The unknown soldier is taking on a new meaning in 2018.
Like all rough sleepers, people living on the streets tend to be faceless and nameless to those passing by. The fact there are so many veterans among the ranks of those with no bed and no roof means there are alarming numbers of ex-military personnel who have slipped through the system and fallen from most people’s consciousness.
When rough sleepers have dropped beneath society’s safety net they become effectively invisible – a situation exemplified by the fact that nobody knows how many of them there are. Even charities with the authority of Crisis cannot agree on whether there are 7,000 veterans sleeping on the streets or 13,000.
However many there are, ATDI and SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity teamed up this year to try to alleviate some of their suffering. The two organisations took out life-saving sleeping bags and life-enhancing radios as part of ATDI’s Christmas campaign and in recognition of the centenary of the Armistice.
The rough sleepers – as rough sleepers always do – responded with unfeasible gratitude. They also responded with the kind of stories that only rough sleepers can tell.
Every rough sleeper knows the value of humour; for many, it is the only defence they have against depression and mental collapse. Thus, at one of the outdoor meals for the homeless, two veterans of the streets were looking at a beautiful big moon on a clear night. One said: “You know, I think my eyesight is going.” His colleague said: “Can you see the moon?” “Yes,” came the reply. “Then how far do you want to see?” his friend enquired.
They both laughed uproariously, but, clearly, most of the stories told by rough sleepers are tragic and desperate rather than funny. During ATDI and SSAFA’s distribution of bags and radios, one man pointed to a nearby bench and said that the next night would be his 137th sleeping there.
Others have talked about the choice of being dry or being hungry. When the weather is wet, if a rough sleeper can find a relatively dry spot, they will hole up in there from when shops start to shut until morning. But that means they have to miss the meals which are provided in the evening.
For people who have served their country to have to choose between food and shelter – but not both in the same night – is an indication of society’s attitude to veterans.
Some rough sleepers talk about the problems of having no personal documents. No birth certificate means no address which in turn means no benefits; the chances of work, then, are close to zero until that cycle can be broken.
It all shows that veterans living on the street are tough and resourceful. But until they have faces that society recognises, they will forever be unknown soldiers.