Housing

Can the government deliver on its promise to end veteran homelessness by the end of this year?

A new hotline launched as part of Op Fortitude – the government-backed bid to support homeless veterans off the streets – has been in demand after launching in July

veteran homelessness

Riverside's Lee Buss-Blair (right), pictured alongside Colin Eastaway from The Block, described the surge in demand for the Op Fortitude helpline as a "catastrophic success". Image: Supplied

There is a disproportionate number of homeless veterans in England, and a growing recognition that this is fuelled by difficulties adjusting to civilian life after service, including PTSD, alcohol misuse and relationship breakdown.

While councils can give additional preference to veterans in urgent need of housing, experts have argued that they still face additional barriers to support.

But now, after three years of asking the government for more funding to help support homeless veterans in England into housing, this July saw the launch of Op Fortitude, a new pathway for veteran homeless support, bolstered by £8.5million government funding over two years. 

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This is the year that veteran homelessness in England will come to an end, according to Johnny Mercer, minister for veterans’ affairs. He said – on air on LBC in February – that this huge achievement will be all thanks to Op Fortitude.

In its first week, 150 veterans called the Op Fortitude hotline, which is more than 10% of the volume of calls it expected to receive over the entire first year.

“I hate admitting I don’t know things, but it’s the first time we’ve tried this in England, so there will a lot of things we don’t know,” says Lee-Buss Blair, director of operations and group veteran lead at housing association Riverside, who is running the scheme.

Buss-Blair suspects that the main reason for this demand is because many veterans have been waiting for the scheme to go live since it was announced last year, because it’s veteran-specific.

“Good quality mainstream homeless services work just as effectively with veterans as with anyone else, but the more time I’ve spent with veterans, the more I’ve heard the same story in relation to veterans waiting far longer to ask for help than most people, and being really reluctant to engage with mainstream services,” Buss-Blair says.

“I personally recognise this – I spent a decade avoiding getting help for my mental health. I thought that those in mainstream services couldn’t possibly understand or help me. It’s flawed logic, but when you’re in that headspace it’s so real and difficult to get out of.

“It wasn’t until I reached the point of absolute crisis – in my case, a complete psychotic breakdown – that I had no other choice but to engage in mainstream services.

“I don’t want veterans to reach the pit of absolute rock bottom before accepting support. Veteran-supported housing overcomes the barrier of engaging with mainstream services.”

Supported housing – which Op Fortitude focuses on – can offer wraparound support, where specialist agencies can help with issues such as employment, mental illness and substance abuse. But Op Fortitude can’t always offer veteran-specific options.

Buss-Blair adds: “Veteran-specific services are important for overcoming barriers, but if a veteran has complex needs, there’s only a limited number of schemes that are able to effectively and safely work with them.”

Nevertheless, Buss-Blair is confident that Op Fortitude will provide a ‘viable option’ for every veteran that calls. But it’s still only able to focus on veterans who are sleeping on the streets.

“The level of demand has thrown us a slight curveball relative to our ability to help,” Buss-Blair says. “It’s a bit of an experiment; someone described it to us as a catastrophic success. That’s a great way of describing it.”

One of the services Op Fortitude is referring veterans to is The Block in Liverpool, which has eight short-term one-bed flats, and can help veterans find employment opportunities and reintegrate with estranged family members.

Becoming a referral partner will allow The Block to help more veterans into short-term accommodation, says Colin Eastaway, its chief executive.

“We started because there was a massive gap in Liverpool. We were the only ones here for years who were picking veterans up off the street and offering them opportunities,” he says. “But we were operating in the dark.”

Eastaway says not many people are aware of The Block, which launched in 2020, because it’s a relatively small organisation. This is also why it has been unable to secure any external funding yet, Eastaway says.

“But we’re not worried about funding anymore. Op Fortitude has put us on the map – people don’t ignore my emails anymore.”

veteran homelessness The Block
The Block was set up in 2020 to support homeless veterans. Image: Supplied

But some veteran charities are not impressed with the scheme. One, which doesn’t want to be quoted, warns that ‘not everything the public may see on social media is true’.

Andrew Cammiss, chief executive of East Durham Veterans Trust, has tried to get support for several homeless veterans through Op Fortitude, and been disappointed by its lack of responsiveness. The government says Op Fortitude will help to end veteran homelessness, but Cammiss argues that it can’t.

“Op Fortitude isn’t going to end veteran homelessness because it’s all about supported housing,” he says.

“Lots of veterans don’t want to go into supported housing, including those actively looking for work, because the rent associated with it is huge. Many veterans want community housing, somewhere to live and see their children,” he says.

“A lot of veterans we support meet someone in another part of the country and move to be with them, and then the relationship breaks down and they don’t want to move away from their children. That’s why many of them end up on the streets.”

Cammiss believes that including temporary housing in its remit could ensure Op Fortitude helps more veterans into stable accommodation. But Op Fortitude says the level of demand is “yet to be fully understood” to know if this is the case, but can refer veterans to a range of temporary accommodation, including accommodation suited to those with lower levels of need.

Also, Cammiss is sceptical that there will be enough supported housing for those veterans who do want this type of accommodation.

By the end of week six, Op Fortitude received 433 referrals for homelessness prevention or intervention. Of these, it helped the 65 veterans it deemed to be ‘actively experiencing homelessness’ into temporary supported housing.

While Op Fortitude has more than 1,000 units provided by 13 providers over 147 locations, all of these are existing services, which means they’re already largely occupied. Only around 6% – 60 – of these units have been available to let. This will increase from 3 September, Op Fortitude says, when two more providers become active.

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Margaret Greenfields, professor of social policy at Anglia Ruskin University, is also sceptical about the hotline’s ability to provide supported accommodation for every veteran who calls, due to England’s lack of housing supply.

“There’s a huge lack of affordable housing stock, which could have a massive impact on the ability to get people into accommodation, so it won’t be that effective without an increase in local housing allowance rates, or at least some uplift to support veterans into rental properties costed above the housing benefit threshold.

“In theory it sounds great, but there are really more questions than answers,” she says.

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