Veterans experiencing homelessness is an emotive issue and there is often an association made between ex-service personnel and street homelessness.
However, it’s not always a connection that is borne out in the statistics.
The Royal British Legion says it is a myth that there is a high proportion of rough sleepers who have served their time with the forces.
But what do the figures tell us?
What percentage of UK homeless are veterans?
The Royal British Legion’s long-held estimate is that somewhere between 3 and 6 per cent of homeless people have an armed forces background, but there are concerns that some homeless veterans are rendered “invisible” by the way statistics are collected.
In a 2014 report surveying the ex-forces community, the Legion reported that the number of veterans living on the streets in London has plummeted since the 1990s when figures indicated that 20 per cent of the homeless population were ex-services at the time. A 2008 study found that the proportion had dropped to 6 per cent.
The most recent rough sleeping figures for London, the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (Chain), found 5 per cent of the people counted on the streets of the English capital had an armed forces background.
But the government’s rough sleeping strategy, published in September, revealed 6 per cent of UK nationals who were street homeless served in the armed forces, according to the government’s national questionnaire on the subject.
According to Lee Buss-Blair, the director of operations at supported housing provider Riverside, this was the first rise in years and sparked “concerns that there are still considerable gaps” when it comes to ensuring all veterans are supported.
The government has committed to ending rough sleeping for veterans – as well as wider street homelessness – by 2024.
The Westminster strategy to achieve that goal specifically mentions veterans. It speaks about waiving a local connection to areas for veterans asking local authorities for help – a common issue for veterans who may move around the UK or have been away serving.
“It’s the first time there have been specific actions towards ending veteran homelessness,” said Buss-Blair.
“Having a viable route off the street is key. Ending veteran homelessness is eminently achievable.”
In recent years, veterans have traditionally made up around 5 per cent of the wider population and the proportion of rough sleepers with an armed forces background has matched the same rate so they have not been disproportionately represented on the streets.
Why are veterans homeless in the UK?
According to Sir Andrew Gregory, chief executive of forces charity SSAFA, the issues facing veterans often stem from difficulties in adapting to civilian life after years spent with a regimented lifestyle where many day-to-day tasks are already taken care of. This can then result in the “eight Ds”: drink, debt, drugs, divorce, depression, domestic violence, dependency culture, and digs, meaning accommodation.
Failing to get a handle on these issues can end in homelessness and that is why SSAFA urges veterans to come forward early for support.
“So often, the challenges facing the people we help start from something simple,” Sir Andrew told The Big Issue.
“Perhaps something like having come out of the armed forces, they don’t budget very well and they get into debt, they default on the rent, they lose their accommodation, they then find they’ve lost the job, then the relationship breaks down, then that leads to mental issues that perhaps they’ve had come to the fore, and suddenly we find ourselves picking them up.”
Accessing housing remains a problem, just 2 per cent of veteran supported housing in England receives government funding.
As does ensuring local authorities are able to cater veterans’ specific needs.
Veteran housing charity Stoll, along with Homeless Link and the National Housing Federation, launched a No Homeless Veterans toolkit earlier this year to help councils and housing providers self-audit to find ways to improve and share best practice.
It’s hoped that the toolkit can make the difference in ensuring veterans are better understood and councils are better equipped to help them.
“Veterans are very much a close-knit community,” said Richard Gammage, the chief executive of Stoll.
“They tend to not want to ask for help and when they do ask for help they tend not to always be certain who to ask. When they do ask, they kind of want to have somebody on the other end who understands what it is to be a veteran or the particular challenges they face.”
However, the cost of living crisis means that many will be facing tough times ahead, according to Stoll chief executive Gammage.
“There’s plenty of resource stuck behind supporting veterans, whether it’s in the charity sector or nationally, but the reality is there are some who are falling through the cracks,” said Gammage.
“My sense, from talking to colleagues in other veterans supported provision, is that some of the services that are offered are really at risk. They’re really, really seriously at risk. You can’t have your cost base going up on utilities to the expense it is, even with the government support, you just can’t manage that and continue to deliver the same services.”
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