Lest we forget our veterans who are homeless
Some years ago, I interviewed James*, a Second World War veteran who had served in the Royal Australian Air Force. He dropped bombs throughout Europe. He flew many, many, many times, witnessed much death and destruction. But, after he returned home, it was two reconnaissance photos that haunted him. The first photo showed a girl crossing a bridge; the second was taken after the bridge had been destroyed by the bomb dropped from James’ plane. The girl was gone. When I spoke with James he had been suffering for over fifty years since the end of the war: his service, and specifically these photos, had affected his mental and physical health, his work, his social life and his family enormously. He had moved many, many times (his children went to thirteen and fourteen different schools) and he never felt settled. James isn’t alone as a veteran who returned suffering as a result of his war service.
Our history is, sadly, filled with veterans like James who served in the armed forces and returned home different men and women. I spent years studying the psychological effects of war on veterans and their families for my PhD. It was an important lesson for me on the connection between history and the legacy it leaves on people, families, communities and society. What’s alarming is that service in the armed forces continues to leave its mark on our veterans and as a society we still have not managed to provide the support needed. This was reinforced by new research - The State of Homelessness in Australia’s Cities led by CSI UWA’s Professor Paul Flatau - which found that 1 in 20 of the 8,370 homeless people interviewed as part of the Registry Week data collection between 2010-2017 were veterans. Most of these veterans were sleeping rough and many (43%) reported experiencing a serious brain injury or head trauma in their lives.
These veterans are amongst the more than 116,000 people who were homeless on Census night in 2016. That’s one in two-hundred people on any given night across the country and an increase of 14% since the previous 2011 Census. While veterans are hidden within the Census data, other groups experiencing homelessness are not: Indigenous Australians, recent migrants, young people, and a growing number of older people are overrepresented in the homelessness statistics.
CSI is working hard to have a deep understanding of homelessness and we are working with others on how it can be addressed:
- We’re trying new approaches – Our 50 Lives 50 Homes project in partnership with RUAH Community Services is evaluating a campaign in WA to house rough sleepers. The first results are in and they are very promising.
- We’re looking at innovation in funding – We’ve worked with AHURI to look at social impact investment as a potential solution for housing and homelessness (our latest report will be out in the next couple of weeks).
- We’re looking at systems approaches in changing the game for veterans. See our new piece by Andrew Hocking on Ganging up on the problem: a collaborative approach to improving the lives of veterans.
- We’re undertaking new research projects on homelessness and social housing pathways (more soon).
We know from the 50 Lives 50 Homes project, that housing alone is not the answer. Wraparound support including physical and mental health services, alcohol and drug services, tenancy support, and employment services are all needed to ensure long term tenancy and improved wellbeing. Incidentally, the project is now up to 78 homes, with 107 of Perth’s most vulnerable people now living in secure accommodation. In the first six months of the project, we’ve seen a 31% decrease in total Emergency Department presentations alone. I’m looking forward to seeing future findings.
What else can we do? The list of course is long and we have some wonderful experts in this area, but here are a few of my thoughts on things I think we need to be mindful of into the future:
- The importance of innovation, but also being confident to properly fund successful existing evidence-based practices and models;
- Addressing other key levers in the system beyond housing (e.g. financial security is critical. See, for example, the work we’re doing in partnership across sectors on the Financial Inclusion Action Plan);
- Thinking and acting systemically by understanding different players and roles and who needs to work with who and when;
- Matching the right funding to the right solutions;
- Planning for, avoiding and watching for unintended consequences; and
- Knowing where and whether we are making a difference by measuring impact.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to go beyond the evidence and keep humanity at the centre.
So let me return to James and the many veterans who are homeless. War has shaped who we have become as a nation and a people. It has influenced our politics, medical history, economy, workforce, culture and our pride. But it has especially left its mark on people directly touched by service. As we approach and reach Anzac Day, I will be stopping to remember those who served, those who never came home, those who came home with wounded bodies and wounded minds, those who are homeless, and the generations after them. Lest we forget.
*Not his real name. Muir, 2003, The hidden cost of war.