Lime Legal

About turn

Published 01 January 2024

Headlines have stoked public perception of veterans returning from active service to a life on the streets. But research shows a very different picture, say Sarah Johnsen and Anwen Jones.

What happens to people when they leave the armed services – the army, navy and air force? A popular view is that a high proportion become homeless – the ‘homeless squaddie’ is part of the public perception of homelessness statistics.

Ask anyone why ex-service personnel become homeless and they will probably say that it is because veterans are institutionalised and/or suffer from combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. Frontline support workers will tell you that a disproportionate number of their clientele has served in the armed forces. And media coverage includes stories about the prospect of ‘thousands’ of veterans becoming homeless on their return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

But evidence from research commissioned by the Ex-Service Action Group on Homelessness, and conducted by the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York, challenges such views.

The study, funded by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and The Royal British Legion, looked at homeless ex-service personnel in London. It found that the proportion of homeless people with a service background has shrunk to well below the number popularly believed to exist. It also showed that the triggers for homelessness, and ex-service personnel’s support needs, are strikingly similar to those of the wider homeless population – but that a military background can profoundly influence how individuals experience homelessness.

The research team found that approximately 6 per cent of London’s single homeless population had served in the armed forces. This is a massive reduction from the figure of 22 per cent reported a decade ago, and is probably a measure of the impact of work by ex-service welfare agencies in the capital, and the expansion of the MoD’s pre-discharge resettlement service which aims to prepare service leavers for civilian life.

But with an estimated 1,100 single homeless ex-service personnel (most of whom are in hostels), and 2,500 ex-service personnel in statutorily homeless families living in London, the number remains high. Anecdotal evidence suggests that ex-service homelessness may be higher in other parts of Britain – particularly areas surrounding military bases and/or communities with a strong tradition of armed forces recruitment, given the tendency for service leavers to return to the area of their parental home after discharge.

Only two of the 59 homeless ex-service personnel interviewed had served in Iraq or Afghanistan (most had left the armed forces years earlier). It is unclear what impact recent conflicts will have. Given the lag between the experience of trauma and manifestation of problems, the effects are unlikely to be immediately evident.

The study confirmed that homeless ex-service personnel in London are almost exclusively male, most are of white ethnic background, and they are generally older than the single homeless population as a whole. Apart from these demographic differences, the similarities between them and other homeless people are striking.

Importantly, their vulnerabilities and support needs involve poor physical health, mental health problems and/or substance misuse. However, a greater proportion of ex-service personnel have alcohol, physical and/or mental health problems. Only a small minority report vulnerabilities and support needs that are unique to people with a history of the armed forces, such as combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

Childhood vulnerabilities

Veterans’ routes into homelessness were subject to wide variations. Four main life history trajectories were identified among interviewees. The first group were those who carried vulnerabilities from childhood or adolescence – such as fraught relationships with parents, a history of care, problem drinking and/or involvement in criminal activity – into the armed forces and later civilian life. About a quarter of the ex-service personnel interviewed fell into this group.

A member of an ex-services welfare agency said that, for some, being in the army was like being in suspended animation. ‘They were messed up when they went in, and all the underlying issues are still there. They’ve never been resolved, and you’re dealing with it so far down the line.’

A quarter of the homeless ex-servicemen had encountered difficulties – such as the onset of alcohol misuse or mental health problems – while in the armed forces, which continued to affect them after discharge. One said: ‘I was a bit of a bugger with the beer, and that didn’t go down too well sometimes.’

The third group – about one in six of the ex-servicemen interviewed – was the smallest and included those who’d had a successful career in the armed forces but found the adjustment to civilian life (particularly employment and ‘normal’ family life) difficult. ‘I couldn’t be bothered with jobs,’ one of them admitted. ‘It just wasn’t me. I was so used to travelling around all the time.’

Finally, there were others who’d had a successful career in the armed forces and did not encounter difficulties until affected by an apparently unrelated trauma – such as relationship breakdown, bereavement, or financial crisis. This was the most widespread experience, reported by one-third of interviewees. One said his time in the services had no relevance to him becoming homeless ten years after receiving his discharge.

However, a service history did influence how individuals experienced homelessness. Ex-service personnel considered themselves better equipped to endure the hardships of street life: ‘Sleeping rough didn’t worry us, we’d been in the army, we could handle it It’s part of your conditioning as a soldier.’

They were also less inclined to seek or accept help, given their greater tendency to elevate the perceived ‘shame’ of their situation: ‘I’d rather die than prevail on them for help, honest to God.’

These factors, and the greater incidence of heavy drinking among ex-service personnel – which many claimed was exacerbated by military life – combined to make them more susceptible to sustained or repeat homelessness. A significant number had slept rough for long periods (sometimes years) and had been highly resistant to interventions.

Despite the definition of priority need being expanded in 2012 to include people vulnerable as a result of serving in the forces, few of the ex-service interviewees had been accepted as statutorily homeless. In practice, only those with serious physical and mental health problems are usually accepted. The vast majority of ex-service interviewees were single homeless, and most were, like other single homeless men, regarded as low priority in social housing allocations.

But a greater range of support options is available to homeless ex-service personnel than most other members of the single homeless population in London. In addition to mainstream homelessness services, they are eligible for ex-forces hostels, resettlement support, settled housing schemes, and employment initiatives.

Some ex-service personnel prefer ex-forces provision because they enjoy the company of people with shared experiences and appreciate the way staff value and ‘understand’ their service history. Others, however, will not utilise dedicated provision given their dislike of ‘regimental’ dynamics and/or feelings of ‘shame’, which were acute among those dishonourably discharged.

However, knowledge of ways to access additional resources is generally poor among ex-service personnel and mainstream homelessness agencies. The research highlighted a pressing need to improve awareness of specialist services among providers and ex-armed forces personnel. Many are, for example, eligible for housing from providers such as Haig Homes or the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation, and substantial grants to furnish tenancies from The Royal British Legion.

Improved support

The most recent armed forces leavers were more likely than their older compatriots to be aware of ex-forces welfare and support services, suggesting that information and support offered by the MoD’s expanded resettlement package is having a positive impact. However, a number of ex-service personnel who have not benefited is likely to remain. Also, a number wrongly believe that they do not qualify as ‘veterans’ – or they consider themselves to be undeserving of help from ex-forces welfare agencies if they did not see active service (or did not serve in a war zone).

The Service Personnel and Veterans Agency (SPVA) is able to advise ex-service personnel on issues such as housing, health, compensation and pension entitlements. It can also provide advice to agencies supporting veterans, and signpost them to specialist ex-forces provision. Within the SPVA, the veterans’ welfare service provides case officers to support ex-service personnel and strengthen relationships with other agencies.

Improved communication between dedicated ex-forces and mainstream homelessness agencies would have a positive impact, as would steps to identify service leavers who may be at risk prior to discharge.

Sarah Johnsen and Anwen Jones are research fellows at the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York. The Experiences of Homeless Ex-Service Personnel in London, by Sarah Johnsen, Anwen Jones and Julie Rugg, may be downloaded free from