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Why ‘levelling up’ must start by helping those most in need.

Why ‘levelling up’ must start by helping those most in need.

Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO | Veterans Aid

6 min read Partner content

What does ‘levelling up’ and ‘building back better’ mean to those Veterans living on the fringes of society? Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO of frontline homeless charity Veterans Aid, offers some cautionary thoughts.

**Content warning: This article contains an image that some readers may find distressing.**

Eight months ago, in this publication, I shared the harrowing experience of ‘Stanley’[1] - a homeless ex-serviceman who had been serially let down by the system in place to care for him. Just weeks before the Government unveiled its ‘Build back better’ budget, the former Royal Engineer returned to Veterans Aid visibly traumatised. The fresh knife wounds on his face were still raw and he was shaking. He’d spent two nights roaming the streets because the drug dealers occupying his home had threatened to ‘finish the job’ if he returned or sought help from the police.

A week later, he was hospitalised having been attacked and held down while boiling water was poured over his hands.

As this wretched saga of events approaches its first anniversary, I am fearful that not enough is being done to prevent it happening again. ‘Stanley’s case clearly vindicates my concern that  the Armed Forces Covenant  has a way to go before it develops teeth – and I believe that it will remain ineffective until it is ‘owned’ on the ground. There are wider implications too. Many years ago, I listened to Lord Laming talking about the need for sound structures in social care; these are still not in place.

 ‘Levelling up and uniting the country’ has been a UK Government mantra since 2019. Its focus is on investment, skills development and innovation. Its budget aspires to deliver that and commits to reducing inequality between places (i.e. geographically) and improving outcomes everywhere.

My contention is that inequality is not just geographical, it is social - and never has Gandhi’s observation that “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members” been more relevant.

It is simply too hard for vulnerable veterans to access the immediate, practical - and sometimes enduring - help that they need. The battle-wounded are visible; the men and women struggling with mental health problems, addiction, social isolation and homelessness are not. If veterans, who allegedly enjoy ‘favoured status’, are being failed, what hope for those who have not served?

Much of Veterans Aid’s core business is related to preventing and addressing homelessness among the UK’s  2.5m+ former  servicemen and women. The Chancellor has earmarked more than £11m for ‘affordable housing’ which is a welcome move – but I would like to offer some context, with specific reference to the Armed Forces Covenant. The Operations Team at VA recently conducted a response test  among local authorities who claim to support the Covenant. The exercise involved ringing up to report being actually/imminently homeless and to seek advice. What they discovered was that, for our veterans: -

  • The average waiting time for a council department to answer a phone was 30 minutes  - and in some cases more than 45 minutes.
  • 98% of calls had to be paid for.
  • Regarding homelessness, 30% of councils did not want to provide contact details for  the relevant Head of Department.
  • All stated that applications had to be made online – whatever the caller’s circumstances.
  • Some local authorities referred callers to Streetlink, who suggested contacting SHELTER who suggested  . . . contacting the Local Authority!
  • Most Homeless Departments do not have Rough Sleeper Teams.

This is contrary to the spirit of Clause 8 (b) of the Armed Forces Bill 2021 which underlines the principle that “it is desirable to remove disadvantages arising for service personnel from membership, or former membership, of the Armed Forces”. 

The pandemic was a savage and unexpected event, but the real scourge of society is poverty and my worry is that, despite all the good intentions to “bring jobs and investment to the poorest regions of the UK”, not enough attention is being paid to those individuals with multiple problems who routinely slip through the net. Recent experiences have shown that grand plans and huge brands are not enough to help when the chips are down. Why? Because in the end, no one ‘owns’ complex problems - just parts of them.

If veterans, who allegedly enjoy ‘favoured status’, are being failed, what hope for those who have not served?

Many of the veterans who seek VA’s help are already frustrated by the sector’s ‘pass the parcel’ approach to addressing extreme adversity; they are often angry, tearful, stressed and suffering from issues further compounded by seemingly Kafkaesque delaying tactics and bureaucracy. Add mental health issues and the escape offered by drugs and/or alcohol and it’s easy to see how dramas spiral into crises. 

Our dispiriting experience over the past year leads me to believe that unless the accompanying ‘wraparound’ package of care is guaranteed - and monitored - then the only achievement of Housing First as a policy will be the temporary removal of some visible rough-sleepers.  

Horrors notwithstanding, ‘Stanley’ is one of the lucky ones; he is entitled to the ‘privileges’ enshrined in the Armed Forces Covenant and he is being helped by Veterans Aid, but who will take ownership of those who are not so fortunate? Who will fight for them and be their safety net? 

‘Safe harbour’ means more than handing over a key, especially when individuals with low mental capacity and no means of support  are involved. The Chancellor’s £600m investment in tackling homelessness must translate as significantly more than provision of a roof if cases like ‘Stanley’s’ are to be avoided. How do we ‘level up’ life for all the ‘Stanley’s of this world?  Even his ‘special status’ as a former soldier did little for him in the public system. In the end he was bounced back to Veterans Aid.

His recent arrival at our Victoria Centre, bleeding and fearful, distressed all who knew him and prompted calls for an urgent review of his case - by both the mental health & housing support services upon which he relies. He was (is) not well enough to sustain a tenancy independently – he is a victim of systemic failures  and almost non-existent oversight. Regardless of the good intentions by all involved, his support system was/is simply not fit for purpose, it is chaotic, unwieldy and dysfunctional and so he remains a victim. 

This is ‘boomerang benevolence’ – a quick response to a visible problem that is ignored until it returns with a vengeance. It will continue to prevail until there is adequate funding, co-ordination, monitoring and accountability in the care of those in direst need.

[1] Not his real name. See: https://www.politicshome.com/members/article/how-one-veteran-was-left-traumatised-by-well-meaning-intervention

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