It was the skills he had learnt in the military that enabled Ben Thompson to find somewhere to sleep when he reached rock bottom. With nowhere to live and the bottle now his chosen retreat, he found a strip of wasteland behind an abandoned pub and built a shelter “as all good squaddies do” to protect him from the elements.
His few remaining possessions were in his rucksack. Bits of debris and rubbish strewn across the ground were his bed. That was what he had, despite having served 14 years as a soldier, to call a home.
There are around 4.5 million people in Britain today who once served in our armed forces. Many of them are pensioners: the veterans who took the fight to Hitler or were sent on boats to go into battle in Korea. Some are those who stood on the western side of the Iron Curtain during the long years of the Cold War. Others are the men and women dispatched by our government to more recent wars, fighting in deserts in Mesopotamia or at risk of roadside bombs or ambushes in the plains and mountains of Central Asia.
All, whether through choice or conscription, once served this country – and not all of them have gone on to the life they had hoped to live.
That is why this year, as we mark the centenary of the start of the war that was meant to end all wars and the final wind-down of our forces’ deployment in Afghanistan, The Independent and London Evening Standard newspapers are taking up the cause of our country’s Homeless Veterans for this year’s Christmas campaign. Working with our partner charities, ABF The Soldiers’ Charity and Veterans Aid, we want, with your help, to do all we can to ensure that where ex-servicemen and women have fallen into hard times, we are there to offer them the helping hand they need.
This is not just those like Ben who found themselves without a roof above their heads, though it is people like him whose situations are most acute. Veterans Aid, the charity which helped him on the road to recovery, warns that the life expectancy of those in his situation is just five years. Ben’s future is now very different due to the support team which helped him get clean, housed, and into training.
In recent years, Ministry of Defence projects to help those leaving the military prepare for civilian life and a series of state and charity-run homelessness programmes, not least Boris Johnson’s “No Second Night Out” scheme, have succeeded in making real cuts in the number sleeping rough on Britain’s streets.
But the Government knows homelessness is more than just people curled up for the night in doorways, as we recognise too. This appeal will help address the myriad forms it takes in the modern day.
It will include those stuck in hostels and who need addiction services and training to help them once again lead an independent life. It will help those whose lives are on the brink of unravelling as marriages break up, debts rise and landlords post eviction notices. We will measure success not just by how many veterans we help get off the streets but how many we can prevent ever getting into that situation.
Half those in this country’s ex-service community are over 75. They in particular will not be forgotten in the coming weeks. These are members of the generation who saw war when the world situation was at its most grim. Many are now among those most at need.
The British Legion found 440,000 in the elderly veterans’ community have to turn off the heating to save money to spend on essentials like food. Some 310,000 admitted to a chronic lack of financial resources and being unable, for example, to keep their homes free of damp. These figures shame us as a nation.
Half the funds this appeal raises will go to ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, the oldest of the benevolent charities which supports projects across Britain to help veterans in distress. With them, we will finance projects such as programmes to assist those now leaving the military to have the reading and writing skills required to flourish in civilian life.
We will help servicemen who have fallen into alcohol and drug abuse; aid those looking to start again with new work skills. And when there is a former Second World War veteran in substandard accommodation who needs a new boiler and has nowhere to turn, they will be able to turn to us.
Veterans Aid is the organisation at the sharp end of providing emergency care. Through its Drop-In Centre in London’s Victoria and hostel in Limehouse, it runs a national network of support so that when ex-military like Ben have nowhere else to go, they know there is a door they can knock on and be taken in.
“They clothed me, housed and set me up in my own place,” Ben recalls of his time with the charity, for which he now volunteers. “I’m 52 years old now and this is the first place I’ve had that I can call my own. Just two years ago I was sleeping out. Now I have a home. I can’t thank them enough.”
The charity will receive the other half of the money raised so it can build on the good work it is already doing. In the coming weeks you will read about day-to-day life at its existing services and about those it provides assistance to. What we want is to be able to expand the hostel and provide new resources at the drop-in centre so that more can be helped. It is a big ask, and a multimillion-pound project, but with your help and outside support we are confident we can achieve just that.
This year our Christmas appeal is the biggest we have ever run as a media group. For the first time it will include all our titles – the London Evening Standard, The Independent, i and the Independent on Sunday – as well as our digital sites and TV station, London Live. This is our commitment to helping those who once served us but now need us to aid them.
We hope you will support us as I believe campaigns are the heart of journalism: they unite people behind vital causes. Servicemen and women risk their lives doing things most of us simply aren’t brave enough to do. On the front line there is an old rule about not leaving anyone behind. About picking up the fallen. If these brave men and women sometimes need us – whom they have fought to protect – to help them on their way, it should be both an obligation and a humble honour to do so.
Evgeny Lebedev is the owner of The Independent and Evening Standard newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @mrevgenylebedev
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