By Felicity Hannah
It started with a single caravan parked on a verge near our house and was quickly followed by a Facebook message from the leader of our residents' association.
"Looks like a gypsy has moved in. Clear your cars tonight and lock all sheds/doors/garages," it read.
I replied politely, explaining that I wasn't happy with the stereotypes being used.
"Well, what should we call them then?" came the reply. It was shocking to realise that this person didn't understand I was objecting to the idea that all travellers and gypsies were thieves. They saw that as such a universal truth that they assumed I must have been merely objecting to the term 'gypsy'.
What followed was a typical outpouring of name-calling and nimbyism. It was even implied that I was an outsider myself, who had joined the residents' Facebook group just to cause trouble. The language was strongly reminiscent of the terms used against black and Irish communities thirty years ago.
Later that evening one of my neighbours claimed that someone had tried to force their door while they watched TV, prompting more hysteria and finger-pointing at the caravan's unwitting residents.
My experience is not uncommon. It's clear that it is now socially acceptable to call an ethnic minority thieves, con artists, tax dodgers and 'scum', as long as that minority are gypsies and travellers.
To better understand the complex issues of prejudice, truth and age-old hostility, I got in touch with Mike Doherty, spokesperson for the Traveller Movement, which represents ethnic traveller groups.
He says that some travellers end up on verges because they have no secure permanent site. There are currently between 3,000 and 4,000 caravans with no secure place to stay, meaning around 15,000 men, women and children are essentially homeless. If there is a perception that the numbers are rising, that's because encampments have become more visible following recent council clampdowns.
"Most councils, with a few valiant exceptions, now operate a zero tolerance policy; [they] do not collect rubbish, evict as soon as possible and have blocked off all the old places. This is why travellers are increasingly turning up in areas like playing fields that are highly contentious," Mike explains.
And these travellers don't want that any more than anyone else. Mike describes families getting evicted two to three times a month, regardless of whether they are causing problems or littering. He tells me that the vulnerability of the current stopping places and growing hostility means that travellers band together into bigger groups for safety – compounding the problem.
Fear and hostility
While I condemn the stereotypes used by my residents' association, I understand some of the concerns. We're lucky to live in an area filled with parks and public spaces, and I share the community impulse to protect these. But if there are thousands of people with nowhere to go then it isn't their fault if they end up parking along verges and across parks. Everyone has to live somewhere.
No, the fault doesn't lie with the traveller community, but with the councils that won't make sufficient land available for sites – and with the government that doesn’t force them to. Of £60 million of public money made available to fund new sites, only £43 million was taken up by councils. Yet there are still thousands of homeless families.
And travelling communities need safe places more than ever in the face of so much fear and hostility. Mike says that, contrary to a popular stereotype, most young gypsies and travellers can read and write and "the take up of social media is phenomenal. Young gypsies and travellers are on Facebook…they are as exposed to the modern world as any teenager – but they are also coming face to face with the prejudice, hatred and bigotry that dominates much of the public discourse.
"The hostility has increased; it is often shocking to come up against. Gypsies and travellers try to hunker down to avoid it – or sometimes go the other [way] of facing it down with bravado. The kids pick up on this and the forces of ghettoisation grind on."
I don't want to live in a country where children are insulted and placed in fear because of their ethnic background. But then, I don't want to live in a country where they are forced to park their homes on verges and are then forced off them days later.
"Even if they're not criminals, they don’t pay their taxes!" declared one of my neighbours in our heated discussion. But of course, HMRC doesn’t break down tax payment stats into ethnic groupings so we can't prove or disprove that statement. The Traveller Movement points out that 85% of the community live on authorised sites and so pay council tax. It also states that HMRC has cracked down on the 'grey economy', and now most gypsy and traveller small businesses do pay their taxes.
There is no reason to deny these travellers a full place in our community – they have been part of our country for 500 years. But what MP is likely to stand up for the rights of a transient community against the wishes of their majority voters? What council will designate new pitches when existing residents will be in an uproar?
So what does Mike think non-travellers like me can do to help overcome prejudice? He urges us to challenge racism, but not to pretend there are never any issues: "There are problems – but there are reasons for those problems," he comments.
"Don't fill in that [eviction] petition, do write a letter to your local paper, do say hello and smile if you can, but remember the travellers on an unauthorised camp may be very wary and are used to hostility. They will probably need water though and the offer of taking a couple of bin bags of household rubbish and putting it into your own bin might be welcomed.
"Sometimes the kids can be a bit rude and there are some nightmare travelling groups out there – they're usually sited work groups though. But that's what the police are for. Breaking down barriers takes effort and time."
Back to the lone caravan parked on our estate. It seems incredibly unlikely that anyone would choose to spend Christmastime parked just off a roundabout for all the passing traffic to gawk at. I wish my community was able to respond with compassion and humanity rather than fear.
Felicity Hannah is a freelance journalist. You can follow her on Twitter.
The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.