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Posted by on Dec 9, 2016 in Articles | 0 comments

Rough sleeping in Bristol: businesses respond to Mayor’s “Big Ask”

Rough sleeping in Bristol: businesses respond to Mayor’s “Big Ask”

Bristol may not be Britain’s biggest regional city, but it has the biggest problem of rough sleeping on its streets outside London – with just short of 100 people currently taking shelter each night exposed to the elements.

30 years ago the West of England Initiative galvanised the business community to take action on rough sleeping and sadly we find ourselves facing the same issues. This time we have come together with a number of partners through the concept of a “City Office” to combine energy and resources to help make a real difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Why Bristol? According to Aileen Edwards, Chief Executive of the regionally-based charity Second Step, it’s a toxic combination of inadequate affordable housing provision, the sky-high rents that go along with that, and the fact that we are a regional capital – drawing young people from towns and villages from across the West.

Second Step focuses on helping people with mental health problems, and often a large part of that is getting them a secure roof over their head.

When a person’s life starts to spin out of control – through a relationship breakdown, losing a job, financial problems, drug or substance abuse or mental health issues – it’s all too easy to find yourself unable to find accommodation. After a while you run out of friends’ sofas to sleep on.

No address, no clean clothes, no prospect of a job to pull you out of the downward spiral in which you find yourself.

This isn’t a new problem for Bristol, and the city has ploughed resources into trying to sort it out in the past. But it keeps returning. In Aileen Edwards’ words, “It has become normalised. We see it so often that we stop seeing it as unusual.”

A long-term solution

But now a potent combination of organisations in the city has come together to try and eradicate it once and for all. And the business community is being asked to play its part in making it happen.

Over the next 100 days, City Office aims to create 100 additional bed spaces in Bristol. In Marvin Rees’ words: “No one who is willing to accept help should need to sleep rough”.

He pitched his message to the business community at the West of England Initiative meeting on Thursday 8 December in an interview filmed before he went off to represent Bristol at an event in China. As he emphasised, “We have the power to make this happen.”

Making this a long-term solution, of course, is more complicated than just finding 100 bed spaces. Those sleeping rough often have seemingly intractable problems such as poor mental health, addictions, poor skills or little work experience.  Breaking the cycle and ensuring that – once off the streets – homeless people don’t go straight back there requires multi-agency support and co-ordination.

At the Initiative meeting, a host of organisations involved in the project were there to lobby business leaders, explaining that – if they played their part – the “jigsaw” of co-ordinated support would be complete.

What can businesses do?

So what does the Mayor want from business? City Office has set out its three-pronged appeal to local leaders. It wants to hear from businesses willing to provide:

  1. Empty buildings in the city which could be converted into temporary accommodation
  2. Pro bono support to help convert those buildings into habitable premises
  3. “Top up” rent donations to enable those capable of going into independent accommodation to do so.

But, says Carrie Pooler, one of many people in the city giving voluntary time to the City Office: making this a permanent change requires support from businesses in other ways too. “We also need to help those further up the chain who have moved off the streets into temporary accommodation. We’re asking for companies to ‘buddy’ people who are ready to make the next step.

“If they feel they can employ them, that’s great. But even taking them on board to provide skills training or mentoring would give them back their confidence.”

Tackling the housing shortage

Of course Bristol will always have an issue around homelessness as long as the city suffers from a chronic lack of affordable housing. Here too businesses could be playing an active role.

Onna Goldsworthy is Chief Executive of United Communities, a housing association currently providing homes for around 2,000 people in Bristol. As she says: “We’ve got £60 million that we’d love to spend here in Bristol on building new homes. But unless we can find more land opportunities, we will be taking that money elsewhere.

“I would ask any business that has a parcel of land it is not using and would like to capitalise upon to speak to us. We can help with the planning and give them a good return on their asset – which could then be reinvested back into the business.

“Our target is to build 500 new homes in Bristol over the next five years.”

Just how bad is the housing shortage in Bristol? As Oona recounts: “We recently advertised a one bedroom apartment in Filton Avenue – and received 750 applications. It’s that bad. If we supply more housing, those in temporary accommodation can move up the ladder – and enable those living rough to move into the temporary housing.”

Rough sleeping, despite its name, is not an “overnight problem”.  And it won’t be going away any time soon. But other cities have dealt with it… and so must we.

If your business can offer support, please visit

Karl’s story

Until a few years ago, Karl Cullen was one of those you might have found huddled up in a Bristol doorway on a freezing winter night.

He was brought up in care, with few employable skills and a drug habit. Until he was 35, his life was spent moving in and out of prison. Indeed, he says, going to prison was often a welcome relief from his life outside. “It gave me time to get my body back together, put some weight on, get off the drugs.

“But prison just teaches you to be a better criminal. And as soon as I came out, I’d be back in the same cycle – doing drugs, committing crime to pay for the drugs, sleeping rough… In the end I committed an armed robbery. Looking back it was a very extreme cry for help. I wanted to get caught and go back inside.”

But that last stretch of six years proved the turning point for Karl.

“I thought to myself ‘I can’t go on like this. I’ll be dead in a few years’. I saw this time as an opportunity to try and get my life into some sort of order. I researched what help was available on the outside. I learned some practical skills, improved my education. I made some positive connections on the outside.”

One of those positive connections happened to be in Bristol, not far from Devon where he had been living, but far enough to help him make a fresh start away from the circles in which he had been moving.

“I went to speak to the support agency on home leaves, and when I came out they collected me from prison – which is really important. With their help I stayed off the drugs and got into temporary accommodation where I could start building a life.”

The experience of everyone attempting to make that leap into “normality” is to need a role where you can feel as if your day has purpose – something to get up for in the morning, a reason to stay off the drugs or drink.

“I’m now using my life skills and experience,” he says, “helping to mentor and advise people who are in the same place where I was a few years ago. Because I’ve been there, and managed to get out of it, they listen to what I have to say. It’s really rewarding.

“I’ve never looked beyond ‘today’,” he says. “And I’m still living one day at a time. But I now have a direction in life. And that direction is going forward, not backwards.”

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