It’s an emotive issue on social media. We ask an expert to cut through the misinformation and show how we can house ex-servicemen and women for good.
Type “homeless veterans” into your social media platform of choice and see what comes up.
Wild claims of ex-servicemen and women flooding the streets while foreigners live it up in the lap of luxury will soon appear. These sentiments were particularly prevalent after the West-minster government’s announcement in August that it would take 20,000 Afghan refugees over the next five years following the Taliban’s return to power.
A quick scroll on Twitter soon reveals: “Why should Afghan children get laptops when British veterans are homeless?” or “Homeless veterans before economic migrants today” or “Homeless veterans would love half of what the illegals get”. You get the idea.
But what’s the reality?
To answer that question, The Big Issue spoke to Lee Buss-Blair, director of operations at Riverside, who has worked in homelessness services for the last 20 years and with homeless veterans for the last three years.
Before that he served in the British Army himself, in the first Gulf War and then in Bosnia in the 1990s. He served with the 17/21st Lancers, dubbed the Death or Glory Boys.
And he can settle one common misconception about veteran homelessness right away. “At the moment veterans are not disproportionately represented in the rough sleeping population,” says Buss-Blair. “What worries me is if we don’t safeguard veterans for housing then that number could rise.”
Buss-Blair is referring to the combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) – the London-only count which is considered one of the most accurate measures of rough sleeping in the United Kingdom.
As well as tracking the flow of rough sleeping in the UK capital, CHAIN also keeps tabs on how many rough sleepers on the street have an armed forces history. The most recent statistics, released on October 29, found five per cent of rough sleepers encountered by frontline workers in London between July and September said they had served in the armed forces.
This is similar to Ministry of Defence figures, which estimated in 2019 that there were around 2.5 million veterans in the UK, which equates to five per cent of the general population over 16. So why do the social media posts contradict this?
“You can only really go on the types of organisations that are pushing this narrative,” says Buss-Blair.
“If I was to make an assumption, and it is just an assumption, sometimes I think organisations approach this not from the ‘we want to help veterans’ perspective, but more of a ‘we don’t want other groups to get support’.
“And by other groups they generally mean migrants, refugees and people of colour. So it’s less about let’s help veterans and more about how we shouldn’t help these others.
“I think all too often because the veteran issue is very emotive, some-times the public’s general support for them is hijacked by organisations who want to use it for their own objectives. They don’t care about veterans.
“The biggest issue facing veterans and homelessness is not a matter of scale of need, it is a question of changing attitudes to allow servicemen and women to accept help, according to Buss-Blair. It’s a position he under-stands – he tells The Big Issue it took almost 13 years to accept support for his own mental health struggles after serving.
“I’ve been giving this a lot of thought because I’ve not been able to find any research on this – I can only go on personal experience,” says Buss-Blair. “When I speak to veterans and express this, general people are like ‘Oh yeah, we are taught when we serve that we are special, that we are a cut above civilians. They couldn’t do what we do and understand what we do.’
“You need to develop that esprit de corps that allows you to function as a unit in a high-stress situation. I think it’s absolutely a necessary part of military life, and I don’t think people have given a huge amount of thought to the long-term impacts of that when some-one leaves the service.
“There has been great progress made in breaking down these barriers with Op Courage – the NHS mental health service designed to help serving personnel due to leave the military, as well as veterans and their families.
The service launched in March 2021 and has helped get to grips with a long-standing issue, which Buss-Blair sees as evidence that the same progress can be made in housing homeless veterans.
In his latest Budget Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced £640 million will be spent on homelessness and rough sleeping next year. And the government has been hailing its £11.5 billion Affordable Homes Programme as tackling the housing crisis.
But costings from Riverside, Stoll, Alabaré and Launchpad – the four main providers of specialist housing for veterans in the UK – are much more modest.
It would cost just £2,781,985 per year to provide specialist supported housing to every veteran in the UK who needs it. Or £5,563,970 for two years of funding until the end of the current Parliament.
“With Op Courage they have recognised the barrier to engaging in mainstream mental health services, which I think is a really welcome and important step forward,” says Buss-Blair. “What we’re asking for is that same recognition to be applied to veteran homelessness and veteran sup-ported housing specifically because there is absolutely a need for it.”
To end homelessness takes more than just doing it for young or old, for black or white, for man or woman, for straight or LGBTQ+; it takes ending homelessness for everyone.
Next time you’re scrolling on social media and spot a post moaning about “immigrants stealing money from our veterans”, demand more to prevent homelessness for everyone. Division will leave the scourge of homelessness with us for years to come.
As another tweeter put it: “Can we not do both?”
SPACES is Riverside’s specialist armed forces housing advice and placement service. It has supported more than 20,000 veterans, who were homeless or at risk of homelessness, into accommodation. If you are or someone you know is a veteran threatened with homelessness contact SPACES’ specialist team on 01748 833797 or visit riverside.org.uk/care-and-support/veterans/spaces/
[This blog was originally published by The Big Issue, 8 November 2021]