A stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace’s back garden, in a neighbourhood dominated by big business and the hectic hustle of Victoria Station, the offices of Veterans Aid are in a small terraced house down a quiet mews.
The charity’s CEO, Dr Hugh Milroy OBE, known affectionately as the Wing Commander by his colleagues, welcomes The Big Issue. Inside, it is clean, bright, nondescript. But do not be fooled. This place is the heart of a revolutionary quest to prevent homelessness among former members of the armed services and to break the cycle of homelessness for anyone who has already slipped through the net.
Veterans Aid is causing a stir in the homelessness sector. It advocates swift and decisive action – run by the small team in its operations room here – offering immediate rest and recuperation as well as shelter for any ex-service people, before targeting the specific emotional, physical, psychological and financial needs of each individual.
Over the course of a morning, we talk with Milroy about homelessness prevention strategies and observe the charity’s operations room in action as it responds to requests from former service personnel facing homelessness and enacts the welfare-to-wellbeing model developed over decades by Milroy.
Because stopping an individual ending up on the street is good for society, good for the individual and good for everyone involved.
“I’m not saying we have got a total answer but we’ve got a working answer,” he says. Milroy glances at the photograph of Winston Churchill on the bookshelf adjacent to his desk. “This picture is to remind me every day of his wartime phrase: ‘action this day’. Our aim? Prevent, prevent, prevent!
“The whole aim of this building is to prevent homelessness. We have a full-time operations room, with the personnel empowered to take action immediately. Because stopping an individual ending up on the street is good for society, good for the individual and good for everyone involved.”
At 8.27am on the morning of our visit, an email arrives via the Veterans Aid website. A former serviceman with no money and no working phone is using the internet facilities at his library in Worcestershire to contact the charity. By 8.38am the charity has replied and by 8.46am, the former soldier has a freephone contact number to call. By 9.08am, his service record has been verified. And here, the “integrated delivery system” kicks in.
“We will do anything, we are absolutely empowered to stop bad things getting worse,” says Milroy, as his team – head of outreach John, plus 12-year Veterans Aid stalwart Deborah and more recent recruit Luke – set to work in the operations room.
Their tasks can involve a range of practical help. Milroy stresses that each person who comes to them is assessed and helped based on individual need. This will often include immediate accommodation in a local hotel, paid for by the charity. It may involve train tickets to enable them to get to London to meet the team and be assessed. Some are given money for new clothes.
But isn’t that taking a risk? “That’s right,” Milroy shoots back. “But how many adults want to be taken to the shop? We never hand out old clothes. We empower people to choose and buy their own clothes.”
On a bigger scale, this also means the charity has placed at-risk ex-service people with clear and present dangers from addiction into detox within an hour of first contact.
“We take financial risks because the person comes first. If the person is hungry, what do you do? It is the same principle,” says Milroy.
“We offer treatment as a way out, and if we do, it is available very quickly,” adds John, who mentions an RAF officer with two decades of service who called up from the West Country. She was immediately given hotel accommodation, assessed, and within two weeks was at a detox facility. While some people in the UK can wait for the best part of a year for mental health assessment and treatment, despite urgent need, the agility of this charity is striking.
“Our model is highly effective regardless of geographical location and we have embraced diversity entirely. The only qualification is having served in the armed forces,” says Milroy.
At 10.43am, a phone call comes in from a client. They have not been in touch for a few months. While they chat, Luke looks them up on Veterans Aid’s extensive database. He asks whether they are still in the same accommodation, working, and how they are doing. It’s just a social call. But it also helps Veterans Aid keep their information up to date and feeds into their effectiveness statistics.
“There is always a human voice at the end of the phone here,” says Deborah. “Sometimes people ring the bell and pop in, just for the social connection. It is all part of the prevention safety net.”
In the longer term, veterans who come here can expect targeted training and help in gaining steady employment. “We had four veterans starting at BT recently,” says Milroy. “We are absolutely, utterly invested in training. That is how you sustain your future.”
Help with finding, paying for, furnishing and settling into new accommodation is also provided when needed. Another financial risk, perhaps, but one that saves society money if they are able to maintain a job and pay rent.
The charity also has accommodation at Veterans Aid’s own recently renovated hostel and training facility, New Belvedere House in Stepney.
At its reopening in September, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan told The Big Issue: “What is clear listening to Dr Hugh Milroy, who has been such an inspiration to many people here, 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.
“The other thing that is important is that there is no time limit. They give as much time as they need. Some are on their feet within a few months, some take nine months, others take four years. But the key thing is to treat each person as an individual.”
Khan and Milroy meet again this week to look at ways Veterans Aid’s welfare to wellbeing model can be extended beyond ex-services.
On November 11, it will be business as usual at Veterans Aid, bar the two-minute silence at 11am.
For despite a willingness to spend money up front to make early and decisive interventions in the lives of the people they work with, this is a streamlined operation. On an annual turnover of less than £2m, Veterans Aid provided 22,000 nights of accommodation for the 479 ex-servicemen and women they helped last year, and 50 veterans were put through addiction treatment.
“When you consider our success rate against the spend it is remarkable,” says Milroy. “I worry about how much money some of the big charities have got in reserves. You really have to ask yourself, what is that money for? We are making a real difference and preventing people becoming homeless right now.”
By 12.28pm, the ex-serviceman has been fully engaged. “We are freewheeling with him,” says Milroy. “He has been given an offer of immediate, genuine help. The door is open to him.”
On November 11, it will be business as usual at Veterans Aid, bar the two-minute silence at 11am. “This is a place of hope. A place of focus. And a place of deliberate action,” says Milroy. “This is a 365-days-a-year operation.”