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Old soldiers on the streets

May 22 2009
Most people leave the armed forces better prepared for civilian life, but for some, military life is a poor preparation The disproportionately large number of ex-military personnel who become homeless is well documented. Twenty-five per cent of rough sleepers and other single homeless people are said to have military backgrounds. Homelessness agencies such as Thames Reach Bondway and St Mungo's suggest 10 per cent is closer. Though less alarmist, that figure is still too high. Since the armed forces are a tiny proportion of the whole population, military service does seem to be a risk factor for subsequent homelessness. But to suggest that being in the armed forces, particularly the army, makes you more likely to become homeless, is over simplistic. It is like describing a zigzag and broken path as if it was as straight and clear as a Roman road.

Since these links started to emerge in the early 1990s the Ministry of Defence, the armed forces and the ex-forces charities have put in place initiatives, both pre- and post-departure, to advise and assist in finding homes. These are all welcome, but the problem persists. The Indigo Trust, one of the Sainsbury's Family Charitable Trusts, commissioned Lemos & Crane to understand better the intractability of the problem and to suggest improvements. Interviewing ex-services people in-depth, who had been or were homeless, we asked them about their lives before joining, their experiences whilst in the military and since.

The most striking feature of their responses was the pride that they universally felt in their military service. They told us about 'comradeship' and felt they had "learnt a lot about looking after myself - life lessons." One person commented, "I used to have a bad reputation with the police. The army made me realise what an idiot I was and what I'd put my Dad through." Most people leave the armed forces with their confidence, skills and maturity enhanced; better prepared for civilian life. But for some, military life, with its emphasis on hierarchy, structure, peer groups and life lived in the present tense, is a poor preparation for civilian life.

One person noted "It's a completely different mindset from civilian life but you don't really realise that until you leave and then the differences are really clear." Some become homeless, not always immediately, sometimes years later. Others find old problems recurring, family conflict, relationship breakdown and mental health: Military life had allowed them to distance the present from the past, but the past crashes back in. For others military life has itself triggered problems, such as mental health problems or conflict-related post-traumatic stress disorder. Drinking excessively is also a legacy of spending too much time in "The Mess." Survival skills gained in the army can help with life on the street. One person who had lived in a graveyard told us that "a plastic bag is often much warmer than a sleeping bag. You learn these little things from being in the military." As well as the services developed since the 1990s, more can be done. Successful approaches will validate the positive aspects of the ex-military identity - it can't be easy going from 'fighting the Queen's enemy' to being a security guard - while seeking to re-integrate ex-military homeless people into the mainstream of society. Homelessness agencies will need to work more closely with ex-forces charities.

Preventing ex-military homelessness depends upon the armed forces recognising and dealing with particular emotional problems when they arise, especially when bad behaviour may lead to premature discharge without support before or after departure. In the longer term, military life needs to become, within the obvious operational constraints, more like normal lives lived on normal streets with friends and family who are not in the armed forces. New garrisoning arrangements will mean that soldiers spend more time in the UK and less time living in barracks. The structures and preparations for modern warfare and peacekeeping, fought quickly and mostly from a distance, come together fortuitously with reducing the culture shock that can lead to homelessness.

Problems will nevertheless remain for those for whom military life has not in the end helped move on from past problems and those for whom military life itself has made them vulnerable and less able to cope with modern life, which evidently lacks clear hierarchy, structure and purpose.

Hardly surprising that it seems bewildering.

Gerard Lemos works for Lemos & Crane.