Exclusive: Quarter of single homeless served in the armed forces: Major says millions agree with him about beggars - MoD accused of not doing enough to help ex-servicemen

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The Independent Online
ONE IN four single homeless people has served in the forces and a high proportion of them are sleeping rough, according to a study to be published this week.

Commissioned by Crisis, the homeless charity, the study shows that many of these ex-servicemen have physical or mental health problems and more than a third have been to prison. It directly criticises the Government for doing too little to ease the transition from military life to 'Civvy Street'.

Although they deal with homelessness rather than begging, these findings are certain to intensify the political row that has followed John Major's attack on aggressive begging as 'offensive' and an 'eyesore'.

Mr Major insisted yesterday that he had merely said what 'many millions of people in this country feel'. Speaking in his Huntingdon constituency, he insisted: 'There is no need for begging. There is no need for aggressive begging . . . I think that if you asked some of the people that suffered from aggressive begging in different parts of this county, they would say what I say. It is unnecessary and it is offensive.'

Labour's European election campaign manager, Jack Straw, denounced the Prime Minister, saying the Conservatives had 'got right into the gutter along with the beggars in their campaign tactics', adding: 'What the Tories are going for is a hard core of prejudiced Conservative voters; they have abandoned the softer vote.'

The Crisis report paints a bleak picture of the life some men lead after leaving the services, and Mark Scothern, the charity's director, forecast that the number of ex-soldiers on the streets would grow as the Government implements the 17,000 redundancies started in 1992 as part of its defence cuts. Like other homeless charities, Crisis has already criticised the MoD over the large number of empty properties it holds.

Mr Scothern said: 'We have always known there were many homeless men with services backgrounds but we were surprised by the actual percentage. If contingencies are not established a lot of those leaving now are going to end up on the streets.'

The report, entitled Falling Out, analyses data from a national study of the single homeless commissioned by the Department of the Environment last year and includes additional interviews with 73 men in hostels, soup kitchens and homeless centres in London.

It concludes that ex-service people are more disadvantaged than other homeless people. Most of those interviewed stayed less than a year in their first accommodation after leaving the forces. More than one-third have never had a settled home after leaving.

About 70 per cent said they had physical or mental health problems. A quarter suffered from depression or stress-related illnesses while a quarter also reported an alcohol-related condition. More than 40 per cent had been in prison and 23 per cent in a psychiatric unit.

Even when periods of homelessness occurred some time after they left the forces, those interviewed often traced back their unsettled lifestyle to the 'culture shock' of leaving. A significant proportion had care backgrounds or unsettled childhoods before joining up and had no family to return to.

Geoffrey Randall, one of the report's authors, said single servicemen were less likely to have a stake in housing and unlike families had no right to be housed by local authorities.

Only 12 per cent said they had received any help in finding accommodation when they left the forces. The study claims than only 10 per cent of cases dealt with by the Joint Services Housing advice office, set up in 1992, were single people.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said the report's criticisms were unfair. 'The MoD provides extensive resettlement advice which starts two years before men leave. It doesn't matter whether they are married or single. The advice covers all aspects, including employment and housing.

'We also give advice on adjusting to life outside. We recognise the armed services tend to hold people's hands and outside they will no longer be cossetted. But what individuals do once they are outside is a matter for them.' The study was flawed because it included men in the merchant navy and its age profile did not reflect that of those leaving the forces.

The spokesman insisted all ranks received the same quality of resettlement service. 'On bricklaying courses you can find an admiral alongside a young stoker,' he said.

A soldier's story, page 2

Leading article, page 18