Preventing veterans’ homelessness in Scotland

Dr Steve Rolfe, Lecturer in Social Policy, Faculty of Social Sciences

Military personnel, veterans and cadets taking part in a parade along Union Street, Aberdeen, to mark Armed Forces day 2019 in the UK.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a piece here about the research we had just completed on the housing journeys of Armed Forces veterans. Our research highlighted the challenges that some veterans can face in dealing with housing issues. Although the popular perception that most rough sleepers are veterans is something of a myth and most Service personnel make a perfectly successful transition to civilian life, there are still some who struggle. In particular, those who spend their Service career living in Armed Forces accommodation may not understand the complexity of the civilian housing system, and find themselves lost in the multitude of organisations and bureaucratic processes.

Our findings demonstrated how much things had improved over the decade since the publication of the Armed Forces Covenant, especially in terms of organisations working collaboratively to meet the needs of veterans in housing need. But we raised a concern that many of these improvements could deteriorate, as the public spotlight moves away from veterans towards other more immediate issues – not least the pandemic.

The good news, however, is that policy still seems to be heading in the right direction, especially in Scotland. The Veterans Scotland Housing Group has just published a Veterans’ Homelessness Prevention Pathway, in partnership with the Scottish Government. I acted as lead author for this report, so the recommendations draw heavily on our research and that of others, as well as vital information gathered over the last year from veterans and organisations involved in meeting their housing needs. Crucially, the report makes a number of recommendations to support continued collaboration between local authorities, Housing Associations and Armed Forces charities – aiming to improve the current structures and ensure that there is individual leadership for veterans within housing organisations. Alongside this, the report emphasises the importance of information – many of the veterans we spoke to talked about either struggling to find any information, or being overwhelmed by the number of websites and organisations providing advice. In order to deal with the confusion that some veterans can experience, the report recommends that vulnerable veterans should be provided with a ‘navigator’ – a single point of contact who can help them find a way through the housing maze. The importance of this kind of support was stressed over and over by the veterans we spoke to, and was picked up as a key issue by the media coverage of the report.

Importantly, the Veterans’ Homelessness Prevention Pathway is just one part of the wider Scottish Government policy drive, which aims to take a comprehensive, human rights-based approach to ending homelessness in Scotland. Whilst it may never be possible to prevent people experiencing housing difficulties, preventative approaches that try to tackle the underlying causes of homelessness are a big step forward.

Elsewhere in the UK, the picture is a little more mixed. The Welsh Government has a National Housing Pathway for Ex-Service Personnel, which tries to provide clear routes for veterans in housing need. In England, the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 introduced a duty to prevent homelessness, and the UK Government has recently given the Armed Forces Covenant a legislative basis through the Armed Forces Act 2021. However, there are considerable concerns about reductions in funding for services supporting veterans in housing need – raising the spectre of rising veteran homelessness once more.

Hence, the Veterans’ Homelessness Prevention Pathway may be important not only in tackling veteran homelessness in Scotland, but also in leading the way for policy across the UK.

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