Ex-service personnel have always featured highly amongst the homeless. For many years the armed forces seemed particularly bad at helping people re-settle after their discharge. There was no single cause for homelessness: sometimes physical disability made people less able to work and more vulnerable, sometimes mental stresses and post-trauma conditions made life back in civilian life more difficult to bear. Sometimes people had become institutionalised or distanced from their families and an inability to re-settle led to problems with alcohol or drugs. Some faced discrimination.
For decades small charities campaigned to get a fair housing deal for homeless ex-service men and women but it was an uphill struggle. The 1977 homelessness legislation provided one route to a decent home for some: if vulnerability through disability could be demonstrated then a social rented home would be found. But this was not enough: research by Crisis in the mid 1990s found that around one-quarter of the single homeless population had spent time in the armed forces.
Since then, increased awareness and better services, both within the armed forces and in local government and the voluntary sector, have had a demonstrable impact on the problem, with Crisis estimating that ex-service people are now around 6% of the single homeless population. And in a very important step, the Labour Government changed the priority need categories in the homelessness legislation to give clear rights to vulnerable former members of the armed forces.
Striking his most Churchillian pose, Housing Minister Grant Shapps seeks to make the most of today’s announcement by Defence Minister Liam Fox about the improving the ‘military covenant’. Shapps’ statement is littered with pomposity but little practical action: ‘These brave men and women… heroes … we will not stand idly by… our duty as a nation… we must hear their call’. There is nothing wrong with the government giving ex-service people priority (in some as yet undefined way) for the FirstBuy scheme, shared equaity schemes, self-build projects and the like. But it will hardly crack the problem.
In his little list, Shapps included ‘fairer treatment for military personnel applying to live in social housing’. On the surface, fair enough, given their incomes and housing histories, the route into social housing is likely to be more important than the others in ensuring ex-armed forces personnel obtain an affordable secure decent home.
Call me an old cynic, but isn’t this the same Grant Shapps who has ended the production of social housing at target rents in the future? Who has brought about the slashing of ‘supporting people’ budgets – used to support homeless ex-service personnel amongst others – in many areas of the country? Who has promoted legislation that will remove the right of vulnerable ex-service personnel to be rehoused in a social rented home? Like everyone else, in future homeless ex-service personnel are likely to be offered a letting in the higher-cost, insecure private rented sector.
It pays to be careful when you see a Tory waving the flag. In all likelihood they will be up to no good.