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The Unknown Soldier

An exhibition exploring the experiences of homelessness amongst veterans in the UK opened yesterday. The exhibition, called The Unknown Soldier by the artist and ex-soldier David Tovey, explores why people who leave the armed forces end up homeless. The artist is an ex-soldier who has experienced homelessness in the past.


The event will include paintings, photographs, film and memorabilia documenting Tovey’s experiences. The show aims to raise awareness of social injustice and the wider issues of all forms of homelessness. The exhibition will highlight the lack of housing and mental health support that veterans receive. The exhibition will run from the 28th January 2022 to the 16th April 2022. The event is taking place at Rochester Art Gallery, Medway Visitor Information Centre, 95 High Street, Rochester, Kent, ME1 1LX. The opening times for The Unknown Soldier is from Tuesday to Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm.


Image by Edward Lich from Pixabay


Before the coronavirus pandemic, an estimated 100 to 400 veterans slept rough every year and around 3000 to 4000 faced homelessness. Veterans leave the armed forces with no experience of finding housing. Many people join the armed forces as young adults in their teens and receive free or subsidized housing. This lack of experience in finding and retaining housing can result in homelessness.


A report by the British legion found that most veterans experiencing homelessness served in the army rather than the navy or air force. Homeless veterans have an average age of 47. Veterans are more likely to have alcohol-related issues than the general homeless population but less likely to have drug-related issues. An Armed Forces drinking culture is linked to alcohol problems amongst veterans.


The Invisible Homeless Veterans


The charity West London Mission (WLM) provides ex-military with housing support. WLM states that figures suggest the percentage of homeless people who are ex-servicemen and women has tumbled since the 1990s. The percentage of homeless people who were ex-servicemen and women in the 1990s was 20%. A government publication called Veterans Factsheet stated that in 2014, it was estimated that around 5% of the homeless population had served in the armed forces.


WLM are concerned that the way homelessness statistics are collected for ex-servicemen and women may be rendering homeless veterans invisible. Ex-servicemen and women access housing support by themselves or through armed forces charities. Ex-servicemen and women tend not to use government supported housing systems. Statistical information regarding the number of homeless ex-servicemen is collated through statutory homelessness systems. Many homeless veterans are missed out of this count.


Health issues can create homelessness


Ex-servicemen and women injured at war may have difficulties finding and accessing work. The British Legion states that around 630,000 members of the ex-service community are likely to be experiencing mobility issues outside the home. Around 720,000 veterans experience regular exhaustion and pain. Unemployment can exacerbate poverty and lead to homelessness.


Mental health issues amongst ex-servicemen and women are another factor increasing the risk of homelessness. The National Health Service (NHS) has helped 2000 ex-servicemen and women with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related issues in the last two years. PTSD and delayed PTSD can increase the chances of ex-servicemen and women experiencing housing issues. The British Legion found that around 480,000 ex-servicemen and women experience depression. The debilitating effects of depression can increase the chances of homelessness.


Op Courage


An NHS initiative called Op Courage was launched in the UK in March 2021. Armed forces veterans suffering from a mental health crisis will receive specialist care. Doctors, nurses and other NHS staff will provide treatment for mental health issues by working with charities that help ex-servicemen and women. This help includes same-day referrals for urgent mental health cases. This service is expected to treat around 500 veterans a year. Op Courage will focus on homeless, suicidal, self-harming and addicted veterans.


The Veteran's Strategy Action Plan


The government launched a Veterans’ Strategy Action Plan in January 2022. It states that the law regarding the local connection test was removed for veterans to improve their access to social housing. Councils check whether a person who wants to access social housing has a local connection via work or family in the area. Veterans move frequently during their armed service so may not have local connections.


A National Insurance contribution holiday for employers who employ veterans was introduced to encourage employers to hire veterans. The civil service also has a guaranteed interview scheme to encourage more veterans to join the Civil Service. Initiatives like these help veterans move into jobs. A Veteran Railcard was launched so that veterans could access cheaper fares.


Veterans face a host of difficulties if they leave the armed forces. Lack of life experience in dealing with housing issues puts them at a disadvantage. Some veterans experience mental health and physical issues that prevent them from finding employment. Some homeless veterans may be missing from the official homeless figures. Initiatives like Op Courage and the Veteran’s Strategy Action Plan could help to end homelessness amongst veterans. Veterans can also access help with housing through charities like WLM, First Light Trust and the Felix Fund.


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