The Ministry of Defence should hand over its empty properties to homeless veterans

© Harland Quarrington/MOD

One part of the homelessness crisis that has had very little attention is the number of veterans sleeping rough. Most of the victims of the government’s austerity crackdown have few friends in right-wing circles but veterans, usually from a working-class background, are one of the few groups that Brexiteers and others in the Conservative Party claim to be champions of.

It is striking how little effort the government has put in to helping those who’ve served in our armed forces and are now sleeping rough. They don’t even know how many there are. The government doesn’t actually collect data on the homeless to help find out nationwide the needs, and rough location of homeless former service personnel or indeed homeless numbers more generally.

The estimates that do exist are based on data collected by the few local authorities such as those in London or estimates from charities. One estimate suggests that there are up to 16,000 veterans in prison or sleeping rough. Other estimates put the figure at 2,000-3,000. Either way, it is a scandal that the government is doing so little to make a difference for these (predominantly) men who’ve served our country.

In my speech on Thursday, in the debate on the contribution of co-operatives and mutuals to the economy, I cited the example being set in the United States. In the US, homeless veterans are being helped into homes, built on donated government land, subsidised by government funding and run as housing co-operatives. This gives the veterans the chance to take control of the environment, the rules, regulations and rents they live by and pay whilst getting proper support to rebuild their lives.

Soldier On, a veteran’s charity, opened the Gordon Mansfield Veteran’s Community in the autumn of 2017 with 51 homeless veterans moving in. For those veterans, these were not just keys to their own apartment in a housing cooperative; these were also keys to a new life away from the danger and insecurity of the streets. For the first time in a long time, these veterans of the United States military had a stable roof over their heads and a host of supportive services to run their community and get the support they need to build secure and safe new lives. Soldier On currently have 14 new units under construction and are looking to develop 100 more units in New York and a further 70 in New Jersey. This can and should be happening in the UK.

The Ministry of Defence owns almost 50 empty properties. Instead of being forced to sell these to the highest bidder, it should put the needs of homeless veterans first. Land and buildings should be transferred into the ownership of charities for converting into a veterans’ housing co-operative where British homeless veterans, who have been willing in the past to put their lives on the line to keep us safe, can be housed and supported to rebuild their lives.

There have been similar initiatives in the past in Britain; Westfield War Memorial Village in Lancashire was set up after the first world war following a public meeting and appeal for funds. A village was built that could house and employ local men who had returned from the war without secure accommodation. The Westfield War Memorial Village still survives over a century later offering a range of quality, affordable, rental accommodation to the Armed Forces Community, both veterans and serving members. It promotes a community with cooperative spirit based on shared experience of service to the Crown, where individuals in need are given advice and assistance.

Rising homelessness is a national scandal and the number of veterans without a home after their service is one particularly dirty secret buried in the homelessness statistics. Action is needed to end this part of the housing crisis in duly finding a home for all those on the streets who have served in our forces.

The Ministry of Defence has gone to the trouble of appointing a veterans minister, but ministers have done nothing to end the scandal of so many former soldiers, sailors and other military personnel sleeping rough. The veterans minister, or indeed any other minister, does not have any funds to access to build homes and there is certainly no funding for getting veteran’s housing co-operatives up and running here in the UK.

Looking to the United States for inspiration isn’t particularly fashionable at the moment, but on this issue we should champion the success of American charities such as Solider On. We, too, should be using co-operatives to help working-class men and women who have served our country in the most elemental of ways get their lives back together.

More from LabourList