Leading charity says it’s time for a new way of thinking about homelessness post-pandemic
As the frontline charity Veterans Aid publishes its latest Impact Report, CEO Dr Hugh Milroy reflects on how provision of support for veterans changed over lockdown and calls for a new approach to dealing with the age-old problem of homelessness in post-pandemic Britain.
Last week we published our annual impact report; an audit of what Veterans Aid achieved against the legacy of lockdown. While at a personal level I’m delighted by what it records, it prompted me to reflect on what the future holds for ex-servicemen and women in adversity now that so many support organisations have either scaled down their services or disappeared completely.
There is talk of ‘recovery’ in the sector - but what does this mean? A recalibration of diminished resources aimed at restoring the status quo? I do hope not, because the ‘old ways’ may no longer be fit for purpose: needs have changed, the patterns of work, life and social capital have changed and a paradigm shift in our approach to delivery of support must now take place.
Throwing money at problems is pointless unless it is directed to smarter, swifter delivery of care. For example, the historical, knee-jerk solution to homelessness has been to build more houses – yet there are some 660,000 empty homes in Britain with a reputed 8,000 on the MOD estate alone.
At its worst the UK’s pre-pandemic rough sleeping population was around 4,500. The Government spent millions on trying to get people off the streets and into accommodation, which was laudable - but that emergency sticking plaster did not address the underlying causes of their homelessness.
Few habituated rough sleepers are equipped to move seamlessly into new homes and cope with the complex economics of household management. Even the newly or potentially homeless need more than provision of four walls and a roof to get themselves back on an even keel. Veterans Aid’s average spend on moving a client into a new flat is about £2,750 – just to make their accommodation habitable. Street homeless citizens don’t have that sort of money. We have a 90% success rate, which surely indicates that this approach should be the way forward.
I accept, after some 27 years in the sector, that combating homelessness is complex and difficult, but if the pandemic showed us anything it was that energised political will can drive a coach and horses through the processes that stifle progress. We need systemic change, not new money to fund replication of old practices. Warehousing human beings, building new homes while old ones stand empty and funding charities that drip-feed small handouts to those with the stamina to survive bureaucratic application processes are as irrelevant today as Dickensian philanthropy.
I believe that what Veterans Aid has achieved in microcosm could be extrapolated to address homelessness generally – i.e. not just within the ex-service community. Last year we prevented 72 veterans from becoming homeless and appropriately homed 97 with no real difficulty. This was achieved through speedy and efficient networking with trusted partners, staff empowerment, light touch administration and the expertise of a team totally committed to finding solutions to the most challenging problems.
In the Queen’s Speech the Government pledged to “introduce legislation to improve the regulation of social housing to strengthen the rights of tenants and ensure better quality, safer homes.” I would like to see it go further, to embrace radical change rather than shoring up of old systems. Our experience is that there is accommodation to spare in the system – indeed many organisations approach us seeking occupants for empty rooms and one well known provider of accommodation for veterans continued to fundraise for a new building project while operating with a significant number of vacant properties.
Housing Associations and the private sector in particular have played a massive part in helping, to the extent that homelessness among veterans is rare. There are good support systems in place and housing is available. I never thought I’d say this but the veteran community has never been in a better position. Numbers of genuine street homeless veterans are tiny because of our prevention activity.
The future lies with better use of resources, networking and removal of the bureaucratic barriers that prevent swift, prioritised interventions. This Government talks about investing today for a better tomorrow rather than offering short term handouts to those presently experience economic hardship. Why then cannot it apply this philosophy to the issue of homelessness? Not by building new homes that the most vulnerable members of society can neither afford nor sustain, but by adopting a needs-led approach and addressing process rather than perpetuation of piecemeal philanthropy.
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