The Downs

3rd year in with the Downs Festival and the second year I’ve been invited to help organise a panel discussion with my co-conspirator Anthony Tombling Jnr on the subject of homelessness and rough sleeping in Bristol. This year’s panel brought together an array of people working to tackle the housing crisis in Bristol. Jasper Thompson who is the founder of Help Bristol’s Homeless, Naseem and Shada Nasrullah from Feed the Homeless, Alex Wallace from Caring in Bristol, Frankie Stone from The Big Issue (Bristol) and Councillor Paul Smith who is the Cabinet Member for Housing at Bristol City Council. Avoiding the obligatory statical numbers game that generally kicks off these types of discussion. We started with a list of names randomly selected from an article by Micheal Yong, which appeared in the Bristol Live/Bristol Post, These are the 50 homeless people who died in Bristol you should have known about.

A sobering start to a day of music, festivities, play, fun, and enjoyment, but its one of the reasons I have come to enjoy this one-day festival in our city. As well as homelessness there were panel discussions on Gender Equality in Music Festivals, which may draw scorn from the self-badged anti PC lobby, but screw them given this is too much of an important issue to be left to the reactionary fodder. Equally exciting subjects during the day, included the aptly entitled Brexit 2019, What the Fuck is Going On? Community Rebirth, Social Networks, Technology and Mental Health. It’s a brave decision to integrate this approach into the heart of the event, and the organisers should rightly be given credit for it because it locks the event into the social fabric of the city, which other events often avoid, wilfully.

A review of the overall event, which featured the likes of Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller, Orbital and Nadine Shah can be found on the B24/7 website.

In a city where some people are obsessively fixated in a debate about the location of a proposed large-scale Arena development, the holding of this event poses some critical questions for me. Firstly, the location of this festival is on public open space that is not serviced brilliantly by public transport infrastructure, but it seems to have managed adequately given the circumstances. Second, and more profound for me…..now stay with me here…

Having worked for Bristol City Council some 15 years ago, moving away and then returning to the city over 2 years ago, I know from first hand this project has rumbled on and is systematic of how large capital projects enter a type of twilight light zone because of political instability. If we are to progress with the concept, then £millions more will properly need to be spent in the future, including technical assessments, the often hidden cost of council officers and the underpinning of any capital borrowing with revenue funds, if the City Council is to provide any officer time and public funding.

Revenue is what funds our public services in the city. In short our taxes, (a council by law cannot finance public services through its capital funds). It’s Revenue that pays the salaries of our council officers and funds the contracts for not-for-profit groups to do the jobs we often do not want to do ourselves, i.e., looking after our homeless and rough sleepers, elderly and vulnerable children. Now I can hear the shout back that one should never confuse big capital projects with more profound social needs within a major city like Bristol. I understand that, and in normal times I would tend to agree, but these are not normal times. These are times of financial austerity on public services. A financial policy that has been absolutely brutal towards those most vulnerable in our city and beyond, but one that ultimately leads to tough choices having to be made about what are our priorities.

Maybe we already have the infrastructure for Arena type performances, and we just might need to work with what we have more creatively? Maybe our music and arts priorities should be about safeguarding our existing network of venues and smaller spaces that support and underpin homegrown talent like the Save the Exchange Community Share Offer (more info here).

But maybe, just maybe, in those public meetings where the heated debates on the future of Bristol Arena will be held, a little sobering humility can be injected at the start of the proceedings by randomly reading out at least 5 names from the list of 50 Bristol citizens who have died in our city. They have died because of a killer we all know, and often seem to conveniently ignore. It is called homelessness and the money spent already on the arena project would have gone a long way to the arrest of this serial killer. For the record these are the five names we shared:

Nathan Arnold

Anne Fitzpatrick

Lee Willingham

Deborah Morris

Wayne Perry

You can read more about them and some more Bristol citizens who have followed their fate here.

