9 March 2023

Helping Homeless Veterans UK is the Homelessness Partnership BCP’s Hero of the Month for 2023. Here, we look at the incredible work carried out by the charity to help members of our Armed Forces…

Army veteran David Wood is a man on a mission: to ensure that no-one should have to sleep on the streets after their military career is over.

David and two charity trustees, Neil Hague and Stephen Young, founded Helping Homeless Veterans UK (HHVUK) in 2019 and the charity has helped 350 veterans, with 289 settled in permanent housing.

David’s commitment to helping ex-service personnel is born out of his own battles and close personal tragedy. After leaving the Army in 1997 he struggled with civilian life, suffering a relationship breakdown and divorce that led to him becoming homeless.

He ended up living in a tent on a camp site in January and February, an experience that he modestly describes as “not nice”. David was helped out of homelessness by Armed Forces charity the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA).

He says: “I come from family with a big military background. My mother served with the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) and my brother served in the Royal Military Police (RMP). Unfortunately, both suffered with their mental health after serving and took their own lives. It left me wanting to do something to try and make a difference. So, for the last eight years I’ve been involved in housing veterans.

“There’s legislation available to help our country’s veterans but a lot of councils at the time were not using it. This came to a head when I went on hunger strike at the war memorial outside the Town Hall in Bournemouth, seven years ago.

While on hunger strike, I was approached by the council’s Head of Housing, Lorraine Mealings [now CEO of charitable housing association BCHA]. We struck up a positive working relationship and worked together, determined to address the issue of homeless veterans in Dorset,” David explains.

Working to get people off the streets

Trustees initially established HHVUK as a Community Interest Company (CIC). When Covid-19 struck the next spring, David personally invested money to keep the organisation afloat during a period when fundraising was impossible, and volunteers worked hard to get as many people off the streets as possible.

In August 2020, when Covid restrictions eased, HHVUK became a registered charity, enabling it to claim grants and financial assistance.

Despite his success in co-founding HHVUK, David is keen to point out that no-one at the charity has grand titles: “I’m a trustee,” he says. “We don’t have titles because we’re all equal. Nobody takes a single penny within this charity. That’s part of our remit, policies and procedures.

“We are a team of 21, comprising trustees, ambassadors, patrons and volunteers. We believe it’s about giving something back – that’s our philosophy.”

David’s work has seen him recognised with accolades including The British Citizens Award for people who make extraordinary achievements in communities; The Prime Minister’s Points of Light Award for outstanding UK volunteers and the Platinum Jubilee Award from the Queen Consort.

He’s been presented with the Dorset Hero Award for four years running, driving his motivation to improve the outlook for homeless veterans, while HHVUK is a Silver Award recipient of The Armed Forces Covenant.

Why do veterans often struggle with civilian life?

David is keen to shed light on a complex mix of underlying reasons that all too often lead to ex-military personnel sleeping rough. He says: “When you join the Armed Forces you become almost institutionalised as a service person. You don’t have to pay for a TV licence, food or accommodation. It’s all taken out of your wages.

“So when you come out, you’ve lost your comradeship and the institutionalised life that has been so familiar, and suddenly you’re out in the big bad world to face everything yourself.

“On top of that, following conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re finding that mental health is playing a serious role in many issues that veterans face. With mental health problems come addiction issues. People use alcohol and drugs to try and disguise their mental health issues.

“Those in relationships struggling with alcohol and drugs often suffer relationship breakdown. All these issues culminate until a person cannot cope anymore.”

David speaks openly about the gravity of situations he’s had to deal with, including helping veterans who can see no other option than to take their own life: “Veterans come to us when they’re on the edge. I had a veteran phone me up late on a Sunday night, sat with a bottle of whiskey and 120 tablets. I’ve had a veteran contact me after being pulled by the police from the edge of a motorway bridge. It’s horrifying.”

Despite the challenges, David points out the HHVUK is a positive charity and the outlook for homeless veterans has seen “huge improvements”. He adds: “We’re working with MPs including Tobias Ellwood, MP for Bournemouth East and Chair of the Defence Select Committee.

“We’re working with Johnny Mercer MP, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, who has brought massive change to help veterans. A new government programme aimed at ending homelessness among Armed Forces veterans, called Op Fortitude, launched in December backed by £8.5million of funding, aimed at ending veteran homelessness over the next two years.”

New housing for veterans in the BCP area

Thanks to HHVUK, a ‘time warp’ building in Bournemouth that’s laid empty since 1963 is being transformed into state-of-the-art move-on accommodation for homeless veterans.

Located above the Royal British Legion Social Club in Winton, a 20-year lease has been secured at ‘minimal cost’ with building work due to be completed this month.

David says: “It’s a total refurbishment to create six en-suite rooms for veterans, with a shared kitchen (pictured) and communal area. All work has been paid for through grants.

“BCP Council awarded us a grant towards the project, because they believed in us. To achieve this as a young charity demonstrates the faith that BCP Council has in us as an organisation.”

David explains how the contemporary accommodation will give homeless veterans their dignity back: “As a veteran you’re a proud person who believes in hygiene. For veterans who have experienced homelessness and then come to a place like this, there’s nothing better for their mental health than getting into a hot shower in the privacy of their own room and having clean clothes to put on.

“That’s why every room is en-suite, double-glazed and insulated. We’re looking at getting solar panels installed on the roof in the next year. Everything is high-specification.

“Once veterans move in, this will be a stopgap for up to six months, so we can help them into permanent accommodation. We’ll be on hand with charity partners who specialise in mental health and addiction issues, providing face-to-face contact to identify issues that made them homeless and make sure they never become homeless again.

“We provide a follow-up welfare support system where our team of volunteers pick up the phone to veterans and use the three famous words – how are you? We carry that out until it’s no longer required. We already have 17 veterans ready to move in and we only have six rooms,” David adds.

Looking to the future

Despite the Winton project reaching completion, and opened on 25 March by Tobias Ellwood MP, Johnny Mercer MP and the Mayor of Bournemouth, David points out that this is just the beginning of the journey.

“Our next project is in the Torbay area of Devon. It’s an old, 15-bedroom hotel and we’re currently in negotiation with regards to taking the property on, solely for veterans and run on the same principles.

“We want to roll-out accommodation like we have created in Bournemouth, not necessarily run by us, in every single county throughout England and Wales in the next five years. We are proud that every veteran this charity has housed from day one is still housed,” David sums-up.

Visit www.hhvuk.org to find out more.