Two months ago Phil, who was medically discharged from the Army in 1991, was sharing a hostel dormitory in Clapham, south London, with down-and-outs, drug addicts and alcoholics. Two months before that he was living rough in rat and lice-infested 'Cardboard City', near Waterloo Station.
Civvy Street has proved far tougher than 12 years of active service, which included three tours of Northern Ireland. 'It has been a shock to the system,' Phil admits at New Belvedere House, a 10-bed hostel recently set up by the Ex-Service Fellowship in Stepney, east London, to cater for the increasing number of young ex-squaddies on the streets. 'You see the homeless but you never think you will end up there.'
Phil is typical of the homeless ex-servicemen described in a new study, Falling Out, commissioned by the homeless charity Crisis, which reveals that up to a quarter of people on the streets have done military service. But it has still shocked Phil to find so many ex- servicemen on the streets. 'There are so many out there; men made redundant by the current cuts, and divorced and single men who have found it hard to adjust to civilian life.'
Before his discharge, Phil suffered four years of ill health which curtailed his promotion. A mental breakdown following a failed marriage led to his departure from the forces.
Brought up in an Army family - his father is an officer - he now believes serving his country was a waste of time and that the 'institutionalisation' rendered him useless in the real world. 'In the Army there are people to sort out all your problems. But as soon as they get you out the door they just don't want to know.'
Estranged from his parents, Phil had no alternative support. During four weeks in Cardboard City, he endured a painful reminder of his decline. 'Usually I found it impossible to beg. But once I was desperate. There I was, head down and blanket wrapped around me, repeating 'any spare change please'. The fourth person to come along was the second-in-command of my battalion. Thank God he didn't recognise me.'
Since spotting the advert for New Belvedere House, Phil has begun to sort himself out. But he says it is nearly impossible not to be 'pulled in' to a destructive lifestyle on the streets. 'Not everyone is on drink or drugs. I met people who were just struggling to save up enough money to get a deposit on a rented flat.'
While the Falling Out report suggests there can be a long time between discharge and the first period of homelessness, Mark Scothern, director of Crisis, warns that ex- servicemen can be sleeping rough very soon after leaving.
At the Providence Row Day Centre in Whitechapel, east London, the manager, Ray McKnight, says he helps many ex-servicemen. 'They don't feel they belong anywhere. They are psychologically homeless.'
Most squaddies passing through were low-rank. 'They seem to have had no help to find a home or work except for a session with a careers officer.'
Mr McKnight says that without a roof over their heads, the men, unused to discussing emotions or vulnerability, are hard to help. They come from a hard-drinking culture and it is to alcohol that many turn.
Jim Burns, 60, once a corporal with the Cameron Highlanders, is a former forces' boxing champion; he traces his drinking back to service in Korea 30 years ago. 'You had to be onconstant alert. That's where I developed my taste for alcohol. I had a breakdown within three months of leaving. I know I was traumatised and I should have had some counselling from the Army.'
Leading article, page 18
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