A room with a view – £8m flagship veterans hostel takes shape.

Take away the prefix ‘youth’ from ‘hostel’ and the image conjured up is not usually an attractive one. Those who have spent time in temporary accommodation for the homeless describe noisy impersonal places where people down on their luck seek refuge only from the even bleaker prospect of living on the street.

 

A former client at Veterans Aid‘s ‘home’ (sic) for ex-servicemen described one he had spent time in as ‘reeking of marijuana, stinking of piss and noisy as hell’.

The £8.2m rescue and redevelopment of VA’s New Belvedere House is an investment in something that will rewrite the manual on ‘hostel living’. Gleaming state of the art training kitchens, computer suites, a professional standard gym/fitness centre, thoughtfully equipped study-bedrooms and public areas where the interplay of light, colour and space provoke impromptu smiles . . . complemented by a move-on block of semi-independent living units, the ‘new look’ New Belvedere House will be bigger, brighter and better.

The hostel enjoys a success rate of around 90% – lives that are turned around tend to stay on track. But that’s no accident. Veterans who are admitted with nothing leave with hope – a network of reliable friends, a training course or two under their belt, the prospect of a job and a new home. There are failures of course, but they are few and untypical.

Funding the build has been the biggest challenge in VA’s history – a huge ask for an organisation with no marketing department, employing just 25 people and until recently no in-house fundraising manager. Since the present hostel opened in the 1970s it has helped more than 700 homeless, or potentially homeless, veterans; it has given them hope, a reason for living and the tools with which to do it.

Each stage of the refurbishment has been followed by a sigh of relief and expressions of wonder, but the last part of the project is not a rebuild, it is an extension. The building is, literally. ‘going up’. The picture above shows a bird’s eye view of the planned expansion; in the months to come it will take shape leaving only interior spaces to be painted, furnished, equipped and occupied.

*The charity is still £1.5m short of the total needed to complete the build and still needs help to raise it. If you want to know more about how you can support this inspiration project please email Funds1@veterans-aid.net or read about the project on the VA website: www.veterans-aid.net

Re-evaluating veterans – it’s time we were honest

Speaking to Glyn Strong of Veterans Aid, the organisation’s CEO, Dr. Hugh Milroy,  says the nation’s love affair with its Armed Forces is an enduring one, but our stereotypes of veterans may end up having a negative impact on government funding, recruiting and even the judicial system.

It’s worrying that veterans are being singled out as a societal ‘group apart’; a cohort of universally vulnerable, damaged, deserving and abandoned individuals, says Dr Milroy.

As the Government contemplates a radical shake-up of its housing policy to end rough sleeping, perhaps it’s time to decouple the issue from military service – a linkage that, despite evidence to the contrary, comes up in debate with monotonous regularity!

The nation’s love affair with its Armed Forces is an enduring one, but like any long-term relationship it can be turbulent and complicated.

CEO of Veterans Aid Dr. Hugh Milroy – a combat veteran of 17 years who has been involved in the world of homeless veterans for more than 20  – is quick to point out that service in the Royal Navy, Army, or Royal Air Force does not confer sainthood. He runs a charity that has been helping veterans who are homeless or in crisis since 1932 and his bête-noir is stereotyping.

“I applaud the CSJ for advocating a ‘Housing First’ approach to chronic rough sleeping. ‘Housing First’ is a seductive and appealing concept for politicians and policy makers but a quick Google search shows that it is not regarded as being universally successful. There is a real danger of urban myth subjugating reality. The world of homelessness among veterans is a case in point.

“I’d like to use the current focus on Housing First to point out two ‘inconvenient’ things; firstly, veterans do not feature disproportionately in Government homelessness statistics and secondly that ‘Housing First’ isn’t the only solution! The Veterans Aid ‘Welfare to Wellbeing’© model has been delivering holistic solutions to street homelessness for many years with a heavy focus on prevention. It is a transferable and highly successful pathway with 92% of those completing it going on to lead sustainable independent lives.”

There are now fewer than 3 million veterans in the UK and the strength of HM Regular Forces is just 153,470. Unsurprisingly, most voters get their information about military life via the media. And as we know from recent debates about ‘fake news’ and the power of controversial ‘tweets’ there are people who will say, and believe, anything.

“The shorthand that treats veterans as an homogenous group, comprising heroes, victims and villains, has implications that impact on government funding, recruiting and even the judicial system. Claims become certainties, trapped like redundant ghosts in popular search engines, ready for rapid recycling before they pass into public perception and crystalise into fact.

“My staff and I have been verbally abused for speaking out about stolen valour, self-diagnosed PTSD and our daily experiences with veterans whose life-crises have less to do with military service than poverty, homelessness, social isolation, addiction, relationship breakdown and debt. Some of our clients come straight from prison; not because ‘war drove them to crime’ but because, after serving for as little as one day in HM Armed Forces, they are ‘entitled’ – to call themselves veterans and tap into a vast dedicated support network.  This has to be said: The ‘hero, victim and villain’ tagging of veterans simply isn’t helping anyone and it’s time that those politicians, members of the media and charity world who routinely use such designations, stop doing so.

“My PhD was about homelessness among veterans and my experience, over years as a researcher and practitioner, is that very few can ascribe their life problems to military service. My worry is that if veterans continue to be regarded as causally damaged, it may impact on the defence of the nation by deterring young men and women from enlisting.”

