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The Bullshit Detector: Investigating a report into homelessness amongst former armed forces personnel

The Bullshit Detector

The Bullshit Detector being an occasional investigation into stories associated with homelessness and social exclusion, with a view to establishing their accuracy and veracity

The July 2013 Bullshit Detector

‘Up to 9,000 British heroes who served Queen and country are homeless after leaving the military’

What’s the story?

On 21st July 2013 the Sunday Mirror ran a two-page campaign ‘exclusive’ on the plight of British services personnel leaving the armed forces. The piece was highly critical of the government, claiming the situation has got much worst under the Coalition and, in an accompanying leader, comparing the UK situation unfavourably with that in the United States.  

The article centred on two key statistics. Firstly that 1 in 10 rough sleepers ‘across the UK’ had been in the armed forces, with the clear implication being that these are British ex-services personnel who ‘fought on the frontline but now sleep in doorways, graveyards and parks, begging from the passers-by whose freedoms they defended’. The 1 in 10 figure, according to the article, derived from a recent report by homeless charity Crisis which found that 500 people sleeping rough in London ‘this year’ had been in the armed forces.

The article also stated that there are currently up to 9,000 homeless ex-services personnel in Britain. The definition of being homeless included living in bed and breakfast hotels and hostels as well as sleeping rough.  According to the journalist, this figure was provided by the charity Homes 4 Heroes, though there is no reference to any source material to back up the statistic. 

The article is unequivocal in its stance that the situation has got worse stating: ‘Incredibly the numbers have soared since the government outlined its duty to serving and former personnel when the Armed Forces Covenant was enshrined in law in 2011’.

The article received wide coverage and has since been uncritically referenced in blogs and on Twitter. In particular, the figure of 500 ex-services rough sleepers projected as 1 in 10 of the rough sleeping population in the country has already become common currency.

How accurate is the article?

The statistics

The statistics used in this article are unfortunately extremely flawed. The report that is referred to that shows 500 ex-services personnel slept rough in London was not produced by Crisis, though the charity has extensively, and accurately, quoted from the report which was actually produced by Broadway and is the annual Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) report for 2012-13. The statistics in this report are collected by the various street teams working with rough sleepers in London and are generally viewed as providing an accurate picture of the numbers and profile of rough sleepers in London.

A closer interrogation of the CHAIN report shows that 501 ex-services personnel slept rough in the year in question. However, 70% of this group (356 individuals) were non-UK nationals and had therefore been in the armed services of other countries. Only 30% (145 individuals) were UK nationals and thus likely to have served in the UK armed services. It seems highly probably that the author of the Sunday Mirror article did not take the trouble of reading the report that lies at the heart of this exclusive. 

It is difficult to give a definitive figure for the number of UK ex-armed services personnel sleeping rough in the UK. The figure of 145 for London is the figure for the entire year, not the number who would be found sleeping rough on any single night of the year.  There is a flow of people onto, and off of, the streets, so the overall number of people sleeping rough over a year is significantly higher than that found on any single night. Based on annual figures from the last decade, the ratio of the number of people sleeping rough on any single night matched against the number for a year is around 1:10. On this basis there is likely to be 14 or 15 ex-services personnel sleeping rough on London’s streets tonight.

In the government’s last annual rough sleeping figures produced for England (autumn 2012), it was estimated that 24% of rough sleepers were to be found in London. On the strength of this information it would be reasonable to project that some 60 UK ex-services personnel will be sleeping rough tonight in England, including London. 

The Sunday Mirror article defines homelessness not only in terms of rough sleeping, but also includes people living in hostels and bed and breakfast hotels. If this definition is accepted then the number of UK  former armed forces personnel who are homeless will be considerably higher. As is the case with investigations into rough sleeping, much of the plausible research has focused on London and it is therefore difficult to project a figure for the whole of the UK. 

The most comprehensive and convincing piece of research of recent times is The Experiences of Ex-services Personnel inLondon (Johnsen,Jones, Rugg 2008) which tentatively concludes that around 1100 ex-services personnel are homeless, using this broader definition of homelessness, on any single day in London. This figure would clearly need to be inflated significantly to accurately reflect a national figure, but it is difficult not to conclude that it would still fall considerably short of the 9,000 figure used in the Sunday Mirror article.

It should also be noted that many of the projects that are included under the definition of hostels provide not only high standard, self-contained accommodation but excellent support services offering help with employment and counselling to assist those suffering from poor mental health including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as alcohol dependency. Some of these projects are referenced in the section that follows.

Is the situation becoming worse?

