“Hello - Are You Able To Help Veterans To Buy Food?”
On the far right of Sir Luke Fildes' painting - Applicants for admission to a casual ward - is a veteran in a red jacket, begging from those who have nothing themselves. On December 11th, the CSJ reported that Britain was 'slipping back to social divide of Victorian era'.
As 2023 draws to a close, CEO Dr Hugh Milroy reflects on why Veterans Aid is receiving regular calls like this when so much has been invested in advancing the cause of veterans' wellbeing.
Such inquiries are now an everyday occurrence, which is remarkable given the overall wealth of the sector. Those contacting us are often distraught and desperate which, as a veteran myself, I find disturbing and unacceptable.
If there is disagreement about the fact that destitution and homelessness are among society's worst evils, I have yet to encounter it. Who doesn't believe that 'an end to poverty' is among the worthiest of goals? Yet when it comes to veterans the subject of privation seems to be the elephant in the room. Veterans are a part, not 'apart from', the wider community, so why would they not be affected when the CSJ Justice Commission's latest Report (Two Nations: The State of Poverty in the UK) says the country is at risk of slipping back to "a social divide not seen since the Victorian era"?
I acknowledge that worthy efforts have been made for the betterment of the ex-service community, such as promotion of the Covenant, but the fact is that virtually no-one who comes to us in adversity has heard of it - and our client numbers are not small. Furthermore, many of those seeking our help have engaged with multiple agencies before reaching us. Over 60% are in poverty with all its concomitant problems.
Sadly, the marked rise of signposting agencies has introduced delays and raised false expectations, making our work considerably harder. Indeed, in driving veterans down the perceived path of streamlined process, the goal of delivery has been sacrificed. These issues are worth delving into, but we are clear that putting process before veterans' often urgent needs is not working.
As this is being written the VA Operations Team is dealing with an ex-serviceman who has been to seven different organisations - many of which are household names - without receiving any practical help. The labyrinthine processes, that refer clients from pillar-to-post, are a distressing reality for our clients. The resultant rage, resentment, despair, and frustration engendered by this constant deferral of aid, compounds individuals' problems. The upshot is an ocean-going waste of our time - and money - as we try to unpick the tragedies presented.
Referral means deferral; deferral means delay - and delay can mean the difference between prevention, deterioration and, in some cases, devastating consequences.
For nearly 100 years Veterans Aid has been guiding ex-servicemen and women on a journey - formalised in 2009 as the pathway from Welfare to Wellbeing©. It has never envisaged being able to single-handedly eradicate homelessness, or eliminate poverty, but by working collaboratively alongside proven deliverers who share its vision, or support its work in some way, the charity has transformed thousands of lives and provided a blueprint for success.
From our hands-on perspective in the front line, there is little evidence of overall improvement and I find myself utterly dismayed that veterans are having to seek help to purchase necessities as basic as food. If all the well-intentioned effort being put into the sector was working, we would not be 20% busier than we were last year, and poverty would not be the major issue facing our clients. It may be an inconvenient truth, but destitution is alive and well among those seeking our help - genuine veterans, who are often confused, frustrated, and bereft of hope by the time they find their way through the signposting jungle to our door.
Those who know and understand our work are aware that high levels of collaboration have always been integral to VA’s success. An average week sees us involved with around 70 external agencies, in the course of addressing clients’ diverse, and sometimes highly individual, needs. If we don’t engage with organisations, regardless of how worthy they believe themselves to be, it is because they are not optimally relevant to the complexity of our clients’ needs. For example, we recently fast-tracked urgent rehab for a former officer who tested positive for alcohol, cocaine, opiates, benzodiazepam and cannabis. He was in crisis, had no money to fund his own treatment and nowhere to go but (very rapidly) downhill. Even in this over-pathologised world of veterans, no-one else stepped-up to take him on. Yet another exposure of the fallacy that the march of benevolence, or Government policy, can solve all. Comorbidity like this is very common and few agencies are willing or able to deal with the levels of complexity involved.
Our methodology isn’t perfect, but it is a working model - and it trumps wasteful replication every time.
After more than 30 years’ hands-on experience of dealing with veterans’ wellbeing I can say with conviction that there are no instant solutions to adversity, any more than there are achievable deadlines when dealing with homelessness and the underlying poverty that so frequently leads to it.
