As we remember the sacrifices of those that served, here’s how Britain’s new Office for Veteran Affairs can act to end veterans’ homelessness

At this time of year as the nation comes together to pause and commemorate those who made the ultimate sacrifice in active service in all conflicts, it is also important to remember that we must also focus on all those who have served and their families.

As well as reflecting on the past it is also important to think ahead and ask what more can we do to improve the lives of those who served and survived.

In 2017 it was estimated that there were approximately 2.4 million veterans residing in Great Britain – a larger number than the populations of the cities of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle combined.

On their own Britain’s service veterans account for estimated 5% of British households.

It is vitally important that we as a country carefully think through and plan for the future of our service veterans so that they can live health, happy and productive lives after their service.

The Government has done just that this year with the creation of the Office for Veterans Affairs (OVA) four months ago.

Headed up by retired Colonel David Richmond CBE, the UK’s most senior officer to be injured in combat in Afghanistan, the OVA aims to ensure that every single veteran and their family knows where to turn to access support when required.

The OVA will report to Oliver Dowden and Johnny Mercer as Ministers for the Cabinet office and for Defence and veterans respectively.

This is the first time that veterans’ affairs will be overseen by dedicated ministers in the Cabinet Office to ensure the whole of government pulls together to deliver the life-long support our veterans deserve.

Now we have the weight of Government behind veterans’ affairs what do we want them to achieve?

As the largest provider of supported housing for people affected by homelessness in the UK, Riverside supported more than 12,000 homeless people in 2018/19 including more than 1,900 veterans.

The Royal British Legion estimates that there are 6,000 homeless veterans in the UK.

What can the OVA do to work with the homelessness sector to end veteran homelessness?

  1. The creation of a Housing Transition Partnership:

At the start of this month the Government announced the launch of a new Defence Transition Service to cover things such as: personal finance, accessing healthcare, housing costs and paying council tax.

We believe every single service leaver, whatever their circumstances should be mandatorily asked about their future housing options as they prepare to leave Service.

Those identified as being at risk of homelessness should be given bespoke and well-informed advice.

To achieve this, a Housing Transition Partnership should be established, as part of the transition process, to co-ordinate of existing resources to ensure that every single Serviceman and woman has some form of housing available to them which they can sustain for the long-term.

Riverside’s SPACES service advised 679 single service leavers in 2018/19, and a further 228 service leavers through the Military Corrective Training Centre.

Creating a Housing Transition Partnership managed jointly by the OVA, the Defence Transition Service, the LGA, and providers of supported and social housing, would ensure that service leavers have the right advice and support to make sure they access some form of housing when they leave.

  1. Public bodies need to identify who is a veteran:

All Local Authorities and other agencies in the ‘civilian’ sphere should establish if a person seeking housing support is a Veteran.

As well as asking and recording the answer all local authorities should have a clear plan to respond to the Veterans they identify with Local Authority Housing Departments obligated to consider Veterans’ needs in their housing and homelessness strategies, as well as in the planning of future housing support services.

Local authorities currently have flexibility to prioritise application from ex-service personnel but this statutory guidance is not consistently applied.

To help ensure all Local Authorities proactively identify Veterans, the H-CLIC form that local authorities use to record homelessness data needs to be amended to specifically ask for data on Veterans.

Riverside was the first Housing Association to sign up to the Armed Forces Covenant, and we would encourage all Local Authorities, and providers of social housing to also do so.

  1. Specialist supported housing for Veterans is invaluable in ending Veterans’ homelessness and must be put on a sustainable financial footing once and for all:

Veterans can find it difficult engage with and trust professionals in services who have no military background, potentially as a result of their experience of transition, making them feel threatened, and insular, which can often result in social isolation.

Creating a specialist supported housing service solely supporting Veterans would create a sense of safety and security, and services can be better targeted to the specific needs of Veterans who have unique experiences that civilians may not have any comprehension of.

The potential for peer support among veterans in supported housing together is also a powerful aid for recovery and successful transition into independent living.

Given the unusual nature of demand, which is often associated with Veterans who originate from outside the area where they are seeking accommodation, revenue costs for support services should be funded nationally, through a fund established by MHCLG, rather than by local authorities.

Veterans are the only supported housing sector in the UK where the majority of the support costs are paid for by charities. This is not sustainable.

As Councillor Ian Hudspeth, the leader of Oxfordshire County Council and Chairman of the LGA’s Community and Wellbeing Board notes: “The scale of the funding challenge facing local government means it is becoming increasingly challenging to maintain the current level of support for the armed forces community.”

As the provider of three specialist accommodation services for veterans we can confirm that two of those services have lost their revenue funding.

As a result of this we are not able to work with veterans with the level of complexity we could be doing because we cannot fund the staff.

As an organisation we are excited that the Government has created the OVA to better look after the needs of Veterans.

Now it’s time to get public bodies working together in a coherent way and providing secure, long-term funding to ensure that together we end homelessness among Veterans.