There is often an association made between homelessness and ex-service personnel but it is difficult to prove its accuracy.
The Royal British Legion says it is a myth that there is a high proportion of rough sleepers who have served their time with the forces.
But what do the figures tell us?
What percentage of UK homeless are veterans?
The Royal British Legion’s long-held estimate is that somewhere between three and six per cent of homeless people have an armed forces background, but there are concerns that some homeless veterans are rendered “invisible” by the way statistics are collected.
In a 2014 report surveying the ex-forces community, the Legion reported that the number of veterans living on the streets in London has plummeted since the 1990s when figures indicated that 20 per cent of the homeless population was ex-services at the time. A 2008 study found that the proportion had dropped to six per cent.
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More recent statistics suggest that rough sleeping among veterans is at an even lower rate in the present day. The Combined Homelessness and Information Network, known as CHAIN, tracks the flow of rough sleeping in London and is regarded as one of the most accurate measures in the UK, ahead of the official annual counts.
The database revealed the percentage of UK nationals with experience of serving in the armed forces was as low as three per cent in 2017/18 and fell to two per cent in 2018/19. And the percentage remained the same for 2019/20 with 129 UK veterans seen by outreach workers sleeping rough. When foreign nationals are taken into account, six per cent of people sleeping rough in 2019/20 had served in the armed forces at some point in their lives.
But the London-centric nature of the figures demonstrates just one of the problems with counting how many veterans are homeless across England and the wider UK.
In early 2020, University of Salford academic Mark Wilding penned a report on the subject which found that veterans were “predominantly self-referring into direct access hostels or accessing support through Armed Forces charities and community organisations” rather than going through the statutory homelessness system.
The problem with the statistics in the way that they are is it renders homeless veterans invisible
This is backed up by statistics showing the number of veterans approaching councils for help with homelessness in England between April and June 2019. A total of 70,030 households were assessed and owed a prevention or relief duty – when the council is required to step in to prevent or relieve homelessness under the Homelessness Reduction Act – but only 440 were recorded as needing support due to serving in the armed forces, making up 0.63 per cent of the figures.
While reporting to armed forces charities is not problematic in itself, with ex-servicemen and women able to access specialist support, Wilding suggested that some homeless veterans were being rendered “invisible” in statistics.
He said: “It shouldn’t necessarily be the case that you have to go the statutory homelessness route because veterans often have specialist issues that the local authority homelessness team might not be best equipped to cope with.
“It should be that they can get that support from armed forces charities, especially if they are best placed to help them, but this needs to be recognised. Because beyond the knowledge of these armed forces charities who are doing that work it becomes quite separated from homelessness as a mainstream issue.
“The charities are doing that work but this is the problem with the statistics in the way that they are – it renders homeless veterans invisible.”
Wilding insisted that there needs to be a change in how homelessness statistics are collected to improve coverage, suggesting that replicating the CHAIN model elsewhere would benefit how we understand not only rough sleeping but the scale of veterans living on the streets.
A greater take-up of the Armed Forces Covenant – a promise by the nation ensuring that those who serve or who have served in the armed forces, and their families, are treated fairly – among housing organisations could also help to join up the work being already done to combat homelessness among veterans.
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The academic added: “It’s pretty difficult to get to the crux of the problem. It would require the government changing the way that homelessness statistics are collected because they are based on priority need. So in that sense homelessness statistics are an underestimate of what’s actually out there.
“There’s definitely scope for bottom-up work to be done. The work that CHAIN does is supported by the London Mayor so perhaps if other regions were able to get that support from local government then they could do similar things. And help to try and get attention to the issue.”
How many veterans are there in the UK?
Ministry of Defence estimates made in 2019 put the number of former service personnel currently residing in Britain at around 2.5 million. The figures show that over the next ten years, the number of veterans in Great Britain is expected to decrease by around one million, to approximately 1.6 million by 2028.
But when the 2.5 million figure is compared to the homelessness figures above, it suggests that the Royal British Legion is correct to say that the association between homelessness and veterans can be considered to be something of a myth. But there is still a need to prevent ex-forces personnel from falling into difficulties.
Why are veterans homeless in the UK?
According to Sir Andrew Gregory, chief executive of forces charity SSAFA, the issues facing veterans often stem from difficulties in adapting to civilian life after years spent with a regimented lifestyle where many day-to-day tasks are already taken care of. This can then result in the “eight Ds”: drink, debt, drugs, divorce, depression, domestic violence, dependency culture, and “digs”, meaning accommodation.
Failing to get a handle on these issues can end in homelessness and that is why SSAFA urge veterans to come forward early for support.
Sir Andrew told The Big Issue: “So often, the challenges facing the people we help start from something simple. Perhaps something like having come out of the armed forces, they don’t budget very well and they get into debt, they default on the rent, they lose their accommodation, they then find they’ve lost the job, then the relationship breaks down, then that leads to mental issues that perhaps they’ve had come to the fore, and suddenly we find ourselves picking them up.”
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