struggling to beg enough to eat.
“The people reliant on begging have had all of that taken away from them because obviously no one’s about,” says Shada Nasrullah, trustee of Feed The Homeless Bristol.
“Before, they might have got a sandwich or a drink or some money or whatever from passers-by in town, that was a steady source of meals from them, that’s been taken away, and now these people are even more dependent than ever on charities that provide their food.”
Bristol charity Caring in Bristol has made a Covid-19 mutual aid facebook group. They have expanded their night shelter to allow guests using the shelter to sleep more spaced out from each other and are providing cooked breakfast and dinner, and showers and clothes washing facilities.
However, several charities have had to reduce their services, and some have had to cease operations entirely. Spring of Hope and Julian Trust night shelters and some drop-in projects are temporarily closed, and since public toilets and libraries across the city are closed, following government handwashing guidelines is difficult. And accessing health services, more vital than ever now, is harder. The Homeless Health Service, which provides drop-in clinics at the Compass Centre and a wet clinic (a clinic patients don’t have to be sober at) has switched to phone appointments.
Darren has epilepsy, which makes travelling into the centre difficult. He says he’s had fits twice when walking into the centre. “I was in hospital for a week, so I’m really cautious about walking too far.” Most of the services are in the centre, so his options are limited. “I don’t ask people [for change], I just sit here, and it’s so degrading. I’m really hungry, really thirsty, really tired.”
Other services are running a much-reduced provision, and volunteer numbers go up and down unpredictably because of the need to self-isolate. Help Bristol Homeless is still housing people but have stopped accepting new referrals and have stopped providing showers and meals. “Where are they supposed to eat? Nowhere to stay, less food on the streets, nowhere to shower, cops all these places are shut, and nowhere safe to lay their heads at night. It’s a difficult situation,” says Jasper Thompson from Help Bristol Homeless, who has been critical of the council’s lack of interest in the charity’s single units.
“Charities have had to make different, very difficult, decisions,” says Nasrullah. Feed The Homeless Bristol has managed to keep going, though they’ve changed the walk-around to a fixed distribution point in Champion Square, with volunteers wearing masks and gloves, handing out hand sanitiser and using buckets bought from B&Q to space people in the queue.
“It takes more volunteers, which is a concern because our volunteer numbers are going up and down,” says Nasrullah. They’ve also expanded their provision from food distribution to booking people into hostel rooms, but it’s expensive, as they need to book an entire room instead of a dorm.
Joined-up working and community support
“We’re trying to coordinate as best we can,” says Nasrullah. Several projects met up at the beginning of last week to work out how they could work together in a more coordinated way, pooling resources, and sharing information about working practices and strategies as they change.
Community support has flooded in, she says. Some restaurants that have had to close have donated their stock and one caterer, Early Years Catering, which supplies food to nurseries, has gone a step further. The nurseries they cook for are still contractually obliged to pay for the food, and so the catering company is cooking for Feed The Homeless Bristol, which frees up the charity’s volunteer cooks to cook for one of the shelters.
The charity is also handing out hygiene packs, with wipes, pocket tissues, soap and hand sanitiser, but getting hand sanitiser is, of course, difficult, with sales restricted to one or two per customer – and no exceptions made for charities.
“When you’ve got 90 people in a queue waiting for food, it doesn’t go very far. I’m trying to reach out to some of the businesses to see if I can do it that way instead,” says Nasrullah.
Darren is luckier than some. After a 4 week wait, his universal credit claim- which has seen a huge surge in demand – is finally coming through this Thursday, and because of his epilepsy he’s been moved up the list for housing priority and is expecting to be able to move in somewhere next week. “I could have been in a hostel but they wouldn’t take Charlie and I’d never leave my dog. It’s not been nice”.
“I do think the government should have provisions for homeless though, for situations like this. ‘Cos a lot of people don’t have access to food and if you’re in town and all the shops are shut you don’t get any food.”