It’s often said that veterans are more likely than non-veterans to become homeless.
What we know
American research has found that some aspects of military life clearly increase the risk of homelessness:
- Mental health impacts of war trauma (e.g. post-traumatic stress disorder);
- Physical injury (e.g. disabilities caused by warfare);
- The strain on families and soldiers of being separated for a long time;
- A heavy drinking culture in the armed forces, and drug use;
- Coming from a deprived childhood background; and
- The impact of leaving the army and trying to readjust to civilian life.
The American research also shows clearly that veterans in the US are more likely than non-veterans to become homeless.
And as veterans experience more of the conditions in the list above, so the risk of homelessness increases.
In the UK, there are many stories of veterans becoming homeless, but the British research doesn’t show that they’re more at risk of homelessness than other people.
But this is likely to be because of a big difference in how ‘veteran’ is defined in the UK.
Who’s a British veteran?
The government defines a ‘veteran’ as anyone who’s been in the armed forces for at least one day – and not, as is commonly assumed, someone who has been sent to war.
So ‘veterans’ include everyone who started army training and then left after a few months. The many people who did national service until it ended in the 1960s are also ‘veterans’.
In all, that’s about 6.2 million people who count as veterans in Britain, according to the British Legion. But most of these veterans haven’t had much experience of military life and, for many of those who have, it was decades ago. The lives of these individuals are unlikely to be different from the lives of non-veterans.
Veterans who’ve been to war are just a fraction of the veteran population. For example, the 220,000 British armed forces personnel who experienced the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan account for just 3.5% of the veteran population.
If we want to know how many Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are homeless, we need to exclude 96.5% of the veteran population from the question.
Research into veteran homelessness doesn’t do this, so we just don’t know how many veterans from these wars (or any other wars) are now homeless in the UK.
What we need
The definition of ‘veteran’ is too broad to be meaningful here.
What we really need is some research to find out whether certain veterans are more likely than others to become homeless.
Since the risk of homelessness is likely to be much more common among army veterans who have been to war, and particularly the infantry, that would be a good place to start.
You can find out more about homelessness among veterans in this report by York University: Meeting the Housing and Support Needs of Single Veterans in Great Britain (2014).
And the risk factors associated with life in the military are discussed and referenced in D Gee, The Last Ambush: Aspects of mental health in the British armed forces (2013).
An overview of the American research is here: Tsai and Rosenheck, ‘Risk factors for homelessness among US veterans’, Epidemiological Reviews, 2014.