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A traveller by any other name?
Steven Gander is unable to get on the housing list and finds himself living in a van at Devil's Dyke
A makeshift settlement of 23 caravans atop the South Downs is to be moved on shortly by city council bailiffs. But are these “travellers” or simply people who have fallen on hard times? And what will happen if they are moved? KIMBERLY MIDDLETON and BEN PARSONS visited the site, which is home to a university student, a roller-skating teacher and telesales worker.
The rain lashes the window of the caravan as freezing gusts tear across the South Downs from the sea.
Technically, we are in a mobile home. Neither word is an accurate description – it is far from inhabitable, and its current tenant, Steven Gander, does not want it to move.
His is one of about two dozen caravans pitched at an unauthorised camp off Devil’s Dyke Road, on an exposed corner of the downs.
Brighton and Hove City Council’s traveller liaison service says it is planning to evict the “unauthorised encampment of lived-in vehicles” from the spot.
But “traveller” might not be the right word for some members of this hilltop community, many of whom have drifted out of the city and sought shelter here on the outskirts after losing their home.
Steven says: “There are so many people up here with so many different lives.
“It is a community of people who are in the same boat as myself. They have had troubles in life.
“They have had a business and they have gone under, or through no fault of their own they have been made homeless.”
He says if he was not living here, he would be on the streets.
The 20-odd people who live here include four children.
They have no running water and no electricity supply.
His neighbour, 23-year-old foreign student Emma, is in her second year of a degree in environmental science at the University of Brighton.
Another woman, whom we did not meet, is said to be holding down a telesales job in Brighton.
Steven is 37. He has lived here since December, a month after the vans arrived.
He used to live in Worthing and work at Davison Leisure Centre in Worthing, where he led roller-skating sessions.
When his ten-year marriage ended he found himself homeless. He lived on the streets for six months, and “sofa-surfed” at friends’ homes, until finding his way to this site in December last year.
'I had paid my dues, I pay my taxes'
He says his dyslexia meant he could not navigate his way through the housing list, and he was not given any help when he sought council aid.
He said: “I had paid my dues, I pay my taxes, the time I really needed them they weren’t there for me.”
Steve found himself in a trap of homelessness and dependence on benefits.
He says: “If you haven’t got a house, you can’t get a job, and if you can’t get a job you can’t get any rent to have a house.
“We’re not here because we don’t get along with the system.
“It is because of the way the system is that we have to live in a caravan by the side of the road.”
Some of the people living here end up dependent on handouts.
On Friday, February 8, Steven walked to and from Edward Street to sort out his benefits but was left penniless by an administrative delay.
He ended up having to get free food from the Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project.
Student Emma says: “It is a hard life. We are not just chilling out like people say.
“I’ve got really good friends at uni, but there is still an attitude.
“I have seen videos of politicians in Brighton talking about us. I don’t understand where they are coming from.”
Forced out of flat
Megan Smith, 49, moved on to the site two months ago after being forced to move out of her Brighton flat and did not have enough money for a deposit and advanced rent on another home despite working full time on minimum wage.
She said: “I’m trying to save but it’s really difficult because I also have to keep my vehicle going.”
Steven says the outlawing of squatting has led some to seek shelter in out-of-town camps.
The council says it is working with its legal team to secure an eviction “in due course”.
The people living here are not of one mind about how their problem could be solved.
Some simply want to be left alone on a permanent site, others, like Steven, think that such a site should include facilities like toilets and running water.
But they do know that if they are evicted, they will simply end up somewhere else.
‘Not our problem’
Steven says: “I spoke to the council and asked, ‘Where are we going to go?’.
“They said, ‘It’s not our problem’.
“I thought, ‘Yes, that is our problem, but it’s going to be yours again, because all you’re doing is moving us from pillar to post.’”
The council has spent £22,000 on dealing with the site in the 110 or so days the vans have been there.
Lawyers and officers at Brighton and Hove City Council are also working to evict travellers from land adjacent to Racehill allotments in Wilson Avenue.
A council spokeswoman said plans are still in the pipeline to have a permanent traveller site off of Braypool Lane at Horsdean, where there is currently a transit site.
'Second class citizens'
In March last year the council agreed to file a planning application for 16 permanent homes on the land.
It is hoped a £1.7million Government grant would cover the cost of the development.
The site would not be big enough to cater for all those living here, however.
And it is doubtful even a permanent home would remove the stigma those living in caravans at Devil’s Dyke feel from the mainstream community.
As Steven says: “We are being treated like second class citizens, when in this life we are all equals.”
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