Information Stage, The Downs Festival

 

The subject matter is and always will remain challenging. Homelessness: The Reality on the Ground is the type of issue that can generate fear and ignorance in equal proportions. Those who may have believed they were at little risk of the housing crisis are increasingly being sucked into the vortex of a perfect storm. Inaccessible market values, extreme rent levels, a lack of supply, the return of poor landlords and the paralysed inability of government has placed the fundamental human need of shelter into the hands of the speculators and spivs. As we discovered during the panel presentations and discussion (Downs Festival 2017) homelessness once considered the blight of those on the fringes of our society is now showing its ugly face amongst paid workers, especially the working young. There is a broken promise in any social contract between individual and state when homelessness rears its ugly head. The crisis we now face sits at the feet of those who have governed for the past 40 years and willingly encouraged the breakdown of decency towards humanity. Homelessness on the scale we witness has not happened by accident. It is a deliberate policy designed and orchestrated by the government.

So what is to be done as we sit in self-imposed ignorant bliss, knowing the causes, but claiming to be ‘powerless’ to do anything? Being powerless can, of course, be a convenient excuse and one that in its worst condition seeks self-reflected pity on oneself. The cold reality is that some people vote to be powerless. The first step in demanding change is the realisation that you are not powerless and by actually doing something, no matter how little, you become a small, but integral part of a social movement and movements change things on a big scale. The words ‘political struggle’ in one of the wealthiest economies, had until recently,  become an almost embarrassing term to use given the abundance of riches at our disposal.  It is clearly back on the agenda for a younger generation who are quite rightly increasingly restless and angry at the inheritance being offered to them by a tired and self-imposed ‘powerless’ older generation. While government (nationally and locally) is blindfolded in a downward spiral of spin, apportion blaming and rebranding their diminishing resources as new. Informal networks of self-motivated people armed with nothing more than compassion and love are seeking solutions. On one hand, a growing number of people are not prepared to ‘walk on by’ and ignore the injustice staring them in the face and on the other hand young people are increasingly motivated to get involved in direct-action and structured politics. It’s too early to say if this is a fad and it may suffer the relentlessly grind wheels that have often warm many a good person down, but positive seeds have been sown.

It was an absolute honour to have co-hosted the panel on Homelessness at the Information Stage, Bristol Downs Festival with friend and film director Anthony Tombling. The panel brought together people and groups who did not fall for the self-indulgent notion of ‘powerlessness’ and did the right thing. They got engaged and became part of the solution rather than the problem. Ordinary people from a variety of backgrounds, faiths, genders and cultures. My deepest respect goes out to Bristol Reconnect, Brixton Soup Kitchen, Homeless Heroes (Birmingham) Feed the Homeless, St. Mungo’s, Help Bristol’s Homeless who are doing some amazing work often off the radar. If you would like to find out more about these groups and get engaged with what they are doing then just click here.

There will always be armchair cynics in life who can’t, don’t want to be won over, or are only comfortable with the status quo. My advice is equally simple. Following the words from one generation to another…. “come, councillors, MPs and Government please heed the call don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall……come mothers and fathers throughout the land and don’t criticise what you can’t understand your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapidly agin’. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand.”

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The Downs Festival, Bristol 2nd September 2017

If you are heading to The Downs Festival on 2nd September 2017 myself and good friend film director Anthony Tombling will be hosting a panel discussion on homelessness in the UK. The purpose of the panel discussion is to encourage a greater understanding of community-led action aimed at tackling the stigma and negative attitudes towards those who find themselves homeless in the UK. The panel will explore the impact of national and local government policies by asking if they are helping or hindering a sustainable solution and what are the alternatives. We will be hearing about the reality on the ground from some truly inspirational people.

Panelists include representatives from The Brixton Soup Kitchen, St. Mungo’s, Homeless Heroes – Birmingham, Feed The Homeless – Bristol, Bristol ReConnect and Jasper Thompson from Help Bristol’s Homeless. The panel will be giving us their take on the current situation on the ground. Do we have a crisis? and if we do, what can we do about it? So if you are around please come along, say hello, Join the discussion, offer support and hear from the people working at the sharp end trying to help those most vulnerable in our communities. The panel is due to start at 3:15pm. For more information on the community groups involved click here: I AM HUNGER

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