Army veteran Chris was homeless and living in his car 18 months ago – but this Remembrance Sunday he will be taking part in the parade at London’s Cenotaph alongside King Charles.
The 64-year-old spent six years in the army, serving in an infantry regiment and as part of the intelligence corps during the Falklands War.
The experience left Chris with complex PTSD, a condition he was only diagnosed with years later, and like a small minority of veterans he found himself homeless following a family fallout in 2018.
With support from homeless veterans charity Stoll, Chris was able to turn his life around and this weekend he will take part in the UK’s biggest annual Cenotaph parade.
“I hope I can manage it because it’s a wonderful honour,” Chris said.
“I think King Charles is going to be there as well for his first Remembrance parade as the monarch.
“It’s just a great honour to be able to go to march with people that served within the armed forces and it’s one of those days where we remember all of our friends that didn’t come back. I’ve got many.”
The occasion will be a far cry from where Chris was when he was homeless.
In total he spent three years living in his car around Sheffield after his relations with his family broke down.
“It was just safer for me to be in the car,” said Chris. “People don’t realise because they might say: ‘At least you had a roof over your head and it wasn’t out on the street’. That was alright but when you start thinking about washing and going to the loo it’s a different story.
“I had all the snow and everything and if you keep the engine running you are using petrol. So you could have the heater on in the car and it’s lovely and warm then you turn it off and it’s like an icebox.
“It was a case of keeping covered up really and I sort of made a bit of tent in the car trying to keep warm.”
Homelessness among veterans is an emotive issue but for years statistics have shown that veterans have been proportionately represented among the homeless population in the UK.
According to the Ministry of Defence, there are around two million armed forces veterans in the UK, amounting to around 5 per cent of Brits aged over 16.
For years, the Royal British Legion has estimated the percentage of veterans experiencing homelessness to be between 3 and 6 per cent. The figure has mostly hovered around 5 per cent, the level recorded in the most recent quarterly London-only Chain rough sleeping figures.
But the government’s rough sleeping strategy, published in September, revealed 6 per cent of UK nationals who were street homeless served in the armed forces.
According to Lee Buss-Blair, the director of operations at supported housing provider Riverside, this was the first rise in years and sparked “concerns that there are still considerable gaps” when it comes to ensuring all veterans are supported.
The government has committed to ending rough sleeping for veterans – as well as wider street homelessness – by 2024.
The Westminster strategy to achieve that goal specifically mentions veterans. It speaks about waiving a local connection to areas for veterans asking local authorities for help, a common issue for veterans who may move around the UK or have been away serving.
“It’s very difficult because when you’re in the forces you learn to obey instructions when they’re given to you. Your day is structured for you on a daily basis then when people come out of the forces you’re suddenly left on your own.
“It doesn’t matter how long ago you served either. I still feel, and still think, like a soldier. I’m very self-conscious of security and personal safety and you can’t help but think that way.”
Chris has been housed at Stoll’s West London base for just under 18 months and it has allowed him to get his PTSD diagnosis as well as a life-saving intervention for prostate cancer. After months of treatment he has now been given the all-clear.
“It wouldn’t have been diagnosed if I was still homeless because I would have just put up with how I was,” added Chris.
“I’ve been through it a little bit but nothing that will faze me.”
Accessing support has given Chris more than opportunity to live a more comfortable life.
Stoll has also managed to get his medals reissued and he will be wearing them this weekend when he marches at the Cenotaph in central London alongside thousands of veterans to honour the armed forces and lost comrades.
The charity has worked with Homeless Link and the National Housing Federation to create a toolkit to help veterans like Chris escape homelessness with the No Homeless Veterans campaign.
Richard Gammage, the chief executive of Stoll, said: “Chris is living with us now and he’s going to be marching down Whitehall and past the cenotaph proudly wearing his beret on Sunday. We’ve got him his medals back that he’d lost over the previous years too. It’s brilliant.
“When you talk to Chris, you understand what he’s been through. You understand, actually, there was nobody who really understood veterans when he spoke to them. It’s not bad people or bad local authorities, but perhaps they didn’t always fully understand all of the questions that needed to be asked.”
Reaching out for help and getting the right support has helped Chris transform his life beyond this Sunday’s ceremony.
“I’ve gone from being in the car and stopping off from a coffee and it being the highlight of my day,” the dad of four added.
“Now I still go for a coffee every day and send messages to my children. It’s brought the family back together.”