Those of us who have not served in the armed forces will never fully understand the sacrifices made or the depth of scars faced by soldiers, sailors and airmen. But we can ensure that we never forget the service of our veterans and support them in their own time of needs.
Help 4 Homeless Veterans is a Barnsley-based charity dedicated to helping the nation’s veterans who are facing homelessness.
The charity was started in 2010 by former Royal Green Jacket of 22 years, Tom Wood, after he found a homeless veteran begging in the street. Together with his wife Jean, he made a pledge to get as many veterans as he could off the streets and since then the charity has supported over 700 veterans nationwide.
Every year, thousands of vulnerable veterans end up sleeping rough, sofa surfing or living in unsuitable hostels because of barriers to accessing social housing. They deserve better.
It’s recently been enshrined in law under the Armed Forces Covenant that nobody should be disadvantaged due to being in the armed forces. As their former employer, the Ministry of Defence, are obligated to provide the resources to help ex-service men and women access the support and services they’re entitled to.
Under the covenant, local authorities should be proactively trying to find homeless veterans and help them into housing. It is vital to establish if a person has served in the Armed Forces so they can access the enhanced provision that is available to them. But small charities like Help 4 Homeless Veterans are still having to pick up the pieces and support ex-service personnel who slip through the net.
“Two generations ago, virtually everyone had some connection to the armed forces. But currently there are around 160,000 people in the British military and 2.4 million veterans who make up a small slice of society. There needs to be more education around veterans and why they might find themselves homeless and how this can affect employability and relationships,” says Tom.
At Help 4 Homeless Veterans, they do all they can to help veterans transition from Armed Forces environments to civvy street. This might be by paying for emergency accommodation, subsidising bonds or the initial rent for private housing, sourcing new furniture and appliances, or paying for food shopping.
They also run monthly visits to ex-soldier Jamie Quinn’s Lincolnshire farm for therapy which helps veterans struggling with mental health or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Earlier this year, Help 4 Homeless Veterans opened their first drop-in centre in Barnsley town centre thanks to a bequest from an ex-soldier who served with Tom. It has always been a dream of Tom’s to open a hub where comradeship can thrive, and now Help 4 Homeless Veterans can widen their support network to those who aren’t facing homelessness but still need help.
Tom is now joined by a team of fellow veterans from the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force who volunteer their time to supporting their comrades, sharing their experiences forged in the military and after retiring from the armed forces.
The volunteer team can provide advice around benefits, debt management, accessing hardship funds, or where to get mental health support. They’re also on-hand to help with form filling, creating CVs or applying for jobs, and can chaperone veterans to appointments if needed. Mainly, the hub is a place where the military community can pull up a sandbag, have a brew and be part of this new unit.
Charity CEO Steve Bentham-Bates served in the RAF for 24 years before working as an employment advisor for the forces’ employment charity, RFEA, for 18 years. Newest recruit Julie Grayshon has invaluable experience in benefits and housing applications, having worked in council rents after 12 years’ combined service in the Women’s Royal Army Corps and Riyal Signals.
Some of the volunteers have been on the receiving end of the charity, sharing their perspective of experiencing first-hand the life-changing work the team does. They’ve known the natural dangers that come with life in the military, but also the camaraderie, stability and discipline that’s hard to replicate in civilian life.
Former Royal Anglian, Andy Martin, was helped by the charity in 2015. He served in the army for eight years before being medically discharged for back surgery. Due to complications, he later became paralysed from the waist down. Soon after his marriage broke down and Andy found himself homeless. The charity helped Andy apply for a ground floor council flat which he says has helped turn his life around. He volunteers to share with other veterans how they too can make civilian life work for them if they get access to the right services.
Richard Parker is another volunteer who has had to cope with the physical and mental strain of being discharged early from the military due to medical grounds. After joining the army at 16, Richard says he never imagined leaving but was medically discharged after 21 years in the artillery after his section’s vehicle hit an IED in Iraq. With a young son at home, Richard lived with painful injuries to his legs for many years before it led to a heart attack in 2014 due to pressure on his arteries. Last year he finally had his leg amputated after the operation was cancelled four times.
Although he had help from military housing, Richard says it was just an empty shell with no furniture or belongings so he found himself sofa surfing up and down the country.
“People didn’t know but I had PTSD, was going through a breakdown and had attempted suicide. During lockdown Steve got in touch to ask if I was struggling and if I wanted to meet for a coffee. Within an hour and half, he had got a bed for me and my son, kitted us out with appliances, plates, towels, everything we’d need. It broke my heart. I’d previously contacted big military charities and have finally heard back 19 months later. Team means together everyone achieves more and without that team I wouldn’t be here. If it wasn’t for people like Steve and Tom us veterans would get left on the wayside.”
Last year, the charity helped 99 people across the country in various ways, with the figure set to grow as the cost of living crisis tightens its grip on the most vulnerable in society. The volunteers work tirelessly to make sure nobody is forgotten and have received numerous awards for their work, including the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2020 and an MBE for founder, Tom.
But it is by their deeds that they’re known.
“Money is our lifeblood and we have a constant battle for fundraising. It was particularly difficult during Covid but we have reserves for the next 12 months to fund the new premises. It will cost us about £12,000 a year to run but it will be money well spent if people benefit from the support we’re able to give,” says Steve.
With no funding from government or local authorities, Help 4 Homeless Veterans are indebted to the generous donations they receive from the community. This year, they were one of two chosen charities at the annual Match 4 Heroes football event which Rotherham referee, Mick Webb, is involved in organising.
“I’m not a veteran but these guys give their lives for us so every bit of help is good help. The event was originally set up by the parents of fallen soldiers in Huddersfield so it’s always had a military connection. This year we had an army team, police team, Huddersfield legends team and a local team from Golcar where the match was held. It raised £13,000 which was split between Help 4 Homeless Veterans and the Yorkshire Regiment Benevolent Trust.”
The drop-in centre, based on Regent Street South in Barnsley town centre, is open three days a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10am until 2pm, but there is always someone at the end of the phone if help is needed.
For more information about how to get involved, visit www.help4homelessveterans.org
If you or someone you know is a veteran needing immediate help, call 07305 260 798