For a number of years whilst I was at university in Bristol I used to volunteer at the Julians Trust Homeless Shelter (also known as the Bristol Night Shelter). It was here I got my first experience of homelessness.
Amongst other things, the shelter provides warm meals, showers and professional support for around 80 people per night. Each night it also supplies 18 emergency beds for the homeless, people that would otherwise be sleeping on the streets.
Like almost all other homeless shelters, the Julians Trust shelter relies on donations and volunteer support to operate. The running costs for such an establishments are very high, and even though the shelter is only open in the evenings through to the morning (9.30pm and 10.30pm), for 5 days a week, it still costs in excess of £1,500 per week to run (2013)).
Personally, I believe there should be more organisations like the Julians Trust to cater for the increasing number of homeless people ending up on the streets each week but I’m a realist and I understand that organisations like the Julians Trust take a lot of time, effort, money and passion to start up and continue operation and these aren’t always in great supply.
Every night whilst working at the homeless shelter all beds were occupied on a first come first serve basis; when the last bed was occupied the doors were closed. Each night countless homeless people were turned away and given the explanation that we were full, that we were sorry and that they would have to find somewhere else to sleep for tonight.
Where would they sleep? – This is the problem.
For many homeless, it’s a daily battle to find somewhere to sleep. Ideally (in order of importance), you’ll want to find somewhere which is warm, dry, sheltered from the elements, comfortable, clean, private and out of site so that the police or other people will not move you on.
Finding such a place is incredibly hard, especially since most ‘suitable’ places have already been fenced off by the council or land-owners solely to stop people sleeping in such places. Either that or anti-homeless bollards are put in the few places people can sleep…
Many councils have also resorted to using anti-homeless spikes:
Fortunately there are good people out there (Space, Not Spikes) who are trying to stop this from happening:
It wasn’t until I had to spend one night sleeping rough on the streets of Paris a number of months ago that I fully understood just how awful the situation is. With night time temperatures reaching close to 0 degrees Celcius and rain imminent, my options were limited. I didn’t have a sleeping bag, nor a tent or any other equipment, all I had were the clothes in my backpack (none of which were suitably warm – I’d just come from the South of France volunteering as a chef at a surf lodge!).
So then my search for somewhere to sleep started. Ideally, it would have been nice to sleep in one of Paris’s lovely open parks, but I knew this was out of the question as I had no shelter so would be cold from the wind and if it started raining then I would be in real trouble.
Most of the streets were busy with traffic and/or pedestrians, they were also very exposed to the elements so these were off limits.
The metro was closed so couldn’t sleep there. Traditional places you would normally think of to stay if you were homeless (under bridges etc), had all been fenced off or had spikes bolted to them to stop people staying there.
(Yes, I probably could have stayed in a hotel or hostel but I had little money. 1000’s of people sleep rough every night, I’m sure I could too…)
Last were the back-alleys, often dark, dirty, potentially unsafe and outside people’s apartments. I found a few spots and tried to sleep in a few locations but it was so cold, the biting chill of the nighttime wind wasn’t helping either, but it was dry. The little body heat I had was lost into the concrete floor beneath me; I didn’t manage to find any cardboard in spite of searching for about an hour so I was out of luck. Whilst cardboard can be a good insulator, I suspect it really wouldn’t have helped all that much, but it definitely would have taken the edge off the cold and provide some comfort.
It was at this point I started to think about how much I would have loved a roll mat and sleeping bag; to provide comfort and warmth. I would have given anything to be warm at this point. Then I really started to think about my situation and realised that if I did have to sleep on the streets again then I would need something more substantial, something that would protect my sleeping bag (sleeping bags aren’t designed to face the elements) but something more hardy than an emergency bivy bag and less bulky than a traditional tent, ideally something that would be self-standing, inconspicuous and which could be used in urban environments.
I pondered whether such a shelter existed – if it did then I hadn’t seen one. The nearest I could think of would be the US special forces modulated sleeping system which they used on many of their missions, I knew of this equipment due to the fact I used to own one. This 3-piece sleeping system was in essence, two sleeping bags inside a bivy bag. It was exceptionally heavy, very bulky and though durable, it wouldn’t last a couple of weeks being used on the streets. I remembered carrying this around with myself whilst travelling around Greece a number of years ago, I remember just how bulky and heavy it was. The other problem with it and virtually every other bivy bag on the market was the outer shell of the sleeping system – it was made from Gore-tex which is better than most in fairness, but still suffered a lot with condensation even in spite of it being ‘breathable’ which left the occupant (me), cold and wet inside – This is a common issue with virtually every bivy bag on the market. This wouldn’t be suitable.
After initial ponderings, I was cold and needed to move around to keep warm so I began walking and thinking, after a few hours I ended up sitting just outside Starbucks in the middle of Paris, waiting for it to open so that I could go inside in the warm and have a coffee. I didn’t sleep that night, but there I sat, thinking about my situation and the situation of thousands of others who go through this every night, often in much worse conditions. Something had to be done, there must be a solution.
Months went by and I almost forgot about that one terrible night and the profound thoughts I had, I almost wanted to forget it, forget that it even happened to me and sweep it under the rug as another life lesson learnt. But then I realised I couldn’t forget it, I didn’t want to forget it and that I needed to at least try to come up with a solution.
It was then that I decided to start Project Bivouac, I decided I was going to design, develop and manufacture portable crisis shelters and give them free to anybody who needs them, it’s not a permanent solution to the issue of homelessness and much more needs to be done at a societal level but it will help improve the lives of those currently living on the streets, those who might soon be living on the streets and could even potentially help to save a few lives. These are good enough reasons for me to try and make a difference.
I don’t know how I’m going to do it just yet, I have no experience with product design, nor manufacturing, but I do have fire in my belly and that’s all I’ll need.
my the journey, if you think you can help in any way then please contact me. Let’s make this a community effort for a community problem.
Thank you for reading,