Photos: Simon Able and Andreas Nicolaou
Clarification: Andreas is currently living on the Hengrove site and provides an insiders’ perspective.
“Stay at home!” is the message. “Wash your hands!” is the chant. But what if your home is a box van without running water?
In an unprecedented move, Bristol council has teamed up during lockdown with a new advocacy group, Vehicles for Change (VfC) to create two temporary sites for Bristol’s travelling populations.
The sites, offering 25 pitches each in Hengrove and Sea Mills, have offered space for people to physically distance, and access to vital facilities. “At a time of crisis, it’s important that we don’t leave pockets of communities behind,” said Paul Smith, Bristol’s councillor with responsibility for housing, when the facilities were announced.
After a period of friction, the council’s move has shown the value of authorities being willing to sit down with ‘GRT+’ communities – a term coined to capture the myriad identities of people who make up travelling communities – to map out progressive plans.
Rhiannon Craft, for one, has some clear ideas. “I personally feel a combination of negotiated stopping, access to land to set up more authorised sites run by vehicle-dwelling communities themselves, and less enforcement, would be the way forward,” she says.
Protecting and advancing vehicle-dwellers’ rights
For Rhiannon Craft, one of VfC’s co-directors, the past few months have been a rollercoaster. It all started with the council’s new Policy for Vehicle Dwelling Encampments and Rhiannon’s petition against it in October 2019.
“I met some other vehicle-dwellers at the [council’s] cabinet meeting who had seen the petition, and wanted to come and support me present it,” she says. After two meetings, the group formed a community interest company (CIC) – on 26 February, just weeks before lockdown began.
VfC was set up, as a statement on its website says, to “protect and advance the rights of vehicle-dwellers in the Bristol area to live freely and creatively, while connecting with our wider communities to encourage acceptance and understanding of each other”. The group has, for example, launched an innovative platform for vehicle-dwellers to make charitable donations in lieu of council tax contributions, throwing down a challenge to the ‘freeloader’ label that is too often stuck on them.
Thrown like so many organisations into crisis mode by Covid-19, one community member created an interactive map (now an app) to provide information and for members of the public to offer resources during the pandemic, such as a drive to park on or a tap. At the same time VfC was pushing for the council to suspend enforcement action against vehicle-dwellers, which it agreed to, and which led – at a pace that would have seemed unbelievable during normal times, to the two temporary sites being offered.
It was apparent from consultation with the vehicle-dwelling community – conducted both in person and via social media and video calls – that while some people were managing to self-isolate or were confident they could manage, others urgently needed access to facilities.
VfC worked with the council and community to develop site rules, including ensuring vehicles were given enough space to allow people to step outside without breaching distancing guidelines. The council also enabled VfC to act, via its website and emergency contact number, as the point of contact for people who needed to get a pitch. Few members of VfC would have believed, if you’d have asked them earlier in the year, that the new community-led organisation would have been co-managing two sites by spring.
‘As many types of vehicle-dwellers as house-dwellers’
“There are as many types of vehicle-dweller as there are types of house-dweller,” points out Duncan, Andreas’ neighbour on the new Hengrove temporary site. Some who live in vehicles belong to recognised ethnic minorities and are continuing centuries-old traditions, while others are part of communities that have emerged in the last half-century (see box).
Today, people continue to move from houses into vehicles for a range of reasons. Some are escaping extortionate rental prices, homelessness and other impossible situations while others choose the lifestyle for its freedom and sense of community.
On the new sites, occupants unsurprisingly come from a range of backgrounds and have a broad array of stories to tell.
Sam, an occupant of the Sea Mills site, points out that many people living in vans are working professionals. “Being an NHS key worker, I want to be part of a safe community with the essentials: being able to shower and have access to water,” Sam says. “The council has been amazing, caring and acted in such a fast response. It’s helped to truly build a rapport and show them our way of life.”
Sam’s neighbour, Arran, describes how the sites helped keep him in work. “Being born in a horse-drawn wagon and living in vehicles throughout my life, finding amenities hasn’t always been easy – but as gyms and other facilities closed in response to the pandemic, it became harder to find facilities. This meant facing [having to leave] my job as a key worker for fear of not being able to effectively quarantine myself.”
