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True fellowship

May 22nd 2009

EFC: key provider for ex-servicemen
Tucked in next to a busy hairdressers on Buckingham Palace Road, Victoria, it would be easy to miss the Ex-Servicemen Fellowship Centre (EFC), whose humble surroundings belies the pedigree and breadth of their work. Founded in 1932 as the Embankment Fellowship Centre, it was a canteen and recreation room for ex-servicemen. But the organisation soon acquired accommodation, so opened a hostel and a night shelter in partnership with other societies, It wasn't until 1969 that they took the name they have now. Today they have around 1,000 requests for help every year, and have space for 57 people in their Stepney hostel - New Belvedere House. "There's no other focal point for this," the EFC chief executive, Hugh Milroy, told us. "We are the key provider for ex-servicemen. Having said that, we don't see ourselves as stand alone." They are supported by several other organisations, including the Royal British Legion, who partly staff the EFC's hostel and have over time funded several larger outlays, including recently fitting out each room with an individual fridge. The Legion have also helped when residents have moved into permanent accommodation. "There was no song and dance about it," said Milroy. "They sorted out the papers and the things got delivered. It was pretty slick - and certainly wasn't that easy when I got my house." The EFC also works closely with SSAFA (Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association), particularly when working with relatives of ex-servicemen, and with Combat Stress, the ex-services mental welfare society. But says Milroy, the latter are not their most regular partner, as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is relatively rare. "It's not something we get everyday," he said. "Of course, some of our clients have problems with substance dependency, or other general psychological problems, but it is quite uncommon for it to be about stress." "The reality is that military service was quite a positive experience for the men, and you can see that many years after service." It is this which Milroy believes makes them so unique - that sense of camaraderie which people in the forces have for each other. "You wouldn't find it in any other job," he said. They rely on other charities and organisations to help inform ex-servicemen of their existence, and what they can do for people. "We link in with lots of other centres, so when they get someone that we can help, they act as a funnel towards us." The EFC is headed by two former officers, Wing Commander Hugh Milroy and Colonel Tim Walker, who now has the role of administrator. Between them they head the operation, which has New Belvedere House in Stepney, with 57 single rooms. They are assisted by seven other members of staff at the hostel, and a volunteer who is a former client - the redoubtable Mr Evans (more of later). One of their staff has also been awarded an MBE, and many have been involved in the services at some point. Wing Commander Milroy is also Dr Milroy, having gained a PhD in homelessness amongst veterans, and brings a wealth of knowledge to his role, while he heartily admits he is still constantly learning. Even when he was in the armed forces, he was a specialist in military welfare. He told us: "No one had done research into it before, so I guess I was a round peg in a round hole." Milroy and Walker deal with all the paperwork. "It never ceases to amaze me how much there is," said Milroy. "But we always try to make sure that the person gets dealt with first, and the bureaucracy afterwards. That's how things are in the military." Despite this, they do have a rigorous system to check that the requests are coming from genuine ex-forces. "Our only prerequisite is that you have to have been in the British armed forces at some point. We do get a surprising number of people pretending to be ex-servicemen. But everything is easily checked." Another one of their supporting organisations is the Ministry of Defence, within whose organisation records can be checked, to back the claims of everyone who goes to the centre. But, as long as the request comes from an ex-serviceman, they will do everything they can to help, and they believe they can provide practical help immediately. The EFC tries to offer anything, from a shower (assisted by their neighbours at The Passage) and a change of clothes, to advice and a room of ones' own. The clothing is all brand new, with comfortable tracksuit bottoms, smart suits for job interviews and even pyjamas for the night. "We had a guy in once whose bed had broken, and he just didn't know what to do, so we sent him to SSAFA, and he was immediately taken care of," Milroy said. Funding is, as ever, the hardest task, and Walker calculates that since he joined in 1999 their funding has been reduced, regardless of inflation and other costs, by £3.61 per week per resident. Despite this, they believe that their operation is good value for money, and yields positive results. They see between 10 and 20 new people every month, and although many of them are easily dealt with, some of the requests are for more long term help, such as accommodation. Ideally, the men (and occasionally women) who they house will eventually move into permanent accommodation and employment. In the last six months alone, they have helped to re-house 27 people. They work with a broad range of generations - their current residents are aged between 21 and 78 years old - and with people who have slept rough for many years, as well as those who find themselves newly on the streets. "There are some people who it is very difficult to work with, but we always try to give people a second chance," said Milroy. "We don't need to mollycoddle them, but we don't want to see people struggle. We're not just warehousing people; we want them to regain their lives." The hostel is run by a relatively strict guidelines - almost militaristic, Milroy admitted. The residents pay a nominal amount of rent, which it is their responsibility to organise, and the rooms are regularly inspected to make sure that they reach a level of cleanliness. Yet, despite the hostel having privacy in single rooms, usually the doors are left open and the residents find good friends there. "If somebody gets a new flat, the others go and take furniture round and redecorate it together. There is a community of gentlemen living close to the hostel, and they sometimes help us. This generates a feeling of well-being, and dignity, and a sense of self-worth, and that is the uniqueness of what happens here." Coming up for their 75th anniversary next year, Milroy is pleased that they are working well, but is aware of the constant need to adjust to new demands. "There is so much thinking that goes on behind what we do, we are constantly looking to improve what we do." "We are so flexible because we are small, but without the amount of support we get from our partner organisations, we couldn't do it," he said. "Thanks to it, though, I think we could put anyone back on their feet." Mr Evans's story in his own words As mentioned above, the EFC has few staff, and one of the key members at Buckingham Palace Road is stalwart Mr Evans. Much can be said about the EFC and it's visionary work (they were the first to see the advantage of advertising with this paper), and much more could be made of it's history. However, key to understanding them is the reason Mr Evans works at the EFC. He told us: "I joined the forces in 1964, but left just before the end of my basic training. I came to London and worked in hotels around the city. Sometimes when I left one job I ended up on the streets until I got another, because they mostly came with accommodation. Finally in 1986, I was made redundant from a club and became homeless again. "I'll be honest: if I've got money, I'll spend it. I'm not an alcoholic, but I like a drink. Although Ivor House helped me to find a flat, I didn't pay rent for a while and was eventually evicted. "I had heard about the Ex-Servicemen Fellowship Centre around Kings Cross, and went to them to see if they could help. At that time Colonel O'Dea was running it, and after asking a couple of questions about my military history, he sent me to the Stepney hostel, where I stayed for three years. After that, they helped me to get a flat in Bethnal Green, where I am now. "They helped me to get myself back on my feet. When you get soldiers together there is a real comradeship. Before, I was alone. London is a very lonely place, but it was the best place to find work. Living at the hostel meant that there were people to talk to, and that is important. "They then asked me to start doing the job I do now - nothing too gruelling, just some cleaning and helping out if someone comes to see the officers who run it. They are two perfect gentlemen - they trust me and I trust them. I've worked here now nearly four years, because it is such good fun; we're always having a laugh together. I'm 60 now, and as long as I've got my health, I'll stay working here."

July 2006



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A lexicon of homeless industry jargon: No. 1


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