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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Trawling for stories

September 26 2009
Ex-service homelessness Ex-service homelessness
It‘s time for the media‘s annual search for homeless veterans It's the time of year that the media go looking for old soldiers on the street. The predictable annual rush by journalists to interview homeless ex-servicemen before Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day has started, but this year it's being marked with increased interest as the media seeks to link the plight of ex-soldiers on the street and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. And in some cases, the facts are being ignored in the search for a sensationalist story. Some ex-servicemen on the streets have found themselves approached recently by members of the mainstream media; television, radio and the press. The Pavement's offices have been contacted by journalists asking for ex-soldiers who want to talk about their experiences, but what's different this year is who they want to speak to. Dr Hugh Milroy, of the Ex-Service Fellowship Centre in Victoria, told us: "[this] happens every year before 11th November with unsurprising regularity, but this year there seems to have been an added urge to find people who have been damaged by the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq." He has spent hours over the past few weeks answering media enquiries. The worry for some with this type of reporting is that, although it helps highlight the trouble some rough sleepers are in, it often distorts facts in trying to make a link with current conflicts. Some of the facts reported on this issue have been erroneous, such as suggesting that 1,000 veterans were sleeping rough, whereas recent interim figures suggest that ex-servicemen make up around six per cent of those sleeping rough. It supersedes the previous figures of 22 per cent that has thankfully been dropped (see issue 12) from most press. A report from Ex-Service Action Group (ESAG) is due to report the new figures soon. Milroy, speaking to The Pavement, was quite clear of the need to continue the work done with homeless ex-servicemen and women, but is concerned that recent reports have clouded the issue and give the impression that those involved are failing to support those in need. He decided to speak to us to put some perspective on this thorny issue. "I keep trying to explain that, for the most part, the reasons veterans are homeless are much the same as every other homeless person. In some cases there may well be a link with previous military service, but for many the complexity of their situation involves issues such as poverty, lack of affordable housing, alcohol/drug abuse, mental health problems, social isolation etcetera." He told us, adding that, "Any or all of these factors can be, and often are the underlying cause of the client's homelessness. But this is not what the media want to hear. So, while we in the ex-service charity world may have a small voice on this matter, I think it is absolutely vital that larger groups such as Shelter must keep telling anyone who will listen that the issue of homelessness among veterans is much wider: it is not a about a single issue." One of the areas that members of the press overlook when looking for veterans of Afghanistan or the last Gulf War is the fact that detrimental affects of service life, particularly from front line deployments, can often take years to manifest themselves. In February of this year, Combat Stress, the ex-services mental welfare society, sent out a press release stating that it was "not surprised to see the recently released official government figures concerning the numbers of ex-servicemen and women who have served in Iraq who are now suffering serious mental health problems," but it cautioned that "the average length of time between leaving service and seeking the help of Combat Stress is approximately 14 years." So, with such a long 'gestation' of symptoms, it's very unlikely that the media will find hordes of traumatised ex-servicemen on London's streets, and to look for them shows a lack of understanding of the problem Milroy said: "while I am no apologist for the MOD, I know they spend millions of pounds to ensure that personnel make a successful transition to civilian life and they are constantly involved with us to see where they can help. While some will undoubtedly fall through the mesh, each year thousands will make the transition from military service successfully. The real bonus is that for the rest of their post-service lives service personnel, and in a lot of cases, their partners, can call assistance from a vast array of ex-service organisations; could the same be said about working for a sandwich bar in London?" Asked if the military fails in their duty of care to help those leaving the forces, Milroy replied: "I am so passionate about caring for homeless veterans that if I thought that this was the case I would be telling everyone." He added that, "of course, there will always be homeless people that have been damaged and feel that military service was the root cause of their problems... I wouldn't deny this but what I want to do is keep the whole thing in context. The issue needs perspective, not sensationalism."