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Soapbox Stories: Help Bristol's Homeless

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“We believe that having a home is not an entitlement, it is a right. Everybody should have the opportunity to live in a place they can call their own", says the mission statement on the Help Bristol’s Homeless (HBH) website.

Soapbox visited the HBH ‘site’ where founder Jasper Thompson initiated a project to convert disused shipping containers into high standard ‘micro-flats’ for local homeless people.

Here’s their story, in their own words.

Jasper, Help Bristol’s Homeless founder.

I started this project in 2017. I wanted to help some of the guys who I saw on the streets. I would always ask, “what can I do to help?” everyone would always respond saying that they need somewhere to live, a roof over their heads. But at that point, I didn’t think I was able to do that, all I ever did at that point was outreach like providing sleeping bags and other essentials that the guys need, just the regular stuff. Then, one day, I put an appeal out for a hub, somewhere to base myself. So, I found myself here, on my friend’s land which he let me use as a temporary site, which I put a caravan on. It was a 38ft caravan which was donated. We had four guys living in it, but it was also our office. We did everything from there, the project you see here developed from that point.

One day, I just decided to convert a shipping container. Luckily, one of the homeless guys who was on site in the caravan said he knew a little bit about construction. So between him and a builder, we converted the first 20ft shipping container into living accomodation, so it’s gone from there, and snowballed. We’re well on the way to having about 15 converted containers now, and we only started in March last year. That’s 15 new homes for individuals who can stay up to 12 months. Then, hopefully within those 12 months, we should be able to help find them somewhere to live and to get work. We’ve had lots of success stories, we’ve done quite a bit in a relatively short space of time.

The containers are not one size fits all. They might not work for some people, but for some it will. It’s a project that I’d like to see pushed out all over the country, not by us, but by towns and cities. For instance, Wrexham has just been given the green light to make shipping container homes for homeless people during the winter months; and in Somerset they’ve started doing some as well. Not only can I see the vision, but they can too, they can see that this is a great fit for someone who’s homeless.

I consider positively changing people's lives a win. Seeing someone come on site with just one plastic bag, then they start building up possessions, re-engaging with housing benefits, maybe then starting to feel the confidence to start looking for work. The great thing about this site is that people who come and live here need to engage with the work that we’re doing. It gives them a sense of purpose, where they have had no structure.

Nick was homeless in Bristol, stuck in a “vicious circle”. He now lives in one of the converted shipping containers, which he has made his home. Here he speaks about his goals for his future.

I call this place home. I’ve been here for five months now. When I got here I was a little bit dubious and anxious, because I’m not a builder, plumber, tradesperson or electrician, but I quite quickly settled down once I met the guys. The volunteers who donate their time and skills were more than patient and happy to show me the ropes. I’ve learnt loads - I never did any DIY before I got here. My old friends wouldn’t believe what I get up to now! It’s been quite a… I hate the word journey... but that’s the best word for it, it’s been a journey.

I became homeless at a point when lots of things went wrong at the same time. My marriage, employment, and where I was staying. I wasn’t prepared for the eventualities of needing to find accommodation - things like deposits, having a good credit rating, and references from previous landlords. When you haven't got those things, you end up with not having anywhere to live or to get your head down for the night, and that just continues. If you haven't got a postcode or an address, trying to get things like references or anything else becomes even more difficult, it’s a vicious circle. So, you do ask for help. I was referred to Jasper at HBH, and here I am now. Things are now moving in the right direction.

The project has given me a base to move forwards. When you’re in a position where you feel that you are living from day to day, you don’t think about your future. You don’t feel that you’ve got a future. It’s a stepping stone to moving forwards independently. It’s encouraging to get to where you want to be, not where someone else wants you to be.

Rob has found himself without a home and living on the streets of Bristol twice in the last five years. Six months ago he moved into one of the community container homes at the Help Bristol’s Homeless site.

The homelessness came out of the blue. I’d never found myself without a home before, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It was very scary, because I was mentally completely unprepared for it. But you learn very quickly, because the human spirit is like that. Then, I found myself some accommodation and thought I was set for life, but I got stuck in a benefits trap. It really is a trap, and in the end my only option was to walk away from everything, and I found myself on the street again. It was easier this time as I was more prepared physically and mentally. But I was also five years older, and I really found that my health suffered, not just because of the homelessness but because of addiction too. But I now feel that my chronic alcoholism and living on the street is behind me, and here I am, this is now my future.

The project takes on many forms. Converting shipping containers into homes for people means you can take a bit of ownership for the home, and also for yourself and your surroundings. We also do outreach on a Thursday, which is emergency food, sleeping bags and clothes, whilst also working on the night bus, which will provide overnight accommodation for people.

We’re attacking the [homelessness] problem from all ends, and that is unique to this project. That’s why this project deserves support. Whether you’re lucky enough to be a resident, or you volunteer for an hour, it’s a win win situation. I believe this is the solution for the future of the homeless situation.

A year ago I had no future, it was bleak. The light that was always at the end of my tunnel had gone out. This project has allowed my mind to settle, which means that everything else has space to fall into place. My life now has a purpose everyday. I have my self respect again, my confidence is back. I feel ready now to go back out into the world, and say, “Hey guys! I’m back!” I’m ready to do that again now, and that’s all thanks to this project. He will hate me for saying this, but it’s all down to Jasper. People say one man can’t change the world, but you can, as long as that world that you are trying to change is localised. If you can change things in your own back garden first, that change will then spread. Really, it’s just a wonderful project to be involved with.

No-one’s given me a free hand out here, it’s just a hand to step up. We like to think that we’re giving people the tools to change their own lives.

For more information about the Help Bristol's Homeless project: www.helpbristolshomeless.co.uk