Others have seen their work disappear entirely. Rachel is a marine biologist and conservationist, while Joe is a ski patroller. They came to the Hengrove site after being laid off from jobs abroad and getting stuck in limbo while trying to get home. “We cannot overstate how grateful we are to be able to self-isolate safely away from more vulnerable people,” says Joe. “Normally we’re reliant on friends around the city for facilities but this is not currently appropriate.”
Sasha, a hairdresser, also watched her income disappear. “It has prevented me from being homeless and kept me safe during this pandemic,” she says. “[It’s] all very positive for my physical and mental health.”
Other residents, such as Simon and Georgie, are performance artists who would usually be touring the outdoor arts circuit at this time of year. From travelling circuses to music festivals, the entire live entertainment industry has been decimated, with Bristol disproportionately involved in these sectors.
“The site has given me stability, a safe place, especially important during this time,” Georgie tells us. “The council’s and VfC’s work here is wonderful… and without prejudice.”
A history of mistrust
Evidently the new sites, put in place during unprecedented circumstances, have been a success. But setting such places up officially is an uphill struggle – and can face opposition from many different angles.
Naomi tells her story with infectious passion. Homeless at the age of 14, she was taken in by New Travellers. Coincidentally, we interviewed her on the 35th anniversary of the notorious ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ – at which police assaulted unarmed travellers, destroying vehicles and killing pets, and which Naomi only missed by coincidence, while many of her community suffered.
With the end result being one of the biggest mass-arrests of civilians in this country since the Second World War, it is easy to understand why many in the New Traveller community have reservations about cooperating with the authorities when it comes to living arrangements. Naomi has stayed off the new sites because of this mistrust – which is shared by many vehicle-dwellers, whose main contact with the council is likely to come via enforcement action.
“Once they have you all in one place, you don’t know what they will do,” Naomi says. “They could be forcing you into high-rise blocks before you know it. Better to stay out and stay free.”
But if many of the GRT+ community do not trust the council, it is also fair to say that huge sections of the general public trust us even less.
There isn’t room here to expand on the varied experiences of Gypsy, Roma, Traveller and other vehicle-dwelling people. But while their histories are contrasting, the views of certain members of the public tend to stir these rich heritages into an ill-defined and hateful soup.
Typing the word ‘traveller’ into Bristol Live’s search bar, was quite an experience for us. Scroll down and you’ll soon find inflammatory headlines such as “Travellers leave trail of mess – including human excrement – in village lay-by”. But it was the comments at the bottom of these articles that really shocked us.
“The disgusting filthy scum do not observe the rules and norms of society therefore there is no place for them in society” said ‘Bemmieboii’ in one post.
Elsewhere, ‘BristolBabber’ chipped in. “Fact is, you trash everywhere you stay, ruin the lives of those unfortunate enough to be around you, and generally couldn’t give a toss about anything other than your “roights”.”
While online articles themselves tend to stay on the right side of the line that the author can’t be prosecuted for hate speech, some of them certainly seem as if they create a platform for it.
It’s not just online that such attitudes surface either. Council officials visiting the new temporary sites have reported previously receiving letters from house-dwellers that range from mildly hateful to outright racism and threats. And more recently, the facebook group Friends of Eastville Park had to remove posts about an unauthorised encampment that moved onto the park at the start of July, because of racist and derogatory comments.
Arguably, perception biases also spill over into the official site rules, which include: no outdoor fires, no burning car tyres and no burning car bodies. But it’s worth noting that council officials, in conversation with Andreas, have expressed that creating the new temporary sites has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.
Looking to the future
A pessimist could say this has been a brief moment of cooperation forged by a pandemic – and one which faces an uncertain future, given that the new sites are likely to be returned to their former uses at some point.
But optimists can argue that in this time of crisis, the GRT+ communities and council have reached out to each other to lay the foundation for a new relationship, based on mutual trust and understanding, which might otherwise have taken years to build.
What we certainly have witnessed is a moment where all parties momentarily set aside their agendas to focus on solutions – a testament to grassroots organising. An unfunded, self-organising GRT+ group negotiated suitable treatment from the authorities, bucking national trends of neglect.
We also have evidence that there are people within the council with a genuine will to create progressive solutions. Site residents have built up a relationship with BCC’s GRT liaison and clean streets officers over the past few months, and there is a strong feeling that they genuinely care about the community’s wellbeing.
So if Bristol really is home to some of the most politically organised GRT+ communities and progressive liaison officers, what might future solutions look like?