Beacon of hope for a new start

Joseph Rafferty
Joseph Rafferty
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A pioneering project in North Yorkshire is helping homeless veterans get back on their feet. Grace Hammond reports.

Joseph Rafferty looks like a confident 42-year old, bantering with the receptionists at Riverside Housing’s supported facility for homeless veterans, The Beacon. Just a few months ago he was living rough on the streets of York.

As a 17-year-old Catholic boy from Derry, he joined the British Army in 1987. Serving alongside Protestants fighting all paramilitaries, Joseph was seen as an enemy, not just to the Catholic community, but to his comrades.

Running away began as a child when at the age of eight he ran away from an abusive stepfather.

“I ran away and took myself to social services,” says. But life in a children’s home wasn’t a great deal easier.

When he was 20 and in the Army Joseph went AWOL for real when he was posted in Germany.

He says he fled the Army due to personal issues from his childhood which can feel a lot more difficult to deal with when you add to them the pressure of life in the services.

He fled, doing casual work around England and Ireland. for two and a half years until he handed himself in to the Army. It was New Year’s Day, 1992. “I was court martialled and charged four months later on 21 April, on my 22nd birthday and sent to Colchester Glass House prison for a year. It wasn’t easy, not a great start for any young person.”

He got through prison by flattening his emotions. “I’m a calm person. I guess I was purposely never overly up or down, keeping my expectations or ambition in check. There’s less of a height to fall if you don’t think too high.” After prison, Joseph ended up in Liverpool as a store detective. Life changed when he met a girl and travelled to Holland, staying for six years. “It was the happiest time of my life. I was carefree, there were no external threats. It was mind-opening. I did seasonal work for an export company, painting, landscape gardening and demolition work. I went from being quite a robot to a bit of a hippy.”

When the relationship broke up, he went back to Northern Ireland and set up a car valeting business before meeting an Australian girl. They decided to emigrate and sold his business, moving to Brisbane, but the relationship didn’t work out and he ended up in York with no fixed address, a prison record and no job. He relied on the generosity of friends for the odd shower, but ended up living rough. “I’m a proud person and maintaining my appearance was important. Personal hygiene was the worst thing for me on the streets, and not eating. I could go two or three days and not even think about food. I was drinking and smoking weed 24/7. I fell into a homeless crowd where drinking was what you did to kill time, to get numb, getting through the cold. If you drank enough you could pass out and get some sleep.” After two and a half years on the streets, a York Salvation Army man, Charlie, threw a lifeline.

“After an assessment I was shipped to Riverside Housing’s Beacon support and training centre. The first five weeks – being able to have a fresh duvet after a shower, to iron my jeans and able to cook a meal, play music, feel human again, has really helped, and the other services here, it’s quite spectacular.”

Joseph is now on a Detox programme. The Beacon is his last chance.

“I joined the Army because I was looking for a family in some way, after the children’s home, the comradeship, brothers together, but that didn’t happen. For a lad like myself, quite straight, I got dealt some bad cards.”

Support on civvy street

Riverside ECHG’s award-winning national network of veterans’ services provides a telephone advice line, SPACES (Single Persons Accommodation Centre for the ex-Services) along with temporary housing and support at purpose-built centres near garrisons around the country. The social landlord runs The Beacon, based near Catterick Garrison, a flagship housing scheme, focussed on helping veterans back into Civvy Street.

For more information visit www.riverside.org.uk/careandsupport