The Sunday Mirror exclusive is adamant that the figures show an increase in homelessness amongst UK ex-services personnel. Unfortunately the CHAIN report on which so much of the credibility of the exclusive relies indicates that this is not the case. The report notes in unequivocal terms that: ‘The proportion of people seen sleeping rough who have experience of the armed forces has stayed the same (10%) when comparing this year to the previous year. It is important to note that the proportion of people seen sleeping rough from the UK who have had experience of the armed forces has remained consistent over the last three years, at 3-4%’.

Positive responses in terms of changes to homelessness legislation and the development of innovative projects appear to have prevented increases in homelessness amongst ex-services personnel and there is certainly no evidence that, as the Sunday Mirror states, ‘numbers have soared’.  For example, a new project, the Beacon, has been set up close to the Catterick barracks in Yorkshire offering housing, training and support for personnel leaving the army, with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) providing land and funding for the scheme. Other impressive schemes have been developed in the last two years by supported housing providers Riverside, the Oswald Stoll Foundation and West London Mission. To be fair, The Sunday Mirror article does draw attention to one such high quality project, managed by Coventry Cyrenians. 

Furthermore, recent changes in homelessness legislation has ensured that those who have served in the armed services and are assessed as being vulnerable should be treated as being in priority need by local authorities, considered to have a statutory right to housing and given help in finding both temporary and long-term accommodation.   

Is the situation worse in the UK than in the United States?

The Sunday Mirror leader is categorical in stating that ‘In America there is a sophisticated care system’, adding: ‘Here there is virtually nothing’. This is perhaps the most puzzling and least convincing statement of all and there are no examples from the United States provided in the exclusive to back this assertion up.

In fact the support systems in the United States are well known to be extremely limited in terms of the capacity available to support homeless people and reduce homelessness. Although there are a range of effective services available to assist ‘veterans’, as they are referred to in North America, this has not prevented veteran homelessness becoming endemic in the United States.

The comparisons are startling. Whereas around 600 individuals sleep rough on any single night in London, in New York with a similar sized general population, the last street count found 3,262 rough sleepers (January 2012).  The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 62,619 veterans are homeless in the United States on any one given night.The safety net in the United States is clearly far flimsier that in the UK.

In a nutshell

The Sunday Mirror ‘campaign exclusive’ is a deeply flawed article which fails on nearly all counts to accurately portray the situation facing ex-services personnel who are homeless or at risk of becoming so. It focuses exclusively on UK ex-services personnel but uses figures that reflect homelessness amongst both UK and non-UK nationals and gives every impression that the author of the article did not actually read the CHAIN report on which much of the exclusive is based.

Whilst the problem of homelessness amongst those who have been in the armed forces remains of grave concern and addressing it should continue to be a high priority for charities and government, the figures provided appear to be significantly inflated and the article would have benefited from covering in greater detail the excellent work and innovative solutions being delivered by a range of charities supporting ex-services personnel. The equally disturbing issue of rough sleeping by ex-services personnel who served in the armed forces of other countries is not tackled at all.

The spurious figure of 500 UK ex-services personnel sleeping rough, projected to represent 10% of the rough sleeping population nationally, is already being referenced enthusiastically by the media, politicians and a variety of organisations and we can expect it to be used regularly over the coming months.


Chelsea said…
This is fantastic!
Frances Webber said…
Just one correction of your otherwise excellent article: the British army is open to Commonwealth as well as British citizens and there are many Commonwealth citizens in the army. So the inference that if you're not British you won't have served in the British army is not necessarily correct.
Jeremy Swain said…
Frances thanks and a fair point to make. I think that the majority of people though who were defined as non-UK nationals served in the armed forces of other countries, and probably most in the armed forces of central and eastern European countries. I believe their situation should concern us as much as that of those who have served in the British army.
Unknown said…
Thank you for deleting a previous post, i see Mr Swain you are still drawing wages from your government funded charity. culling numbers to please your funders does not help the solution
Jeremy Swain said…
Hi Peter. I think your previous comments may have been made anonymously and I delete comments when they are made anonymously. If you want to send your previous comments again I will answer them.

With respect to your current comments, we campaigned for many years to ensure that the government took its responsibilities seriously and funded work with rough sleepers so it is correct that government funds some of our work. Services for rough sleepers are commissioned by local authorities and we compete against other organisations to provide the services.

We don't attempt to cull numbers. I am not quite sure what you mean by that. At the moment we are experiencing a big increase in rough sleeping year on year of 23% and we are at the forefront of highlighting this so I would consider it odd to be accused of trying to underplay the problem. I hope this is useful.
12daysofxmas said…
I must be one of the lucky 14 or 15 tonight then.
12daysofxmas said…
I must be one of the lucky 14 or 15 tonight then.
Jeremy Swain said…
A single person sleeping rough on our streets in 2015 is completely unacceptable. if you mean that you are sleeping rough yourself, do contact me directly and we will help you get off the street or you can ring the StreetLink number 0300 500 0914

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