AS the final troops withdraw from Afghanistan and we honour the 453 UK troops killed during the war, veterans are increasingly in the news. For some, it’s when they return home their battles really start.
After 22 years of service, I now work at the coal face of veterans’ support as the Ministry of Defence’s area manager at Riverside’s specialist veterans supported housing project, The Beacon, near Catterick.
We’re a civilian housing provider working with the MoD to offer much- needed services for homeless veterans. It is run by ex-service personnel like myself who understand the struggles veterans face.
The physical injuries of veterans are visible, but mental health conditions are not. Riverside is one of the leading registered providers of social housing in the UK that runs centres for veterans at the UK’s major garrisons.
Over 40 per cent of veterans in our specialist centres have mental health problems, with some diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Riverside conducted a survey last month which highlighted the increasing plight and need levels of older veterans between 30 and 50 years.
It is these veterans who are particularly at risk of becoming invisible. Their service in areas of conflict ended years ago, but PTSD can kick in 10 years after a traumatic event. Addiction, family breakdown, mental health conditions are all factors that lead to life on the streets. Another problem is pride – many veterans are proud of their background so will not ask for help. It’s hard to admit vulnerability when you have been a soldier.
This winter we are running our #LightsOnforVeterans campaign to raise awareness of homelessness amongst ex-servicemen and women. It’s our mission that no veteran should be on the streets.
The campaign’s launch was supported by soldiers from the 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. Regimental Sergeant Major S T McDermott said: “Our soldiers and officers have to be fit, robust and determined. It might be strange to think a soldier back from Afghanistan could end up on the streets, but not everyone adjusts easily to Civvy Street. Vulnerability is hard to admit for people trained to face up to tough situations so we felt it important to visibly support these lifeline services. It could easily be one of us facing difficulties next.”
It’s these serving soldiers facing discharge that we also help with Riverside’s national housing service SPACES (located within The Beacon), which has helped over 12,600 veterans into housing since it began.
If it hadn’t been for the efforts of SPACES, a lot of ex-servicemen would now be homeless. Some do fall through the cracks. If a veteran approaches their local authority, it doesn’t mean they’ll be prioritised for housing.
Medical experts have said this week that care for the UK’s military veterans is ‘flawed’ with a healthcare system not providing veterans the services promised by the Armed Forces Covenant.
Professor Neil Greenberg, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said he believed Ministers were failing to honour the promise that soldiers who could be called upon to make the “ultimate sacrifice” will in return be “sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service”.
There’s no statutory responsibility for councils to accommodate ex-servicemen, unlike say other groups facing housing difficulties, such as travellers.
The Beacon would not exist if it were not for MoD support to create our purpose-built supported housing scheme. We offer 31 flats with a 24/7 staff team. Residents are able to live at The Beacon for a maximum of 18 months. In that period, staff and associated agencies work with residents to help secure permanent housing, facilitate independent living skills, improve health and wellbeing, deliver education and training and access employment and further education.
Funding to maintain the support and counselling service at The Beacon is increasingly under threat. The Government needs to take note and remember that the Armed Forces Covenant recognises that the whole nation has a moral obligation to current and former members of the military and their families, and it establishes how they should expect to be treated.
Government cannot let services like The Beacon down by withholding public funding, neither can it expect the Third Sector to exist on fresh air.
As winter draws in and living on the streets becomes an acute danger, we need to do more for our ex-Servicemen and women. We have a saying at The Beacon, one day of service, a lifetime of support.
As one ex-Army Commando who found himself suicidal on the streets, suffering PTSD after serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said: “These services need to exist, otherwise I’d have been just another statistic, a face on Look North, ‘Ex-soldier found dead in park’ just a headline. Civilians go to bed at night knowing soldiers are keeping them safe. It’s nice to give back and help keep us safe when we need it.”
Trevor Morris is the Ministry of Defence’s area manager at The Beacon scheme in North Yorkshire which helps former members of the Armed Forces.