Homeless Veterans Appeal: A vital stepping stone to get veterans back on their feet

'I ended up sleeping in parks, churchyards and on benches'

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The Independent Online

Louis Boyle has experienced first-hand the pain of homelessness. The 47-year-old, who joined the Army in 1986 at the age of 18 and served for five years, including in Northern Ireland, was brought up in care in Middlesbrough and began drinking heavily from a young age, continuing to do so during his military career. With no family to turn to when he left the services, he ended up on the streets.

“I don’t know anything about my family or relatives, so I was always by myself. I never had mates I could call or live with until I sorted myself out,” he says. “I ended up being homeless in Middlesbrough, sleeping in parks, churchyards and on benches. The longest spell was for about eight months. Then I started getting in trouble with the police and was in and out of prison.”

It was only when he was released from jail that he found out about Thirteen Care and Support, a social housing organisation based in the North-east that runs two residences for veterans who have fallen on hard times.

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It found Mr Boyle a space at its five-bedroom property Brims House in Newcastle, where staff booked him into a year-long rehab programme. Afterwards he found his own flat, but now believes he tried to get back on his feet “too quickly”. When he relapsed three months ago, he called the staff at Thirteen again.

This time they found him a room in Bibby House, its other property for veterans in Gateshead. “I absolutely love it,” he says. “If you need any support with anything – housing, finance, any other issues – they help you. They know I’m a recovering alcoholic. If I get up in the morning and my head’s upside down, they know where it could take me – prison again, or a gutter or a hospital.”

Bibby House, which opened in 2013, has benefited from grants given by ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, one of two being supported by The Independent’s Christmas appeal in aid of Homeless Veterans. Last year alone, the charity contributed £37,500 towards the house’s running costs.

Mr Boyle believes that if Thirteen hadn’t given him a home when he needed one, he would already be back in jail.

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Louis Boyle is a recovering alcoholic living in Bibby House in Gateshead

The average length of stay at both Bibby and Brims House is around 12-14 months, with 67 veterans passing through since they opened.

Phil Thompson, who himself spent 31 years in the Army, is the partnership and innovation manager at Thirteen. The aim of the two residences, he says, is to provide “a stepping stone to independent living” for veterans rather than a permanent home. “When they come here they’re in a bad place,” he adds.

“Ninety-five per cent of those leaving the forces do make that transition – we deal with the 5 per cent who have not made it... Sometimes it’s the first time they can actually talk about their experiences to someone who’ll understand. We provide the support to get them to where they need to be.”

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