Bristol 'van dweller' community face fines and imprisonment

Finally Bristol clamps down on the ‘middle-class van dwellers’: Council threatens to fine new-age hippies who dropped out of rat race to live ‘off grid’ in bid to move them on – after spate of fires and littering and human waste is found on pavement

  • Move from the council comes on the back of a rise in complaints from residents

Authorities in Bristol are cracking down on the region’s famous ‘van dwellers’ by banning them from talking to local residents in a bid to move them along. 

The group, which includes people from a range of ‘middle-class’ backgrounds including engineers, stonemasons and students, has spent the last few years living in caravans, transits and horse boxes around Greenbank Cemetery in Bristol’s trendy Easton suburb.

Members of the community say they can’t afford to rent properties due to the housing crisis, despite many being from well-to-do backgrounds and having good jobs.

A legal loophole meant that as long as their vans were fully taxed and had passed MOTs there was nothing the authorities could do – but an injunction order to ‘persons unknown’ has now been placed on the vehicles warning that inhabitants face court, jail, fines or having assets seized if they do not comply.

Part of the ban includes ‘contacting either directly or indirectly, any resident of Greenbank View by whatever means’, including sending messages to them on social media. 

The rule is part of a series of measures implemented by Bristol’s county court following an application by Bristol city council, which comes after a surge in complaints of blocked pavements, fires, littering, human waste, double parking and a rising number of vehicles.

Some of the ‘van dwellers’ have returned to the leafy street after previously being told to move on by the council

Dexter Shallcross, 24, has lived on the street in his yellow Mercedes Benz Sprinter since September.

Residents are also unable to ‘instruct or encourage any other person’ to contact ‘either directly or indirectly’ the residents of Greenbank View.

This would stop supporters or legal teams from messaging people on the road.

Van dwellers have today labeled the rules ‘prejudiced’.

Dexter Shallcross, 24, a sociology student at the University of the West of England, has lived on the street in his yellow Mercedes Benz Sprinter since September.

He said: ‘There is clearly high-level prejudice in the council.

‘They presume that rowdy behaviour, general drug use and disturbance must be the van people.

‘I’m sure some cases are but not all of them.

‘Although in some ways it’s a bit scruffy and not ideal, getting rid of us doesn’t stop addiction, it doesn’t stop homelessness and it doesn’t stop disturbances.’

Mo Abdi, 24, another student, said: ‘Is this not a free country?

‘If I’m walking down the street and someone says, “hello mate, you alright?” am I not going to say anything?

‘If they evict everyone from here, where’s everyone going to go?

‘With the cost of living crisis and everything, people are struggling to pay rent and gas and electricity.

‘A lot of people can’t afford to live in a house or flat. Life is hard, you know. Where is the humanity?’

Another caravan dweller, who asked not to be named, said: ‘We don’t speak to the locals anyway.

‘The council says we were offered places on meanwhile sites but we weren’t offered places on meanwhile sites.

The community has deemed the new regulations ‘prejudiced’

Clerical assistant Gareth Jones, 28, said: ‘It is indicative of a drive to criminalise our lifestyle’

Tom Dunn, 29, is part of the community at Greenbank Cemetery where legal loopholes were allegedly being exploited to avoid being evicted

‘We were only offered places on waiting lists. It’s like we’re being persecuted for the way we live really.’

Neighbours of the van dwellers welcomed the injunction. 

Ian Aitken, 57, is a postman who has lived on the road since 2008.

He said: ‘It all starts off with one or two turning up and saying, “oh yeah, we’ll keep it tidy and blah blah”.

‘Then hardcore drug dealers move in to the abandoned caravans and we get police helicopters flying over.

‘All of a sudden you have people walking down the street who are clearly crack and heroin users – their appearance is markedly different from the normal people.

‘You see it going through stages: Things going on fire, the anti-social behaviour, the crack and heroin dealing.

‘The council do provide spaces for a lot of people but for whatever reason they don’t want to use them – they would prefer to live independently.

‘So do they have an absolute need to live in a caravan or is it going towards a sort of hippie ideal?’

Another neighbour, who declined to give his name, said: ‘I’ve lived here for over 30 years and this used to be a really nice place to live.

‘Now my wife certainly won’t walk down the road because she feels unsafe. I will because I just refuse to be pushed down by them.

‘One of my neighbours said that at 2am he went down to one of their drug jamborees and emptied a bucket of water over their fire.

‘They said “where’s the love?” and he said “where’s the respect?” and went back to his house because he had to get up for work the next morning. At 2am it’s a bit much.

‘The council are taking action before it gets even worse and I agree with them.’

The injunction also bans them from parking on paths, obstructing footpaths with bikes or ‘using aggressive, threatening, foul or intimidating language’.

Regulations were introduced previously to enable the council to move the community on – but many have returned.

Van dwellers at another popular local spot near Clifton Downs said the council was attempting to ‘criminalise our lifestyle’.

Gareth Jones, 28, a clerical assistant, said: ‘It is concerning, not just for the lack of clarity in the wording of it.

‘It is indicative of a drive to criminalise our lifestyle.

‘I am generally concerned about an overly intrusive state apparatus and this makes you feel unwelcome.

‘As soon as anyone raises a fuss, there tends to be a clamp down. I am surprised the locals are as okay as they are with us being here.’

One of the caravans parked outside the cemetery features a sign that reads: ‘Bristol sinking city’ 

A note left by one van dweller 

The council says the injunction aims to prevent residents who have made complaints from being harassed by the vehicle dwellers.

A spokesperson for Bristol city council said it has created ‘meanwhile sites’ on unused council land where van dwellers can park.

But the designated sites are not big enough to cope with the demand. 

The spokesperson added: ‘Since November 2021 we saw a steady increase in the number of occupied vehicles on Greenbank View, Eastville, increasing from three to over 40 vehicles.

‘While the encampment had previously remained at the bottom of the road away from houses it spread to outside the homes of residents which resulted in a rise in the number of complaints.

‘These included issues with blocked pavements, fires, littering and human waste being incorrectly disposed of.

‘Previous requests for vehicles to be removed from the pavement have not been met, and multiple visits have been made to the encampment since November 2021.

‘The impact was reassessed and is now considered High Impact according to our vehicle dwelling encampment policy.

‘The vehicle dwelling encampment policy allows us to take action in cases of anti-social behaviour while considering each situation on a case-by-case basis so, after carrying out welfare checks, we started legal action to move the vehicles on from this site.

‘We want to balance the needs of everyone living in Bristol, both of those living in vehicles and residents so our approach must be compassionate and fair.

‘We continue to tackle the housing crisis, building 2,563 new homes last year, including more affordable homes than for any year in more than a decade.

‘The occupants of Greenbank View were previously offered 15 spaces at meanwhile sites but these were not taken up.

‘There is now a high demand for places at our meanwhile sites, but they can still join the waiting list for a pitch.’

The order was passed on April 18 and will run until October.

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