Veterans Aid: still helping homeless ex-servicemen

May 11, 2012
Veterans Aid: still helping homeless ex-servicemen by Melissa van der Klugt

It is only when darkness falls on the streets of London that the plight of many veterans of the Armed Forces becomes fully apparent. More than 1,000 of them are homeless.

Until a couple of months ago Ray (not his real name) was one of them, living on the streets. He had enlisted in the Royal Green Jackets (Light Division) in 1993 and saw service in Northern Ireland. He left the Army in November 2001 but found civvy street a harsh place.

In the Army they looked out for each other, he says, but suddenly he was alone and facing the breakdown of his marriage. By the spring of 2002 his wife had left him, taking their two sons. Angry and despondent, Ray turned to drink and then crack cocaine. Soon afterwards he was evicted from his house.

“You think after serving your time in the Army society will accept you,” he says, “but they don’t and no one helps.”

Ray was on the streets. Aimlessly, he would jump barriers at stations and ride trains around the country. Eventually he ended up in West London. He could get through £400 worth of crack in two or three days. He no longer cared about sleep or food. On the streets the tough “wolf pack” mentality meant that he was vulnerable to sexual assault and violence.

In the end he smashed a car window outside a police station and turned himself in. When he was searched, the only things found on him were his medals.

It was Ray’s solicitor who brought him to Veterans Aid, a charity run by veterans for veterans. Funded by the Royal British Legion, the Army Benevolent Fund and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association Forces Help, as well as by private donations, it has been helping homeless ex-servicemen for 77 years.

“I walked in and immediately I saw the pictures of military scenes and the sense of humour,” Ray recalls. “They kitted me out with fresh clothes, £15 cash and a travel card and told me to report to the hostel on New Belvedere Road.” The order was a flash of the former life that he understood: “I couldn’t break away. I’d just been ordered by the Wing Commander.”

The hostel provides immediate protection and a community of people with shared experiences, people who are not repelled by rotting teeth or bad hair. The two women who run the hostel have become everything from mother figure to sergeant major or someone to flirt with.

There is a snooker room, kitchen, TV lounge and computers that the 60 residents can use to apply for jobs. There is even a choir.

Veterans Aid receives 1,400 calls for help each year. A team of social workers, psychologists and a barrister help to discover the causes for the residents’ drinking and drug-taking. In the past few months the team has helped 40 people through detox and put 150 back in housing.

There are signs of hope. In 2008 a report by the University of York, commissioned by the Ex-Service Action Group on Homelessness, found that 6 per cent of homeless people in London were ex-servicemen, compared with 22 per cent in 1997.

The Ministry of Defence is now doing more to address the problem of social exclusion of veterans. It has donated land for a hostel, Mike Jackson House, to help the homeless in Aldershot and funds the Career Transition Partnership, which debriefs service personnel on discharge and tries to provide practical advice on resettling in society from jobs to housing. But as the problems that lead to homelessness often occur decades after service, the long-term work of charities has become essential.

The chief executive of Veterans Aid, Hugh Milroy, who served in the Gulf War as an RAF wing commander, says: “From the 25,000 people discharged in the last year few will have problems. The average age of people that come to us is 40 or 50.” In the past year he has had only one young man from Iraq staying with him, and he rarely sees people on the streets who have just been discharged.

Milroy believes the causes for homelessness and social exclusion are the same as among any other group in society: mental health problems, childhood troubles, poverty, divorce, addiction and, increasingly, debt-related problems. But the transition from military to civilian life does trigger problems, especially for young soldiers who may have come from broken homes and built close-knit relations in the Army.

The solutions are practical, from the frontline VA hostels to the advice and support offered by the Royal British Legion, which runs schemes such as training in the hospitality industry or rent guarantee bonds to get people back on their feet. Combat Stress tackles mental health issues among veterans, who often only come forward after their relationships have broken down.

Ray, meanwhile, has just moved out of the hostel in to his own flat and he is writing an account of his military career, breakdown and drug addiction. He is optimistic about his future.