A couple of quick stories. I was walking home a couple of months ago when I came across a man who laid in the street, crying. I approached him and asked him what was wrong and he said he needed to be “taken away, because he was sick”. He was a veteran who was now homeless. He’d served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and had been stationed all over the world. He’d struggled to adjust to life on “civvie street”, split with his partner and been estranged from his family. An ambulance came for him and the attending paramedic made a point that was sadly true: he didn’t need a hospital – he needed a community.
Second story: there’s a homeless man that I have a cordial relationship with that beds down in a doorway near to where I live. I’ve shared a sandwich and a coffee with him on a few occasions. We got to know each other after I came out of hospital last year (for those that don’t know, I developed a post-op infection that nearly killed me). With an enforced period off of work, I would hobble down to the local pub just to have someone to talk to during the day, which is when I first started to talking to him. He’s a veteran who had done 20 years in the forces. Much like the first guy, he had struggled with the transition to “normal” life and had got into a lot of debt. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, but I did today and he said 5 words that made me think:
“You’re walking a lot better”…
In Britain, people are proud of the military. Newspapers, especially the red tops link patriotism with supporting the troops. In October and November, many people wear poppies to show support and raise money for veterans. We have solemn ceremonies where wreaths are laid around the country to recognise the soldiers who have died in service of the country. Schools look at The Great War poets like Sassoon and Owen. One of the slogans that we say is “We will remember them”.
And yet, reports suggest that there are around 13000 veterans that are homeless. Have we remembered them?
There are many reasons to be upset with the last two Conservative governments, but the one that angers me most is the absolutely poisonous rhetoric that came out when Priti Patel and Ian Duncan-Smith were in the Department for Work and Pensions. Saying “once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world” was bad enough (two of the other MPs that joined Patel in saying that? Dominic Raab and Liz Truss. #justsayin), but the 2013 welfare reforms that saw the rise of deaths, food banks, suicide and homelessness was the kicker for me. This was when the bedroom tax came in, swingeing cuts to legal aid, a brazen attempt to privatise the NHS by stealth, the introduction of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and a move to uncouple the rise of benefits in line with inflation. Then Prime Minister, David Cameron, talked of “strivers” and “skivers”.
Are men and women who put their lives on the line in defence of the country and then end up homeless “strivers” or “skivers”?
It is very difficult to find statistics, but internal briefing documents suggest the British Army are deliberately targeting young working class people to join. Should those young people, if they get out of the army, be called “among the worst idlers in the world”?
I’d prefer less parades and more provision; less political point-scoring about which party is most patriotic and more practical support.
When I see the parades in November, I have a panoply of feelings. I’m sombre as I try, and fail, to imagine the horrors of war; admiration for those that would choose to engage in armed combat in defence of family and country, and anger. I get angry, because I remember the homeless veterans in my city, the ones who, though they haven’t seen me in months, tell me that I’m walking better and encourage me to keep working; those who have had their dignity stripped from them, rifles replaced with begging bowls. These veterans have had their invitations to these parades lost in the post: it’s difficult to send a letter to someone of no fixed address.
Veterans need support. The majority suffer from PTSD and almost all of them have experienced horrors that the majority of us cannot comprehend. Let us all commit to ensuring that the next time someone asks if we can spare some change, we don’t ignore them: we might be wearing a poppy in a couple of months saying “we will remember them” and there’s nothing worse then being a hypocrite.