Homeless Veterans Appeal: 'We take them off the streets and give them skills to get back on their feet'

Supported by the charities featured in our appeal, Whitefoord House helps veterans rebuild their lives

Chris Green@cghgreen
Friday 28 November 2014 18:15

Brian Moran is used to tough challenges. The 59-year-old Irishman served for nine years with the Royal Marines, after deciding to put himself through 32 weeks of gruelling basic training because he found life in a less demanding part of the Royal Navy “boring”.

But when he finally left the services in 1982, more difficult trials lay ahead. He drifted from job to job, becoming a bouncer in Exeter before enrolling at university to study law. His time as a student came to an end after he got into a nasty fight playing rugby, a loss of control which he now ascribes to a flashback from his time in the services.

After periods of being homeless, he secured a private security job with a close protection unit in Saudi Arabia, but when he returned to Britain he began drinking heavily.

In 2000, he arrived at the door of the Veterans Aid drop-in centre in Victoria, central London – the first port of call for so many who find their lives spiralling out of control.

“They were very good to me,” says Mr Moran, a softly spoken Dubliner. The charity, one of two being supported by The Independent’s Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal, gave him a room in their East London hostel and paid for him to have therapy for his drinking problems. After he relapsed several times, they suggested a move to Scotland and paid for him to travel to Edinburgh where he was given a room at their sister organisation north of the border, Scottish Veterans Residences (SVR).

He is now a resident of Whitefoord House, a historic building on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile dating back to the 18th century. The facility, which is only a few hundred yards from the gates of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official Scottish residence, has been taking in homeless veterans since 1911. From the front yard, the north side of the Scottish Parliament building is clearly visible.

“It’s quite a prestigious address. It’s not often you can say: ‘I’m just living across the road from Parliament’,” Mr Moran jokes. But living in Whitefoord has provided the ex-Marine with more than just an enviable postcode: in his words, it has given him a “new life” and a “fresh start”. It was perhaps for this reason that he declined to be photographed.

“It’s very important that we’re all fellow veterans and can have a crack and a joke,” he says. “There’s that feeling of ‘Yeah, I know what you’re going through’. It’s an almost invisible therapy. The staff and our support workers are almost all ex-military and they fully understand that need for belonging. There’s a great familial sense of unity here – what you put in, you get back.”

With the help of wealthy patrons, Whitefoord House was bought in 1910 by two serving Seaforth Highlanders, Charles Pelham Burn and Chilton Lind Addison Smith, who had been so shocked by the conditions endured by homeless ex-servicemen in Edinburgh that they decided to set up a charity to help. That charity later became SVR.

The house has 82 single en-suite rooms and a canteen which serves residents three hot meals a day. According to Susie Hamilton, the charity’s fundraising and marketing manager, it is important that the meals are free. “That way, nobody has to decide if they want to buy a bottle of vodka or food,” she says.

The project also benefits from the FareShare programme, accepting food deliveries two or three times a week from upmarket shops such as Marks & Spencer and Waitrose. Residents are occasionally surprised to see “guinea fowl or prosciutto” on the menu, says Ms Hamilton with a smile.

Facilities include a games room with two pool tables and a large, airy lounge with brightly-coloured tartan sofas – furniture provided by funding from ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, whose work is also being supported by The Independent’s appeal. Since 2003, it has supported SVR’s work to the tune of almost £1m.

There is also a café, which is run by the residents, an IT suite, an all-weather bowling green, landscaped gardens and a gym with treadmills and weights machines.

General Sir Mike Jackson

But this is no hotel. It costs the charity £334 a week to house each veteran, and there is a strong emphasis on preparing residents for re-entering civilian life within 18 months.

Teams of support workers help them gain qualifications, jobs and homes of their own. Last year, 135 veterans entered the house and 35 were rehoused.

Among those who passed through is John ‘Jocky’ Stewart, 59, who was an Army man for 22 years but became homeless after leaving and later attempted suicide.

He says he was saved by the care he received at SVR. He recently moved out and now lives in his own flat in Edinburgh, but still works in Whitefoord’s canteen as an assistant chef.

Another current resident is Don Johnstone, 61, who served in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps but fell on hard times after moving back to Scotland from Portsmouth. He has been at Whitefoord for three months, where he has been receiving specialist support for his medical needs.

Phil Cox has been in charge of the charity for the past year. He is supposed to be retired after spending 32 years in the RAF where he served in the first Gulf War, the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan, but says he wanted to give something back to the community he was a part of for so long.

“We are the only organisation in Scotland that is able to take veterans off the streets, pick them up, begin to dust them off and give them the skills and the confidence back to get them back on their feet,” he says.

Garrison Sergeant Major, Andrew Stephens, lowers the Union flag for the last time at Kandahar Air base

Wherever he goes, Mr Cox carries a stack of cards with the charity’s phone number on it – on the off chance that he sees a homeless veteran. But often, the problems affecting them are hidden. “Homelessness comes in many different ways – it’s not necessarily just hiding under the arches of a railway station,” he says.

“It can be that mum and dad are utterly fed up that you’ve come back having been kicked out of the Army and you’re not really wanted; it could be that your mates have been looking after you and you’re sofa-surfing; it could be that you went back to work but it’s gone wrong and your girlfriend’s kicked you out.”

The slick interaction between SVR and Veterans Aid, which resulted in Mr Moran being transferred to Scotland, is also a crucial part of their work. Some veterans find London detrimental to their recovery and benefit from the change of scene. In one case, a young ex-Para was transferred up to another SVR residence in Dundee: he settled in immediately, gained a qualification in support work and later returned to mentor other veterans.

“There are no borders as far as we’re concerned,” says Mr Cox. “What it gave him was simply a bit of fresh air and a slight change of perspective, which gave him the chance to re-evaluate what he was up to.”

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband put aside their political differences to pledge their support for the campaign

The good news for veterans in Scotland is that SVR is in the process of expanding. A new property, Bellrock Close in Glasgow, opened in October and is already a home for 13 ex-servicemen and women. The decoration was paid for using a £10,000 grant from The Soldiers’ Charity – but another £500,000 is needed to complete the project, which cost £6.7m in total.

“It’s needed because Glasgow has an enormous catchment area for British military veterans, and the statistics clearly show that it’s a hot spot for homelessness,” says Mr Cox. “Bellrock Close is there to meet that need. It’s a fantastic facility.”

The charity’s second most important role after making sure veterans are off the streets is to help them “pick up the pieces” of their life and move forward, Mr Cox says.

“It’s all about empowerment. How do we get you back on the route of getting back out there again? We don’t want you to be living in an institution – we want you to be independent and out.”

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