Between 3-6% of homeless people have a background in the armed forces, according to the Royal British Legion. There are concerns though that the percentage is greater than this due to how some homeless veterans are rendered ‘invisible’ because of how the statistics are collected.

Riverside are a major provider of affordable housing, care and support services across England and Scotland. Lee Buss-Blair is Director of Operations for Riverside’s Care & Support function, including their homelessness services, older people’s services, services for veterans and managed agents. In this article Lee shares some of the steps that need to be taken to end veteran rough sleeping in the UK.

Three steps towards ending veteran rough sleeping

We were extremely pleased that the recent Veteran Strategy Action Plan for 2022-2024 contained a commitment to ending veteran rough sleeping by 2024.

But questions remain about how that will be achieved.

The most logical route is by ensuring the specific needs of veterans are addressed in the new Rough Sleeping Strategy, currently in development at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC).

We believe three key commitments could achieve radical – and rapid – results.

There are specific barriers veterans face that are different from the majority of the people sleeping rough.

Veterans can be reluctant to engage with mainstream services, and avoid seeking help.

I’ve worked in the homelessness sector for more than 20 years, and I know that a good quality mainstream homelessness service can work effectively with veterans.  However, as a combat veteran myself, I know that we are spectacularly good at self-excluding from mainstream services. I’ve been there: avoiding seeking help on the basis that ‘civilians’ hadn’t seen what I had seen, or experienced what I had experienced.

I believed ‘civilians’ couldn’t possibly understand or help me. That wasn’t true, but it is a really difficult mindset to escape.

Recognise the Barriers Veterans face when accessing services

The first thing we hope to see is recognition that this barrier exists, in the same way that the Department of Health and Social Care have done with the creation of Op Courage, the NHS Mental Health Service specifically for veterans.

The homelessness sector is expert at identifying barriers to engagement and overcoming them. But to do so, there first needs to be a level of awareness of the root cause.

Increase awareness of Veteran rough sleeping.

The second step is to increase awareness of veteran rough sleeping, and the issues veterans face, among those working with rough sleepers.

Identifying the numbers of veterans in the homelessness sector is surprisingly difficult. A national methodology for consistently capturing veteran status is something that the new Rough Sleeping Strategy could address.

Once you have identified veterans, what do you do? There is a lot of support available for veterans – so much so that it can be difficult to navigate.

Riverside has tried to address this in a number of ways, including developing online information resources for colleagues working with veterans, establishing a network of veteran champions that colleagues can call on for advice and guidance, and attempting to create routes for veterans into employment with the organisation.

Having a veteran in every team would be ideal. But better awareness of services and issues is a very good start.

In 1990 the Government set an objective of making it “unnecessary for anybody to sleep rough on the streets of London”.

The Clearing House is one of its legacies. It was established to coordinate lettings, and for the last 25 years has been ensuring fair and far-reaching access to homes. It works with a partnership of 50 Housing Associations and has facilitated more than 13,000 tenancies.

In comparison, the veteran supported housing sector is fragmented. We are reliant on a plethora of potential referral sources, and teams who might not even know the rough sleepers they are working with are veterans.

The creation of a ‘Clearing House’ for veteran-specific supported housing would provide a valuable conduit between rough sleeper outreach teams and supported housing for veterans.

Veterans experiencing homelessness will often travel significant distances to access support that they feel comfortable accepting. Their journeys to recovery are often complex, and it can be a number of years before people are ready to return to independent living.

Review the government guidance in place for homeless veterans

The final area which warrants a review are the local connection tests Local Authorities apply that are potentially restricting access to social housing for veterans in places they consider ‘home’.

Government guidance grants exemptions from residency requirements for certain members of the Armed Forces community who served at any time in the five years preceding their application for an allocation of social housing.

But veterans affected by homelessness are not provided with the same recourse through the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities updated by DLUHC in 2021.

It is well recognised that veterans take longer than others before asking for help. We believe sacrifices made in the service of Country should not have a ‘best before’ date. The Armed Forces Covenant promises people will not be disadvantaged as a result of their service. To ensure this is upheld, the time limitations need to be completely removed for both social housing and Homelessness Local Authority guidance

None of these changes would cost huge sums of money. Together they could make an enormous positive difference to the lives of veterans – and show we are a country that recognises the debt we owe to those who served.

Riverside’s other contribution to MyGovCentral Discussing Workforce Challenges in the Housing Sector

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Between 3-6% of homeless people in the UK come from an armed forces background. Lee Buss-Blair, Director of Operations-Care and Support Functions at Riverside homes, he shares with us some of the steps needed to end veteran rough sleeping.

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