A mid-winter blizzard already sounds unpleasant and especially so if you know what it feels like to have ice-cold gusts whipping across your face. Try and imagine what it’d be like to combine that with an impending cold wave – and you can begin to understand just how frigid it was in England in the winter of 2018.
And while most people could bundle up and weather the storm indoors, the country’s homeless population would be left without access to the comfort and safety of shelter. Instead, they would be outdoors, all on their own, facing freezing rain and icy winds.
That was until one local charity group in Bristol came up with the perfect way to help those in need. And their efforts came to light just in time for the once-in-a-generation winter storm.
Before the winter weather rolled in, Bristolians had been warned of what was to come. The Met Office, the United Kingdom’s national weather service, had informed locals that they should expect the “most severe weather in a generation,” according to the Bristol Post.
In fact, the Met Office had even given a red weather warning for large parts of South West England – for the first time in history. This announcement was not one to be brushed off, either, and indicated a serious danger to life. Indeed, given the conditions, it was advised that “only very necessary journeys should be undertaken.”
And this warning had been issued for good reason: the United Kingdom was in the midst of dramatic winter storm conditions. First, a cold wave – known as “the Beast from the East” – made landfall at the end of February 2018, bringing with it frigid temperatures and wintry precipitation. Then came Storm Emma.
Storm Emma arrived on English soil the following week, on March 2, blasting the British Isles with icy Siberian air. This weather system, along with “the Beast from the East,” made for the perfect winter storm. The two phenomena combined to deliver extremely low temperatures as well as significant amounts of snowfall.
This news was welcomed by school students who got a day off from their studies, as well as by adults who got snow days of their own. However, it would be a dangerous few days for homeless people – who would have to survive the storm without permanent shelter.
According to national statistics, nearly 5,000 people in the U.K. were living on the streets and sleeping rough at the time of the storm. Local authorities in the U.K. have a responsibility to provide shelter when temperatures drop to such dangerous levels – but it’s an offer that not everyone will accept.
Jamie Shovlin, a charity support worker, told the BBC, “Some people get used to the streets… They’re committed to the streets. It’s what they know.” Others may have had negative experiences in homeless shelters in the past and would hence be reluctant to return – even with deadly weather conditions looming.
For those left to roam the streets as the snow began to fall, there was some help on hand, however. Indeed, a Bristol-based group had an alternative solution in mind. What’s more, the organization’s efforts grabbed headlines as locals began to notice the good being done – and some individuals even shared what they saw on social media.
Sophie Smith-Holland, a lawyer in training, used Twitter to share an image of the heartwarming display that she encountered. “Was rushing through Bristol to get home and out of the cold when I saw the street in front of me was filled with hats, gloves and scarves for those who don’t have a home to rush to,” she wrote.
Each item came with a handwritten message, too. Smith-Holland shared what it said in her tweet. The labels on the wooly accessories read, “I am not lost. If you need me, take me.” The simple yet gracious gesture left her feeling overwhelmed, she said.
Also on the tags was the name of the group responsible for the outpouring of support: Keep Bristol Warm. According to 365bristol.com, KBW “is not a charity, it is a community initiative… It is an active movement to demonstrate solidarity and community spirit to the homeless people of Bristol.”
The group’s founder, Gavyn Emery, said that a trip to Scotland had made him wonder how he could help homeless Bristolians to survive the cold. “I came home and started to plan what I could do with the support of Bristol to help [the homeless] through the winter,” he said.
Together with local businesses and volunteers, he came up with several ways to help the local homeless population. He implored others to donate backpacks full of useful supplies, and he organized days on which locals could buy coffee for themselves and pay for a second that could go to someone in need of a warm beverage.
His team also knitted and donated winter accessories for the homeless. Indeed, Ellie Cliff, a 20-year-old volunteer who spoke to the Bristol Post, said that she had learned how to knit in order to help Bristol’s homeless population. And with plummeting temperatures in February 2018, the group launched a major effort, tying accessories to lampposts and trees where those in need would find them.
“It wasn’t until a couple of months ago I realized how much of an impact one scarf would make to a homeless person,” Ellie Cliff said. “If you know how to knit, it is surprisingly inexpensive to make a scarf and, if you can spare an hour every night, you’ll have a scarf in no time.”
And while KBW’s mission was clear – Keep Bristol Warm – Emery told 365bristol.com that the group’s efforts were more than just a way to make winter a little easier for the homeless. In fact, it was a great way to raise awareness of their plight, beyond that.
“KBW want to challenge the perception that homeless people are any different from the rest of us,” he said. “Homelessness begins when something bad happens and you don’t have family or friends around to help. It could happen to any of us.”