Veterans are not immune to the impact of poverty
The Chancellor's Autumn Financial Statement set the scene for a winter of unprecedented hardship in the UK and as Christmas looms it is evident that there are challenging times ahead for the most vulnerable. Some of those will be veterans – a group believed by many to be sheltered from the impact of extreme adversity.
"That is simply not what we are seeing” says Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO of the charity Veterans Aid. “It’s true that there is special provision for veterans – through Armed Forces Covenant initiatives and a number of dedicated, high-profile charities, but veterans are still falling through the cracks; many of these are the ex-servicemen and women who, often in utter desperation, end up at Veterans Aid.
“The public understand damage caused as a direct consequence of military service and feel comfortable rewarding obvious heroism, but most veterans in adversity don't fall into either category - despite the fact that they were equally committed to laying down their lives for their country. These are the men and women who will become a veteran underclass if their plight is not acknowledged and dealt with.
“The elephant in the room is poverty; the grinding, demeaning penury that strips away dignity and leads human beings to despair. It is not being acknowledged as I feel it should be and is consequently, not being adequately addressed.
“We are seeing rising numbers of veterans, of all ages, afflicted by poverty and its related inequalities, yet in so many cases it is avoidable. There are significant resources in areas of the sector dedicated to their wellbeing, but more direct and speedy support is desperately needed.
“In my 28 years of involvement with VA I have seen how men and women, of all ages, ranks and backgrounds, have been reduced to despair when adversity strikes. In the present climate, against a background of rising energy bills, unemployment and cost of living increases, many more will succumb. This is real: The latest monthly electricity bill for our residential facility, New Belvedere House, was nearly £10,000.
“Just recently we received an appeal from a former soldier; a hard-working woman single-handedly bringing up three young children on a wage that, after deductions, is simply not enough to live on. She has a skilled job in the NHS but is sinking inexorably into debt. Her pay slips tell a story that is shaming - but she is a veteran and, in her own words, 'a grafter' - not someone who should need to ask a charity for support to buy food and clothing for her children. She is barely surviving - and a very long way from thriving. Our swift response with much needed cash brought her to tears.
“There are many more like her – and not just in the UK. From my perspective within the World Veterans Federation I see an international ex-service community as vulnerable to the vicissitudes of economic contraction as anyone else; not because they are singularly handicapped, but because they are human. Sadly, here in the UK the processes that some large charities use to respond to cries for urgent help are simply not responsive enough. Indeed, they are often so protracted that I believe they actually end up exacerbating problems.
“This is a pivotal time for the sector. We have a chance to act, now – before a tsunami of need transforms veterans with problems into veterans in crisis. Veterans Aid has demonstrated time and again how delivery of swift, timely, targeted support can stop and reverse downward spirals.”
“I’m proud of what we have achieved, but while the Government invests time, effort and money into care for ex-service personnel, it needs to take a wider view in order to close the crisis gap. Why not take a tiny portion of the resources available to create a national, centrally controlled operational fund run by, for example, the Office for Veterans Affairs, with capacity to close the ever-widening gap between resource and need? On their part, this would require a real understanding of need, the nature of poverty and what actually works as opposed to what does not. In short, we need a truth pill.
“A fund like this, that could be accessed easily by validated genuine frontline charities such as ourselves, would enable them to deliver swift, preventative interventions at point of need within the veteran community. Not only would this save time and money, by halting problems before they became entrenched and complex, it would enable those best equipped to deliver support, and inject urgency into processes that presently only raise unrealistic expectations among veterans in dire need. No veteran enjoys asking for help and processes that protract access to humanitarian aid are humiliating and unacceptable. What makes this worse is that over the years I have seen so much funding wasted on projects that weren't based on actual need.
“Each year I scrutinise Covenant Reports, hoping to find evidence of an in-depth understanding of the impact and extent of poverty among veterans. Why? Because it is the dark shadow that we have watched emerging. But each year I am disappointed. There are plenty of metrics about things that are easily reported (e.g., the number of calls to an agency) but I contend that we must understand the dimensions of poverty within the veteran community if lives are to be improved. The Covenant seems to have had little impact on those who seek our help. Indeed, most have never heard of it.
“To make a difference, the Covenant Reports must tell us in depth about veterans living on low incomes – acknowledging poverty and scrutinising it with reference to debt, race, gender and geography: And there needs to be a good deal more focus on reporting preventative measures and general outcomes.”
“Given what we are now living through, we need to short-circuit current systems to get realistic help to point of need fast – because in the military charity world the procedure and casework approach is rapidly becoming out of synch with what is a very real crisis among veterans. My plea is simple, let’s put veterans before process!”
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