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UK is wasting the skills of homeless veterans, says ex-soldier turned artist

Bran Symondson, an artist who served in the special forces in Afghanistan, said homeless veterans are victims of a lack of support when they leave the Army

The UK is “wasting” the skills of homeless veterans, according to artist and former special forces soldier Bran Symondson.

The conceptual artist, also known as one of the world’s best reportage photographers, served in Afghanistan and told The Big issue that he understood the difficulty in returning to civilian life.

“The transfer from military life to civilian life can be quite tricky. I struggled and I was only in the reserves. You get indoctrinated into that world,” he said.

“The MOD has put hundreds of thousands of pounds in to train these guys up and then it’s not being utilised. I think there’s a lot of skill sets that are being wasted.”

The number of people experiencing homelessness who served in the army has decreased since the 1990s, when it was feared 20 per cent of the homeless population had a military background.

These days the official figure is much lower, with just two per cent of rough sleepers in London having a military background according to the latest official figures. There are currently no such estimates for the UK as a whole, however.

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Symondson pointed to the regimented lifestyle and the risk of trauma for veterans as complicating factors for their reintegration into life outside the forces.

“If people have been in the military for a long period of time, you’ve got to think that they’re being told where to sleep, what time to eat, their meals are supplied for them. They don’t have to think about putting a roof over their head. 

“If you then put into the mix that, probably, they’ve had some altercation in the military, or they’ve had an experience that’s made them feel a bit jarred, that’s going to add to a situation,” he said.

“I don’t think enough is done really to help people.”

Big Issue vendor Cornell Toman, who sells the magazine outside WH Smith on Norfolk Street in King’s Lynn, agreed with Symondson.

A veteran who served in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Singapore, Toman said it took him a while to sort himself out when he returned to civilian life.

“You can’t just throw people out of the army and think that they are going to be OK,” he said. “At the end of the day, there should be more counselling to help people and let them have someone to talk to when they get stressed out. I think mental health support makes a big difference.”

Symondson created an artwork in response to his dismay at seeing his fellow soldiers sleeping rough. “Change” is a Fender Stratocaster plastered with American dollar bills, on each of which is printed “Can you spare any change please”.

Symondson is well known for his art made from decommissioned AK-47s, in which he often uses currency and butterflies. The butterflies represent the souls of those who are no longer with us, he said, and in ‘Change’ he said this “sadly ties in with the number of homeless who die on the streets every year”.

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He has donated the artwork to The Big Art Auction, which will raise money to support The Big Issue through the tough winter ahead.

Symondson said he was keen to support The Big Issue, as he can understand how ex-service people might find themselves in need of the opportunity the magazine presents.

“Seeing homeless veterans has always sort of struck a chord with me because I’m aware of the mental and physical sacrifices they’ve made for their country. I guess there’s that aspect to them sort of being thrown on the used pile,” he added.

“There’s been a couple of times when I’ve probably been two moves away from being homeless myself. It only takes a few knocks from different areas of your life to suddenly give up a bit.”

The Big Art Auction takes place on November 4. Find out more here.