While most of our clients, customers and members of our community can shelter at home safely, some cannot. As an estate agency, we are in the business of finding homes for people, so the fact that there are people without homes really resonates with everyone at Douglas & Gordon. A few weeks ago, we caught up with Veterans Aid CEO Hugh Milroy to discuss the charity and how they offer support to ex-servicemen and women who are homeless, facing homelessness or in a crisis.
We have been proudly supporting and fundraising for Veterans Aid since 2018, and what originally attracted us to them was their no nonsense, ‘get things done approach’.
For the benefit of anyone reading that has not come across Veterans Aid before, please could you give us a brief description of what your mission is?
Veterans Aid (VA) provides immediate, practical support to all ex-servicemen and women who are homeless, facing homelessness or in crisis. Although it operates from just two locations - a Head Office/Operations Centre in Central London (Victoria) and a residential home, New Belvedere House, in East London (Stepney) - its reach and impact is international.
The charity has an open-door policy which ensures it is accessible to every veteran who seeks its help. This involves taking immediate, practical action to address basic needs and ensure that as a matter of priority veterans are clothed, fed and given safe accommodation Non-veterans are put in touch with other appropriate charities.
New Belvedere House is a modern, clean and safe environment where residents are helped to rebuild their lives. Its dedicated staff, some of whom are former residents, give round the clock support. VA’s access to barristers, solicitors, mental health professionals, substance misuse/alcohol counsellors and other specialists ensures that those it supports have the best possible chance of returning to independent, rewarding and sustainable lives.
What makes Veterans Aid different to other homeless charities?
Veterans Aid is unique in its commitment to immediate action and practical support. Its focus is on prevention – catching people in crisis before they lose their homes, jobs or ability to keep their families together. That’s not always possible, but from the moment an ex‐serviceman or woman reaches out, the VA team springs into action to help. People need connection, acknowledgement, non‐judgemental acceptance which allows them to feel better about themselves and a safe place to allow them to make change. Adults rarely find such a place and become shy of asking but seem to continually, almost surreptitiously seek this place. We are exceptionally good at providing this sort of safe haven.
How has the Covid‐19 pandemic affected the charity?
Hard – but not as badly as less well‐prepared organisations. Because VA has a light footprint and experience of operating virtually, the charity’s Ops Team was able to make an almost seamless transition to remote working. Even its residential facility, New Belvedere House, had protocols in place to keep everyone safe and no COVID cases have been reported. Financially however, the increase in calls for help has stretched resources. No‐one has been – or will be – turned away, but many of the ‘extras’ that augmented VA’s crisis interventions, and ensured clients’ longer-term stability, have had to be sacrificed.
What, if anything, have you learnt about the charity and its members since dealing with restrictions imposed due to the pandemic?
The COVID restrictions have tested every member of staff ‐ myself included. We have all had to adjust to the climate of fear, uncertainty and inconvenience that makes even everyday tasks difficult. If there is an upside to this stressful period it is affirmation of the commitment that everyone involved with VA has shown to delivering the best service they can in the face of adversity. I am proud of my colleagues who have, as ever, gone the extra mile to ensure that those who seek out help are not let down. It also highlighted the weakness of a benevolence approach to crisis. Large organisations struggled and are still struggling to provide support for those that need it most…small is beautiful. And it was a real proving ground for our model, welfare to wellbeing…it really works. Finally, it emphasised the difference between leadership and management. People and passion and moral courage were the keys to our ability to keep fighting where others failed.
Looking ahead to winter and Christmas, which must be a hard time for the people you are helping, what does Veterans Aid and its supporters do to help make it a bit better?
It is always hard for the people VA helps, regardless of the time of year – which is why we have traditionally made so little of military ‘red letter days’ and campaigns. To a person facing homelessness, social isolation, relationship breakdown, unemployment, or any of the many life‐changing events that bring them to our door, dates are irrelevant. This year however, with demand for help increasing and the spectre of COVID looming, we are trying extra hard to ensure that no veteran has to sleep rough or feel abandoned and despairing. Those in our care at New Belvedere House will, as ever, have the best Christmas we can possibly give them. The generosity of our remarkable supporters usually means that we don’t have to divert emergency funds to do this. To help those new clients – ex‐servicemen and women reaching out daily for support – we need money. Crisis waits for no‐one and the wheels of bureaucracy move too slowly to help those already facing the shocking prospect of losing their homes. We can’t take a festive feelgood picture of a rent deposit payment, but by having the ready cash to make it, we can ensure that an entire family can stay together and be safe; over Christmas and beyond.
Based on what has happened in 2020, have you made any changes to your business model for 2021?
No. Events have only confirmed that our Welfare to Wellbeing© model is one that works and is future‐proof. Constraints notwithstanding Veterans Aid has been operational throughout the pandemic and is still delivering effective support to those most in need, at point of need. At a time when many other charities are failing or folding that is quite an achievement.
If someone wanted to help the homeless this winter, what would you advise they do?
If they are former servicemen or women, give money to Veterans Aid. We are connected nationwide and internationally. If we can’t help directly, we can steer and support individuals towards those who can. In broader terms, be compassionate and try to put yourself in the shoes of those you see on the street. They don’t need woolly hats or handouts so much as long term support. In London we work closely with the Borough of Westminster and the GLA, referring rough sleepers to programmes that are responsibly managed. Do due diligence on those purporting to support rough sleepers; ask questions of your MPs and local government officials. No man, woman or child should be homeless in 21stC Britain – now or at any time.
How can people support Veterans Aid in the future?
Call us – promote us – look at our website www.veterans‐aid.net and actively tell people about us. We have no advertising budget so rely heavily on informal ambassadors who spread the word. We need to raise our brand profile to help more veterans. We need to get the message across that we are genuinely out there in the frontline…and remained out there throughout the pandemic. We genuinely save lives. We always need money – ideally for unallocated use as we never know what we will be called upon to fund. No donation is too small, no act of kindness unappreciated. As we come out of the crisis the large organisations will need to look to re‐funding extensive systems while we will undoubtedly be left to support our most vulnerable veterans while they do so. This is real long‐haul stuff…not just for Christmas! In closing, I will use our credo which says it all about who we are…something which the pandemic has not changed:
The motto of the Royal Air Force’s Air Sea Rescue Service was 'The Sea Shall Not Have Them'. It resonates with the rescue mission of Veterans Aid, a charity whose pledge to ex‐servicemen and women since 1932 has been:
‘The Streets Shall Not Have Them’.