Sadiq Khan doubles down on homelessness prevention at hostel re-opening

“If we stop someone becoming a rough sleeper, that is mission accomplished," said Khan, who has re-opened London's flagship homeless veterans facility New Belvedere House after an £8m revamp

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has vowed to redouble efforts in eliminating rough sleeping in the capital. Speaking to The Big Issue at the opening of a refurbished and extended facility for homeless ex-servicemen run by charity Veterans Aid, Khan also stressed the need for more to be done to prevent homelessness and rough sleeping.

Khan was attending the official opening of New Belvedere House in Tower Hamlets, which will now provide accommodation for 66 veterans.

“Those who sell The Big Issue and those who read The Big Issue will be fully aware that here in London there are too many people that are rough sleeping – but also that too many of them are veterans,” said Khan. “One of the great things about this centre is the help they give to veterans who are sleeping rough, who have fallen through the cracks, and who have not been given the support and assistance they need.

“They have a track record of helping veterans who are sleeping rough, providing a roof over their head, training, access to medical care – but also access to people who were here before and are now leading good and fulfilling lives. It is really important that people are given hope and shown it is possible to leave the streets and lead fulfilling lives.”

The approach employed by Veterans Aid and its partners at Belvedere House is producing impressive results. Khan thinks there is much to be learnt from the individually tailored care the centre provides for its residents.

“If we fell on hard times, our needs would be different,” he said.  “What is so important about the work here at New Belvedere House is that they treat each person as an individual. You may have mental health needs, you may need to be retrained so you can get a job, you may be without a family and socially isolated, you may need help in learning how to cook because when you were in the armed forces it was provided for you and you have lost those skills.

We have also moved into prevention in a really big way. We operate an operations room in Victoria to stop people getting onto the streets in the first place

The Big Issue also spoke to Veterans Aid CEO Doctor Hugh Milroy at New Belvedere House. He believes the methods employed by the charity are having a dramatic effect in reducing homelessness among former members of the armed services. “The thing about homelessness among veterans is that we have genuinely broken it,” he told us. “There is no need for any veteran to be on the street. I can tell you this place is breaking all the moulds. The methodology we call ‘Welfare To Wellbeing’, and it is an empowerment model. We invest in people.

Milroy also explained how he is focusing on prevention, with Veterans Aid running an operations room in Victoria to stop people getting onto the streets in the first place.“We use social media, phone calls, raise awareness and brief the police – because there is no need for any veteran to be on the street,” he said.

People are here because of life in Britain. There are 14 million people living in poverty in this country

On the personalised methods Veterans Aid employs, Dr Milroy added: “What we have here is a postmodern approach to the whole idea of exclusion. We homed 136 without difficulty last year and we have a 90 per cent success rate. How do we know that? We keep in touch and know that six months after leaving us they are still in the same place. So pre-us, there is chaos, which is the street way of life. Post-us, stability and integration. We empower these lads.

“There is a guy here who was just about to go on the streets and is now a barrister. Another starts his MA on Monday. It is interesting watching people get back on their feet, because homelessness is not inevitable. It is not a fixed state. We can break it and Veterans Aid is proof that you can do.”

Craig McWha, 48, served in the RAF for nine years. Soon after leaving, he found himself on the street following a relationship breakdown and the loss of his job. “Someone told me about Veterans Aid and within 30 minutes, I was getting fed and they had validated my service status,” he told us. “The Welfare to Wellbeing model that they promote actually works. They dive on you, support services are available instantly. It is like the Housing First model, but a lot more tailored to the individual – and the support services actually follow through, whereas with Housing First it often doesn’t.

McWha is now a housing officer with Hammersmith and Fulham. “Here, any substance needs or alcoholism is treated, work-related issues – training or job-seeking help is provided – and you are given time to find yourself away from the pressures of having to pay rent or bills,” he said.

There is a camaraderie among the guys in here. You all have that military ethos

The atmosphere at New Belvedere House also helps – being reminiscent of the residents’ time in the forces. “There is a camaraderie among the guys in here. You all have that military ethos,” continues McWha. “You might have been out of the services for years, but you walk in here and something clicks in. You see the regimental plaques when you move in, it is a recognisable environment.”

Craig McWha (right) with fellow former resident of New Belvedere House, Simon Eastmead
Craig McWha (right) with fellow former resident of New Belvedere House, Simon Eastmead

Impressed by the stories he heard from people who had been helped by Veterans Aid and New Belvedere House – even before the extension and refurbishment – Sadiq Khan said he was keen that other service providers in the homelessness sector are able to see their work in action. On wider plans to reduce homelessness in London, particularly the all-too visible rises in rough sleeping, the Mayor told The Big Issue: “In the eight years before I became mayor, rough sleeping doubled. It is unacceptable that in 2018 there are so many rough sleepers in London. As a result of our policies, we have seen in the first year the increases stopped – so there was a plateau – and in the second year, a decrease by eight per cent. We need to redouble our efforts to tackle rough sleeping.”

Khan also backed the prevention agenda championed by The Big Issue and its founder John Bird. “Prevention is so important,” said Khan. “If we can stop someone becoming a rough sleeper in the first place, that is mission accomplished. t is about recognising people may have mental health needs, they may have difficulty paying the rent, people may need subsidised housing or may be socially isolated and lonely, they may be addicted to alcohol or drugs. If we can respond to their needs and prevent someone becoming a rough sleeper in the first place, that is really important.”

Sadiq Khan with The Big Issue
London Mayor Sadiq Khan is a keen supporter of The Big Issue

Image: Mayor of London