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Preventing veteran homelessness: how your local authority’s Armed Forces Champion can help

We’ve learnt, over the last 20 or so years, how to help prepare people leaving care, hospital or prison so as to avert the chance of homelessness. Not that it always works: since 2010, we’ve gone backwards in regards to well-planned prison releases because of the privatisation of probation and some prisons, and cuts in advice and support services; and too many young people move into privately-run halfway schemes which don’t properly prepare them for full independence.

But we know what is needed. Lots of work has gone into tenancy training programmes and materials, improving liaison between prisons and homelessness services; and money is finally going back into services which identify people at risk of sleeping rough when released from prison.

In the arena of people leaving the Armed Forces, however, it seems there is more to be done. Labour Housing Group was very pleased to speak at a very informative fringe meeting at Labour’s Annual Conference this year, organised by SME4Labour for the trade union Community, which includes private prison staff and steelworkers amongst its members.

The meeting, held as part of Community’s veteran homelessness campaign, brought together speakers with personal knowledge of the challenges facing people exiting the forces, experience of developing solutions to meet particular housing and support needs, and a politician (John Healey, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence) with a background in finding the right policy solutions on the ground and in Parliament in health, housing, and defence roles.

We learnt that preparation for leaving a post in the forces does not go far beyond looking at applying for jobs. As a result, it’s not unusual for someone without a home to go to to say “Oh it’s okay, I’ll get a council house” without any idea if how difficult that can be in most parts of the country.

Three factors in particular can affect whether the person has a smooth path into accommodation, in addition to the usual ones (having savings, sorting out a well-paid job before leaving, and having family with their own resources to support their child/spouse/sibling).

The first is the loss of self-identity, losing your community back-up, and a lack of understanding of the civilian lifestyle,that hits many ex-service personnel. This can have a drastic impact on confidence and general mental health.

People who have been used to making decisions within a totally different system from the military one they are used to may benefit from support. There is now a lot more support available, in supported accommodation or through other services, but there is not enough to meet everyone’s needs.

The second is that all too many people leave active service in places like Afghanistan and Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or traumatic brain injury (often undiagnosed) as a result of exposure to blasts, both of which can result in depression, impulsive behaviour and overuse of alcohol and/or drugs.

The consequent problems of relationship breakdown, debt, offending and homelessness are familiar stories for families and those working with people in these situations.

The third factor is that people who exit following a misdemeanour are likely to have less time to prepare as well as less money, and perhaps even a loss of their pension.

There have been some recent improvements in policy responses. The Armed Forces Covenant has led to homeless ex-service applicants being able to be helped without consideration of any local connection, and the Homelessness Reduction Act should mean everyone getting a full assessment of their needs for Housing and for support.

Councils are asked to appoint a councillor as an Armed Forces Champion, and some have gone further by appointing an officer to strengthen support for the armed forces community. However, not all local authorities are responding as they should.

So here’s some things to check:

  • Does your council have an Armed Forces Champion? If not, and you are a councillor, could you offer to take on that role?
  • Has your council adopted the Armed Forced Covenant?
  • Does your housing allocations policy and practice ensure that ex-service applicants can apply for housing in your area even if they do not have a formal local connection?
  • Had your housing options team built good links with ex-service organisations, and prisons too, so that they can help people leaving the services or ex-service personnel leaving prions to avoid being homeless?
  • Does your authority focus on how to advise and signpost both serving and ex-serving personnel to housing, benefit, employment and health services?

Other things need to change to make the system work for people leaving the forces: reversing the cuts in drug and alcohol services; better collaboration between prisons and housing services – and far more housing advice staff in prisons; improving the way that mental health and drug and alcohol treatments work together; and, of course, building more public housing so that there are genuinely affordable, safe, and secure options for people in this situation.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Sheila Spencer</span></strong>
Sheila Spencer

Sheila has been Secretary of the Labour Housing Group (LHG) since 2018, having re-joined LHG Executive after a gap of many years.

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Heroes fit for homes

Ex-service personnel have always featured highly amongst the homeless.  For many years the armed forces seemed particularly bad at helping people re-settle after their discharge.  There was no single cause for homelessness: sometimes physical disability made people less able to work and more vulnerable, sometimes mental stresses and post-trauma conditions made life back in civilian life more difficult to bear.  Sometimes people had become institutionalised or distanced from their families and an inability to re-settle led to problems with alcohol or drugs.  Some faced discrimination. 
For decades small charities campaigned to get a fair housing deal for homeless ex-service men and women but it was an uphill struggle.  The 1977 homelessness legislation provided one route to a decent home for some: if vulnerability through disability could be demonstrated then a social rented home would be found.  But this was not enough: research by Crisis in the mid 1990s found that around one-quarter of the single homeless population had spent time in the armed forces
Since then, increased awareness and better services, both within the armed forces and in local government and the voluntary sector, have had a demonstrable impact on the problem, with Crisis estimating that ex-service people are now around 6% of the single homeless population.  And in a very important step, the Labour Government changed the priority need categories in the homelessness legislation to give clear rights to vulnerable former members of the armed forces.
Striking his most Churchillian pose, Housing Minister Grant Shapps seeks to make the most of today’s announcement by Defence Minister Liam Fox about the improving the ‘military covenant’.   Shapps’ statement is littered with pomposity but little practical action: ‘These brave men and women… heroes … we will not stand idly by… our duty as a nation… we must hear their call’.  There is nothing wrong with the government giving ex-service people priority (in some as yet undefined way) for the FirstBuy scheme, shared equaity schemes, self-build projects and the like.  But it will hardly crack the problem.
In his little list, Shapps included ‘fairer treatment for military personnel applying to live in social housing’.  On the surface, fair enough, given their incomes and housing histories, the route into social housing is likely to be more important than the others in ensuring ex-armed forces personnel obtain an affordable secure decent home.
Call me an old cynic, but isn’t this the same Grant Shapps who has ended the production of social  housing at target rents in the future?  Who has brought about the slashing of ‘supporting people’ budgets – used to support homeless ex-service personnel amongst others – in many areas of the country?  Who has promoted legislation that will remove the right of vulnerable ex-service personnel to be rehoused in a social rented home?  Like everyone else, in future homeless ex-service personnel are likely to be offered a letting in the higher-cost, insecure private rented sector.
It pays to be careful when you see a Tory waving the flag.  In all likelihood they will be up to no good.