No-one has a monopoly on innovation, but it takes courage to acknowledge and embrace another's solution rather than copy and claim it as one's own. Too much money in the sector is frittered away on bureaucracy, re-branding, and thinly disguised replication; too much funding has been allocated to shore up processes that are irrelevant to individuals in crisis and too many undeliverable promises have been made.
I make no apology for offering the organisation that I lead as a model, and I am particularly pleased by the expansion of our involvement with large, key agencies. Much of what Veterans Aid has achieved has been done through formation of such partnerships and using existing resources as force multipliers. Our pioneering and carefully nurtured relationships with Police Services around the UK have borne fruit in terms of both prevention and delivery of speedy assistance; not only to those already in the Criminal justice System but to those flagged-up as ‘at risk’.
Reach and impact are important, but our extensive networking with other service providers has also significantly improved the speed at which access to accommodation, mental health services and addiction treatment can be put in place. If handled linearly, by multiple and/or digital gateway services, the problems faced by many of the veterans steered towards us by other organisations would have been exacerbated and compounded by delay. To put this into perspective, 37% of our clients last year were referred by other putatively relevant, and much promoted, support agencies.
Of course, we are happy to help - it is our raison d’etre - but there is an irony at play here. Many of the bodies referring clients to us are funded to provide services for which we subsequently bear the cost. The money doesn't follow the transfer of responsibility and the activity 'passed on to Veterans Aid' is recorded as an intervention or care package put in place by the referring agency. These claims are dishonest, misleading and those making them should hang their heads in shame.
The constant churn of reinvention has other downsides, not least in terms of legacy. A recent call to VA introduced a 'new' client for whom the agency involved sought support. The inquirer had no data to refer to or they would have known that he was already in our system and had been receiving help, when willing, for more than a decade.
Eyewatering amounts of money have been assigned to projects that seek to transform veterans' wellbeing - and yet our data illustrates that Goliath continues to pass the baton (and the bill!) to David. In an ideal world we would have direct access to an operational pot of money that could be drawn upon to save lives, rather than subject vulnerable veterans to slowly grinding processes that delay help, and exacerbate already parlous situations. But that’s another story!
Do I think that we have discovered a golden bullet that will stop homelessness and end poverty? Of course not. Indeed, resolution of many 'veterans’ issues' is simply not in the gift of those promoting their projects. Does this mean that we accept the unacceptable? Or will ever stop striving? Never. But we deal in realities that are part of wider socio-economic and geopolitical networks - which is why we never promise what we can't deliver.
Veterans Aid - a charity with a turnover of less than £2m a year - has been offering an ex-service hotline for decades. It isn't a manned call centre, it is a national frontline, operational powerhouse of expertise with a focus on prevention. It has been 'digital' since long before COVID; a light capital footprint has minimised outgoings while direct email/text/telephone access to empowered and experienced staff has enabled it to action expenditure and interventions nationally and internationally. Indeed, it did so throughout COVID lockdown.
Networking and collaboration are important, but VA’s operation as a 'well-oiled machine' didn't happen overnight, or because of any new legislation. It happened through commitment to a shared vision of how human beings in distress should be treated - with dignity, compassion, and provision of speedy, practical help. It fills me with pride to lead an organisation where every member of staff understands that before clients were veterans, they were human beings - parents, siblings, partners, friends.
Poverty among the veterans we see is now the single most significant issue and will not be disappearing any time soon. Soundbites notwithstanding, homelessness in its many forms (visible and invisible) is not a quick fix condition. Scooping someone off the streets at Christmas and putting a roof over their heads is a sticking plaster solution unless it is coupled with support for long term sustainability. Publicised personal interventions and headline grabbing deadlines are meaningless when we are the grip of a covert economic enemy that threatens those with jobs, qualifications, impeccable service records and aspirational lifestyles as well as the traditionally vulnerable. (For example, a large percentage of our clients are in employment).
Those of you who know us will be aware that Veterans Aid operates nationally and internationally over Christmas and New Year to provide emergency cover, just as it did throughout the pandemic. We have provided such a service for years and I am happy to advise those reading this accordingly: We are available on 0207 828 2468, via social media and through our website www.veterans-aid.net
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