Jasper Thompson and Julie Dempster are creating shelters out of shipping containers for the homeless /

Alarmed by rising rates of rough sleepers, the people of Bristol took to social media to find a solution. The result? Converted shipping containers and a volunteer-run social enterprise

A chance encounter in January awoke something of a mission in Jasper Thompson. “I was out shopping when I spotted a young lad shivering in a doorway,” says the 58-year-old restaurant owner and ex-Army major. “I went and bought him some tea and something to eat, as it was so cold.

“After that, I started noticing just how many homeless people I saw everywhere. It’s funny, you don’t quite notice until you’re looking. I had a bit of spare time on my hands and I just thought to myself, ‘I’m going to do something to help.’”

Jasper posted a Facebook status asking if any friends had spare clothes to donate, then headed into Bristol city centre with his wife, Tania, to hand out the supplies along with soup, hot water for washing, and essentials such as clean socks and underwear. “That first weekend, we helped about five or ten people. The next it was 15 or 20, then as word got around we ended up servicing around 70 people every other Sunday.”

That initial Facebook status quickly mushroomed into a community-wide response to what many view as a homelessness crisis in the city. Jasper set up a dedicated page where people can offer donations or share information about individuals in need, and local businesses offer skills or services. Now, just a few months on, he’s converting used shipping containers into temporary accommodation and setting up as a social enterprise to help local rough sleepers “get back on their feet”.

Across the UK, homelessness has doubled since 2010, and Bristol has the second highest number of rough sleepers in the country. In January, mayor Marvin Rees unveiled an ambitious strategy to tackle the problem, but plans for 100 emergency beds failed when the council found it didn’t have the funds. Meanwhile local people, disturbed by the visible increase in individuals on the streets, took to social media to find a solution. Alongside Jasper’s project, you’ll find Facebook pages such as “Keep Bristol Warm” and “Bristol Street Share”. It’s a phenomenon that can be witnessed around the country too, with cities including Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds all boasting similar volunteer-run social media projects.

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The final touches are put on the first shipping container, which is decked out with a bed, wardrobe, toilet and shower

When we visit Jasper the finishing touches are being put on the first container, which is painted a cheery yellow and decked out comfortably inside with a bed, wardrobe, toilet and shower. Local residents wander in regularly to drop off supplies such as paint or tools, or have a chat about how they can help. “It’s just wonderful,” one man remarks. “Something needs to be done about the problem we’ve got here.”

“After we’d been doing the donation runs for a while, we decided to do something more long-term,” says Jasper, a towering character whose army training has given him a no-nonsense attitude and a propensity for getting things done. “I saw a YouTube video of a company in Wales that had converted containers into temporary housing and I thought, ‘We could do that’.”

Another Facebook post unearthed a friend-of-a-friend who used to run a shipping company and had a spare 20ft container to donate. The plan is to eventually have ten live-in containers, with local charities recommending residents to Jasper’s team of volunteers. It’s hosted on a plot of private land, and a planning application is currently underway to get sewage, water and electricity access developed.

The project has captured the imaginations of many in the area, with local businesses donating products that can be auctioned to raise funds, and around 35 people so far signing up to volunteer at the containers. One of these is Julie Dempster, who has taken on the role of administration manager. A domestic violence support worker for many years, she gave up full time work after being diagnosed with cancer. “I was following [the project] online, and got in contact about helping out,” she explains. “It’s perfect for me, as I can work flexible hours, and I’ve got a lot of experience helping people with emotional needs. I’m really passionate about addressing the homelessness issue we’ve got in Bristol.”

Jasper stresses that getting the homeless community involved in the work is key to his approach, and he has already enlisted them to help paint and convert the container. “If people come and stay here, they have to earn their keep and show they’re helping themselves – they need to attend their drug programmes, if they’re in one, and help with the cooking, cleaning and upkeep, so they can hopefully learn new skills.” He’s also planning on using the network of businesses that has come together through the project to find employment opportunities for the people he houses.

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Jasper wants to expand his model to other parts of the south west and, eventually, the rest of the UK

Diving headfirst into such an issue hasn’t been plain sailing, though. “A lot of these people have got such broad issues,” he admits. “You can’t take on too much of what they’ve been through. You’ve got to think, ‘I’m here to support people, not to get emotionally involved.’ People forget that the homeless are just normal people like you or I, so you get good or bad ones just like with anything.”

There was also initial alarm from homelessness charities already working in the area, who are trying to ensure the new wave of DIY initiatives aren’t inadvertently causing extra problems. “We always try and encourage people to find out what’s going on in their local area before setting something up themselves,” says Richard Drake of Bristol-based night shelter The Julian Trust. “So if you’re thinking of handing out food, maybe try and see what soup runs or kitchens are happening already.”

He also warns against doing anything that might end up keeping people on the street for even longer. “We’ve had people giving out sleeping bags and tents, which may be meeting people’s immediate needs but isn’t doing anything to help get them re-housed in the long term,” he explains. Instead, he advises have-a-go volunteers to consider helping with laundry, or perhaps taking people for a haircut and shave.

Jasper’s long-term plan is to expand the model to other parts of the south west and, eventually, the rest of the UK. Having an army of community volunteers obviously can’t replace the need for an anti-homeless strategy from central government, and the team working on the container are keen to stress that they want to see politicians doing more to tackle the problem. But hopefully the rise of projects like this can send a sign that it’s an issue the public cares about. “We’ve got a real community spirit going on here,” Jasper concludes. “The momentum that’s been gathering since January is tremendous. People are sick of seeing rough sleepers everywhere, and they just want to help.”

For more information, go to helpbristolshomeless.co.uk

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