Ashley Rosser was living in a tent in the Oxfordshire countryside when he finally made his call to Veterans Aid. His marriage had collapsed, his savings run out and he found himself ineligible for benefits due to time spent out of the country. Jobless, his tent had seemed the only option. The call to Veterans Aid showed otherwise.
Within 24 hours the charity had found a home for him in its veteran’s hostel in East London. There this former RAF serviceman was given his own room and a brand new set of clothes. Within days he had settled into his new routine, the latest of the 55 veterans living there who are being given the chance to start again.
Few walking by the two brick buildings off London’s Commercial Road that house the hostel would give them a second glance. The first is a simple 1950s block, its three stories layered with lines of box windows, where new arrivals are first given somewhere to live.
Next door stands a former Victorian rectory with its more elegant gables where those further along the recovery process are provided with the opportunity to live in small apartments as they prepare to take the step to moving out and once again becoming independent. Together they form just one more part of the architectural jumble that marks this area of Stepney.
But these buildings are not like those which surround them. They provide a temporary home for veterans like 53-year-old Ashley who have fallen into destitution. So successful is this site at turning lives around that 98 per cent of those who have been through its programme go on to homes of their own, jobs and a bright future.
“This is a special place,” Ashley said as he showed me his new surroundings. “Many people when they come in here are very defensive after living on the streets. Some are going through withdrawal. But here they can learn to be themselves again. They realise it’s just like being back in barracks.”
The military allusion is telling. Regimental badges line the hostel’s entrance hall. Strict rules are in place as to when people have to be back at night. Everyone knows each other’s military background service history.
For many residents at the hostel, known as New Belvedere House, their time in the Armed Services was when their lives had structure and they had the support and camaraderie of their unit and comrades. It is in re-finding that self-confidence – and by tapping into those old survival skills – that Veterans Aid helps spur their recovery, not just physically but emotionally, psychologically and financially.
This record of success is why helping to raise the funds necessary to enhance and expand this remarkable place is one of the main targets of our Homeless Veterans appeal, bringing the number it can house there at any one time to 70.
A gymnasium will be built provided, training centres installed, and an arts and a music room created. Further funding will augment the existing programmes to help those in the grip of addiction or facing other problems.
Veterans Aid’s chief executive, Dr Hugh Milroy, left me in no doubt as to the redevelopment’s importance to the future of the charity. “For the men who live here, it’s a home but it’s also a staging post on a journey,” he explained. “It’s a place of safety, where damaged human beings can heal in a supportive environment.
“We aren’t seeking to replicate our hostel elsewhere, but to improve it; to build on its astounding success and to help the amazingly dedicated staff continue their work. While it is already spotlessly clean, welcoming and friendly – structurally, it’s showing signs of wear and tear and it’s limited in terms of the facilities it can offer. That is why we have scoped and costed work that will improve and extend existing facilities as well as introduce some exciting new ones. We want all those housed here to realise that they are worthy of the best.”
Undertaking this building project this will be a big ask. The total cost runs into millions of pounds. But the architectural plans are finalised and planning permission approved. When the charity receives the funds, work can start immediately.
We are confident that through this campaign and the backing we will receive from you, our readers, and those who support our appeal’s objectives, not least in government, we can help ensure work begins in 2015.
Former soldier Jon Fullan made clear exactly what that would mean for those the hostel could then help. “I saw the regimental plaques and it felt like coming home,” he recalled. “That first night I went to my room and cried. All most people need is a hand up. Here they get it.”
Together we can ensure that more like him receive that helping hand at New Belvedere House. To achieve that would ensure this campaign can leave a worthy legacy – and it is the least those who once served their country and now need our help deserve.
Evgeny Lebedev is the owner of The Independent and Evening Standard newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @mrevgenylebedev
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