Sometimes you have to step away from your day-to-day routine to see things clearly. Or so it was for Bristolian Gavyn Emery, when he visited Edinburgh last year.
“It was absolutely freezing and I saw a homeless guy huddled on the street with his dog,” Gavin remembers. “I just stood there for a good ten minutes watching everybody pass by. It made me feel I needed to do something in my own town.”
Like many other cities around the country, Bristol is seeing an alarming spike in homelessness. Gavyn founded Keep Bristol Warm as a grassroots community project to help homeless people without asking for money. He chose to engage people to share time, love and compassion instead.
“We’re all really stuck for money at the moment, it’s the era that we live in,” he says. “As soon as I ask for money, a lot of people say, ‘No, not getting involved.’ So if I can ask for donations instead, a lot more people want to get involved in that.”
Keep Bristol Warm is about people giving directly to people. It began with an event at the Bearpit in December 2015 where people came to donate warm clothes, shoes, sleeping bags and other items to be distributed to the city’s homeless community. It returns to the Bearpit on December 11, with another big event featuring three acoustic musicians, which is hope to be dramatically bigger than the last.
“It’s just a simple concept,” Gavyn explains. “We live in such a materialistic world, everyone’s buying brand new stuff all the time, so everybody has enough disposable stuff to give away. Why not re-use that and give it to people that actually need it?”
While many homeless initiatives focus on the Christmas period, Gavyn was conscious of trying to keep homelessness in people’s thoughts throughout the year, rather than just forgetting about it during the warmer months.
In July 2016, he organised Soles 4 Souls. One estimate put the number of rough sleepers in Bristol at 197 (although the council only admit to half that number). So, Gavyn cut out 197 cardboard hearts, placed them on College Green and invited people to cover each heart with a much-needed pair of shoes. Finding inventive ways to highlight the issue has successively proven far more successful than asking for money.
For Gavyn, refusing to go the conventional charity route is as much a pragmatic approach as it is a tactic to shift people’s mindsets. It’s about making people realise that homeless people aren’t alien beings and highlighting how much difference ordinary people can make by sharing a bit of their time or handing over some unwanted possessions, rather than giving a few quid to charity, feeling better and forgetting about the issue.
“Because we don’t ask for money and we’re not a charity, it’s based on the whole ethos of people giving to people,” he explains. “We’re so consumed by work and social media that we forget about love and compassion, just simple things like saying hello. This is about raising continued awareness and making people realise, homeless people are human as well, they’ve still got hearts and souls. We’ve all taken different paths, but we just need to look after each-other.”
Keep Bristol Warm has also produced two side projects: Street Paws, which gives out dog coats and dog food to street dogs and the Pending Coffee programme, which is expanding this year and allows people to donate a free hot drink to homeless people every time they pick up one for themselves.
Rooted in solidarity and community spirit, the concept of Keep Bristol Warm has already spread to Taunton, and Yeovil is interested in setting up its own version – although Gavyn would like to see it implemented nationwide.
But it’s no surprise that such a grassroots, bottom-up project began in Bristol. The South Western city is a place that thinks differently, where people still believe they can change things, as they’ve shown through community projects from the Bristol Pound alternative currency to The Bristol Cable cooperative newspaper and the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, an artistic neighbourhood development project.
“Bristol is so great because we do have a voice,” Gavyn explains. “We’ve realised that when we all come together it’s bigger and better. We’re more powerful in a group of us, instead of just singletons at the end of the day. Especially over the last few years, everybody has just come together to speak out loud and found out that this works because we’ve all done it together, instead of little people just doing little things.”