Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It took a lot of help for me to find my voice'

Ex-soldier Michael Crossan was able to get off the streets and develop his skills as an artist thanks to Veterans Aid. Glyn Strong reports
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The Independent Online

Blood-red hands reach out from a sea of unseeing faces; blank eyeless masks that, to artist Michael Crossan, have a special meaning. The masks represent people who walked past him when he was homeless and living on the streets, while the "face" on the left of the work is his own.

Crossan, a former soldier, is 51. A few years ago he was an alcoholic living in a hostel for homeless veterans in Stepney, east London, run by Veterans Aid, one of the two charities being supported by The Independent on Sunday's Christmas appeal. His only "public" work at that stage was a mural overlooking the outdoor area where residents met to smoke and socialise.

But in 2012, his installation Brothers in Arms formed the centrepiece of a public exhibition at the SW1 Gallery opened by Turner Prize nominee Marvin Gaye Chetwynd. This autumn, Crossan started an MA course in fine art at Wimbledon College of Arts after completing earlier studies at the City Literary Institute in Covent Garden. Enthusiastic and cautious in equal measure, he is still bewildered by how much his life has changed.

He freely acknowledges his "resurrection" was enabled by Veterans Aid, which carries out a crucial role in the front line of the fight against homelessness among the UK's ex-servicemen and women. In the Autumn Statement, George Osborne awarded the charity £3m to help to refurbish, update and extend the hostel where Crossan was formerly a resident.

Crossan served in the Royal Highland Fusiliers but became homeless after leaving the army. He spent five years in Greece, painting murals in theme clubs. It was a lifestyle that went hand in hand with drinking and eventually led to the "pavement perspective" on life that inspired Brothers in Arms.

"You exist [on the streets] but you're not recognised. You don't feel like part of society. It took a long time and a lot of help from people for me to find my voice," he says.

That voice, for many Veterans Aid clients, is a creative outlet. Over the years, the charity has paid for veterans to learn body piercing, photography, art, sculpture – and to go on a variety of art and literacy courses. One former homeless alcoholic went on to graduate with a first in English.

Michael Crossan's artwork, “Somme (ber)” (Alex Lentati)

Crossan was born in Bellshill, near Glasgow. The youngest of four children, he was brought up by a brother, left home at 17 and joined the army at 21. He remained estranged from his family for more than 20 years but has now re-established tentative contact. "At first it was just emails, you know. We took it slowly," he says.

Crossan was in detox when he rediscovered his love of art and was supported by Phil Rogers, who later became Veterans Aid's substance abuse worker. His first home after the streets was the charity's New Belvedere House hostel in Stepney.

Like many before him, Crossan arrived at the charity's drop-in centre in Victoria in poor shape and with low expectations. But his journey as a serious artist began when an offer was made to donate a week's space in the now defunct SW1 Gallery to VA's "artists".

At a private view, half the artworks on display were sold. Some of the contributors were too stunned to speak. "When I came up the escalator to the gallery I saw all it through the window – the work of all those guys. It was unreal," Crossan says.

"We've all been through emotional and physical hell and survived. It was suddenly real. It was there – our artwork, in this amazing gallery. I thought, 'It just shows what can be achieved when someone gives you a helping hand.' It was one of the best nights of my life.

"People thought I called the piece Brothers in Arms because of the military connection, but was bigger than that. It's about humanity. And that's what Veterans Aid is all about. It exists to help ex-servicemen – but what it does comes from the heart."

Brothers in Arms now looks set to go on permanent display in the National Army Museum in London. Rebecca Newell, one of the museums curators, says: "We've been looking at how we can tell the story of the British soldier very carefully through the varied subject matter that we include in the collection.

"We wanted to draw out new themes that are to do with contemporary soldiering, so in the course of working on art projects generally, working with partner institutions, visiting rehabilitation and support centres, we've been looking for artwork that talks about some of those narratives."

Since Crossan's New Belvedere House days, his work has been widely exhibited, discussed and purchased, but he insists now he is "just a student" looking forward to getting through his first term. He acknowledges that what saved him was being a member of the military family, which led to his relationship with Veterans Aid. "They were there when no one else was – and they never gave up on me," he says.

One of Michael Crossan's artworks, Somme (ber), is being auctioned as part of 'The Independent on Sunday's' Homeless Veterans charity appeal. Bidding ends tomorrow