Veterans Aid has been accused of ‘talking itself out of business’ by challenging the universal hero narrative – a claim that only underlines the power of the media and huge lack of understanding among those who confuse reportage with research.

“It seems to me that by assigning the term ‘hero’ to everyone who has served, society is devaluing the actions of the few who truly deserve the label. Many veterans are never deployed, never serve on operations and never find themselves in harm’s way. And let’s be clear, today’s ex-servicemen and women are not conscripts; they chose to enlist and wear a uniform. They signed up to a career and accepted a wage – just like members of the police, fire or ambulance service.”

Perhaps uniquely among military charities, Veterans Aid confirms the service of putative veterans seeking its help. Those who exaggerate or lie about their service are quickly identified. The irony is that they don’t need to make fictive claims; the charity is there to provide immediate practical support to any veteran in crisis, regardless of his/her age, ethnicity, gender, orientation, religion, length of service or rank – on humanitarian grounds and because they are entitled.

“It’s worrying that veterans are being singled out as a societal ‘group apart’; a cohort of universally vulnerable, damaged, deserving and abandoned individuals. This perception has been shaped by media activity, which, in turn, has driven legislation, and on 16 May 2011 The Armed Forces Covenant was rolled out.  (“A promise from the nation that those who serve or have served, and their families, are treated fairly.”) I’m on record as hailing its worthy motives  . . . and questioning its relevance.”

Many homeless veterans, lionised by local media and described as heroes, are former clients of the Veterans Aid.

Milroy concludes, “The number of genuinely ‘street homeless’ veterans is so small that we now recognise many of them as they move around the country. Some have complex mental health or behavioural problems that long pre-date their military service. Some have alcohol or drug addictions that they have been unable, or unwilling, to face.  Hardly any are there because, at one time in their life, they served in the Armed Forces.  A recent example was a chronically homeless ‘veteran’ used as a flagship case study.  His ‘PTSD’ was highlighted and there was a distinct impression that the man’s 30 years on the streets was linked to his military experience. The reality is that he served for fewer than three months and had never been deployed on military operations. This linkage has to stop.

“As for not enough being done; for some years it has been clear that there has been over-capacity in facilities for homeless veterans.  There is no reason for any veteran to be on the streets of Britain today but this doesn’t seem to stop almost daily exaggeration and exploitation of the issue.  Challenging the script is a constant battle, whether it relates to homelessness, PTSD or numbers in prison.

“I fervently hope that whatever approach the Government adopts to tackle rough sleeping in future, reflects this and acknowledges that veterans are a part of – not apart from – society.”

First published in POLITICS HOME

Why the UK needs a Stolen Valour Act.

MedalsToday The Sun became the latest national newspaper to highlight the need for a Stolen Valour Act as the scale of the ‘Walter Mitty’ problem among men falsely claiming military service, acts of valour or conflict-related PTSD unfolds.

Wg Cdr Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO of the 84-year-old charity Veterans Aid, has long been an advocate of a UK Stolen Valour Act. He wants the Government to consider a UK equivalent to America’s Stolen Valor Act, and similar laws in Australia and Canada, under which it is a crime to make false claims about military decorations.

The frontline charity he heads up checks all propsective clients’ credentials and has first hand knowledge of how widely fantasy is used to excuse or explain failings, gain public sympathy and feed vanity

In the UK, pretending to have served in the armed forces is only illegal if the person doing so stands to make financial gain, for which they can be pursued for fraud. But prosecutions for such offences are rare.

Dr Milroy said:  “This is a really important  issue and we mustn’t let the military become an object of derision or mistrust in British society because they are part of society. In the end this behaviour, if unstopped, will end up putting the defence of the nation at risk.

“If we have a system where politicians think this is nothing more than a joke then they are colluding in this. It’s not a joke. It offends. People are really angry about it.

“The fact is that these people can do and say what they like with virtual impunity. We had a guy yesterday, here at Veterans Aid,  who had done three evenings with the TA and declared he had PTSD.”

It’s not just a question of Stolen Valour but also Stolen Trauma. This latter leads to NHS and charity resources being wasted on people pretending to be mentally ill; it leaves Social Services unable to do their job properly without knowing which clients are genuine and which were not.

Dr Milroy believes that even those within the Criminal Justice System – the police, courts and prisons – do not know if indivduals are  claiming military trauma and PTSD to get lighter treatment.

He said: “We are working with a major British prison and of the 45 people who have come forward since Veterans Aid came on board  to verify their military service, nearly half were found never to have served.

“We can cite lots of cases. We’ve   got a guy who must have been in prison the best part of 100 times and he tells them every time that he has ‘served for 10 years , fought undercover in the Lebanon, and got PTSD’. The reality is  that he spent just three weeks in the Royal Marines.”

See The Sun article HERE.

A salute to Sir Terry Wogan

In May 2012 I had the privilege of meeting and filming Sir Terry with colleagues from TTV Pictures, for the charity Veterans Aid. We met at the BBC on a Sunday morning shortly before he was due to go on air.

Terry Wogan - Stand by MeHe was affable, relaxed, professional and friendly – interested in the charity’s work and in no hurry to get the recording done; in short, one of the nicest individuals I have ever met. His time, to raise awareness of the charity’s event (The Big Bus Pull),  was freely given; it was a relatively brief encounter, but the  memory of his charm and gracious reception will endure. I know that colleagues at Veterans Aid and TTV Pictures will be as saddened as I am to learn of his passing.