How one veteran was left 'traumatised' by well-meaning housing intervention
The council provided Stanley with the keys to a one-bedroom flat on Christmas Eve, however, this was dark and damp accommodation, with no electricity or cooker and the gas was tapped off. Credit: Veterans Aid
The Housing First policy sounds good on paper. But some of the most vulnerable – like former Royal Engineer Stanley – have been let down
At last there’s a note of optimism in the air; the R number is falling, millions have been vaccinated and the ‘COVID Christmas’ that we all vowed never to forget is slowly becoming a dim memory. For Army veteran Stanley however, December 24th 2020 will remain a recurring nightmare.
Frightened, lost and struggling with mental health issues, the 33-year-old former Royal Engineer was desperate when he sought help from his local council . . . a London Borough, with two Armed Forces champions, that signed up to the Armed Forces Community Covenant in 2019.
Stanley was at his wits’ end so when the council came through and provided him with the keys to a one-bedroom flat on Christmas Eve he thought things were looking up – until he saw it.
His new home was a dark, cold space, without carpets or furniture of any description. There was no electricity, the gas was capped off and in any case, there was no cooker. The floorboards he was expected to sleep on were peppered with nails. Apart from a few rags and scraps of filthy carpet, the flat was bare – and the cold was bone-chilling.
Stanley struggles with basic tasks like shopping and cooking. Left alone with no food or means to keep warm and clean he very quickly began to panic.
A decade earlier Stanley had sought help from Veterans Aid. The charity got him back on his feet and reminded him that if ever he needed help again, to get in touch and it would be there. Thankfully he remembered that pledge as he left the dark, damp accommodation that was his ‘refuge’ – for the relative cheer of London’s icy streets.
Unlike many charities Veterans Aid remained operational throughout the pandemic, so when Stanley’s call for help came he was able to speak directly to a member of its Operations Team. He explained that he had left his current accommodation because it was “too cold”.
It takes a lot to upset the team at Veterans Aid but some members of staff were in tears when they discovered what Stanley had been asked to endure. This wasn’t help, it was harm.
CEO of Veterans Aid Dr Hugh Milroy says: “We immediately got him into a hotel and met with him that same day, providing him with clean clothes and toiletries. The caseworker who dealt with him said ‘He was shaking so badly with cold when we saw him that he could hardly speak. He was traumatised’.
“Stanley’s mental health issues are considerable and are known to the psychiatric services. He receives his biweekly depo injection from the NHS and a family member is an appointee, yet he had been urged to sign a tenancy agreement, for a property with no utilities, that he had no means of heating, furnishing or maintaining.
“It’s hard to understand how anyone could have believed he had the (mental) capacity to take on a tenancy, let alone sustain independent living. He is deeply unwell and heavily dependent on medication to function. It takes a lot to upset the team at Veterans Aid but some members of staff were in tears when they discovered what Stanley had been asked to endure. This wasn’t help, it was harm.
“He’s safe now. We are still supporting him in hotel accommodation until a suitable housing and care package can be found. It’s been heartening to see the change in morale from when he first presented himself.”
Stanley was a soldier – is now a veteran. He is also a casualty of life, illness and a COVID-obsessed society that has perhaps been too focused on getting people ‘off the streets’ – at any price.
“This isn’t about blame and we have no intention of naming and shaming. We are all dealing with the unknown in terms of COVID-fallout; under-resourced and ill-prepared for a health crisis that has exacerbated every social ill that existed before it struck,” Dr Hugh Milroy says.
“My purpose in sharing this former soldier’s story is simply to sound an alarm bell. Seductive policies and processes that purport to solve homelessness need to be viewed with a very critical eye. I’m not angry, just very disappointed – and curious to know if the person who got Stanley to sign the tenancy agreement for his wretched accommodation would happily have offered it to their brother or father in similar circumstances?
“Housing First has promised much – as has the Armed Forces Covenant. Both sound good on paper and no doubt give reassurance to those that push their efficacy. Stanley qualified for help and, in box ticking terms, it was provided; yet by any humanitarian measure he was let down. Luckily he was a veteran, so VA was able to help.
"Legislation and assignment of funding is not enough. Until quality and longevity of support become the guaranteed standard there will be other Stanley’s. In the 21st Century we really need to do better. The streets should not represent a more attractive choice than housing for our most vulnerable.”
*Names and identifying details have been changed for confidentiality