Homeless Veterans Appeal: An 'absolute nightmare' of homelessness and isolation

An appeal for help this Christmas for those British war veterans who have ended up on the streets and with nothing. Chris Green reports
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A few years ago, Sean Staines was living in a forest in Leicestershire with not even a sleeping bag to keep him warm. The 48-year-old had left the Army in 2000, but over a number of years his life on "civvy street" slowly unravelled until it became, in his words, an "absolute nightmare" of homelessness and isolation.

His plight is an extreme example of what can happen to Britain's veterans after they leave the military. While the vast majority of the UK's 4.6 million former servicemen and women have managed to readjust to civilian life, some are badly in need of help.

The Independent on Sunday's Homeless Veterans Appeal, being run in partnership with The Independent, i, the London Evening Standard and the London Live TV station, is supporting two charities whose work is crucial in preventing homelessness among veterans and helping those who have fallen on hard times.

ABF The Soldiers' Charity, the national charity of the British Army, is an umbrella organisation which gives grants to more than 5,000 people every year, as well as essential funds to other, smaller charities with specific expertise in helping both serving and former soldiers.

Veterans Aid is on the frontline in the fight against homelessness among veterans, running a drop-in centre near Victoria Station in central London, as well as a hostel in Stepney in east London. It was a phone call from this charity that got Mr Staines's life back on track.

Having joined the Army in 1991 at the age of 24, he had served for nine years, initially with the Royal Horse Artillery and then the ACE Mobile Force, a small unit that specialised in Arctic and mountain warfare, providing artillery cover for operations by the SAS and the Royal Marines. It was a life he adored.

But after leaving to spend more time with his fiancée and daughter, a series of events threw his life out of control. His landscape gardening business ran into trouble and he got into a fight with two men while trying to recover the money he had lost. "It wasn't like me, I'm not usually an aggressive person. But things had just got on top of me," he said.

He spent the night in a police cell and was sentenced to 150 hours of community service. But then things got even worse. "I just lost it. I didn't know what to do with myself – and the next thing I know I was living in the woods through winter with a campfire," he said.

British soldiers returning this month from Afghanistan (Getty)

"I didn't even have a tent or a sleeping bag. I just built a shelter and stayed there for three months. At one point I was really quite happy, which I know sounds strange, but I was doing what I was trained to do.

"I used to wash in a McDonald's in Loughborough, use their toilets, charge my phone up and buy myself a coffee if I could afford it. My parents didn't know I was living that way, nor did my sisters – nobody did really, just me."

Then, out of the blue, he got a call from Veterans Aid. "They said, 'We've got a place for you'; and I thought they were taking the Mickey. It sounded too good to be true. I said, 'You must be taking the piss'; and put the phone down on them. But they rang me back."

Soon Mr Staines was living in east London, at the Veterans Aid's hostel New Belvedere House, where he stayed for three years. As he had been struggling with alcohol, he was put through rehab. "It was superb – they really do pick you up. I was struggling to associate with people, I didn't feel comfortable. But now it's changed and I feel a lot better," he said.

When he was ready, the charity found him a flat in Islington, north London, where he has lived for just over a year. "It was a shock at first, thinking I had to look after myself, because I'd never really been on my own," Mr Staines said. "They don't teach you life skills in the Army – cooking, finances, the basic skills of living. But I love it now. I was worried that I'd miss being looked after, but I fell straight into it."

Party leaders David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have already pledged their support to the Homeless Veterans appeal, as has the actress and humanitarian activist Angelina Jolie, who made an undisclosed donation on behalf of herself, her husband, Brad Pitt, and their six children.

Major-General (Ret'd) Martin Rutledge, chief executive of The Soldiers' Charity, said: "We have been overwhelmed by the success of the campaign so far. In just a few days, so many thousands of people have chosen to support our homeless veterans, which means we can help so many more access adequate housing and other support."

The Independent on Sunday has long campaigned on the issue of Britain's Armed Forces covenant, which sets out the relationship between the nation, the Government and those who fight in the military. Published in 2011, its key principles and responsibilities have now been enshrined in UK law – but some are of the view that it does not go far enough.

"My frequent meetings with politicians of all persuasions have convinced me that Parliament wants to do well by the military community," said Dr Hugh Milroy, chief executive of Veterans Aid.

"But, the Devil is in the detail. The lives of the many veterans who approached us for help last year were not materially improved by the covenant effort thus far. At this stage, it is only an enabling document and has no real teeth."