Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

Fighting in the baking heat of foreign climes does little to acclimatise ex-servicemen and women to life on the bitter cold December streets of Edinburgh. For some that leave the armed forces, pavement slabs become their new trench or fox hole as a new fight to survive begins. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori may be ‘the old lie’, but a harsher truth prevails for those who have fought in Britain’s armed forces and returned home to reality, David Walsh writes.

 “Knee knocked, coughing like hags, we cursed as we trudged through the sludge,” wrote war poet Wilfred Owen in 1917 in his asylum room at Craiglockhart. The words uncannily ring true this month in a snow and slush-covered capital city. Like the many fallen soldiers of the Great War, the homeless faces of Edinburgh facing these sub-zero temperatures become mere statistics to the general public. 6,739 hot meals. 44 beds a night. 809 volunteers. 928 sheltered, given support and a warm meal*. The glow of Christmas street lighting, the glitter of shop window baubles or the cinnamon-sweet offerings of the Christmas markets do little to thaw the cold reality for many this Christmas.

Christmas is a desperate time for those on Edinburgh's streets. Source: MMO News.

Among the faces in the shop doorways and closes this holiday season could well be someone who fought in the Armed Forces. As the old maxim goes, charity begins at home. Bob Geldof asked a question back in 1984 of the famine-stricken people of Ethiopia. Few ask the same question to those soldiers who have returned from combat to altered lives back in the UK; do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

Exact figures for just how many people sleep rough on Edinburgh’s streets every night are difficult to compile due to the constant transient state they are in. Some “sofa surf” at the homes of friends and families, or gain temporary, sheltered or hostel accommodation. They become apparitions in the system. The best indicators the Scottish government are able to venture are lists of statistics of the number of applications for assistance made by people who had slept on the street the night before. This amounts to 39 people in Edinburgh during 2009-2010. This hardly offers a complete picture. Shelter Scotland put the figure for homeless people, those without homes, facing eviction or living in inadequate housing across Scotland at 40,000. The actual number of ex-servicemen and women among these who are homeless or otherwise sleeping rough remains contentious.

London-based charity Veterans Aid cites UK government statistics which claim there are only 450 ‘rough sleepers’ on the streets nationwide and only four per cent of these claim a military connection. Press officer Glyn Strong believes there is a gross over-exaggeration in the press about the number of veterans on the streets. With over 3,000 organisations in Britain working to support ex-service personnel, it’s an enticing prospect for many who claim to have been in the army to invent a service history to get help. Even so, if the facts are true, government figures show eighteen veterans are currently sleeping rough on the streets of Britain. Eighteen too many, in any case.

Instead of scouring the streets of Edinburgh to find a homeless veteran, we come to the Grassmarket in the city centre. Nestled between the relative silence of the snow-laden Greyfriars kirkyard and buzz of the Grassmarket, the Grassmarket Community Project is an unassuming building on the outside. Behind its facade, it is a hive of activity and industry. The project co-ordinator, Josiah Lockhart, explains that help for the “down and outs” of Edinburgh began with missions in the Grassmarket in the Victorian era. Even now, there are homeless shelters and hostels in the four corners of the Grassmarket itself, mostly in the closes behind it. Out of sight, out of mind?

The Grassmarket Community Project arose out of a partnership of two such historic missions; the Greyfriars Kirk and the Grassmarket Mission, both tracing their origins back to the 1800s. Their original purpose was to work with homeless adults, the Grassmarket being an area of the city where the poor and wealthy lived juxtaposed. The Community Project has now branched out to help adults facing social exclusion or struggling with addictions and mental illness too. As well as offering hot meals at its three weekly drop-in hours, it offers classes in cookery, textiles, woodwork, drama, art, IT, literacy. But Josiah Lockhart asked one important question five years ago: “Is the need we’re trying to meet the need of today?

“As time has gone by, the needs of people, what homelessness looks like has changed a lot. Issues are more to do with health and well-being and access to food. We’ve evolved over the past four years from being that mass-catering, queue-up service to one that’s a space, a community.”    

There’s a constant flurry of activity in the one room as people leave and return and new faces arrive. We sit talking as Christmas songs are played on a hi-fi in the corner and decorations are hung from the ceiling. One of the new faces rushes over to us especially to tell Josiah his good news. He has been given the all-clear by doctors for his cancer and finally has a meeting sorted to discuss his benefits. “I’m on a cloud nine” he beams. One woman who joins us at our table is Ellen.

A former Captain in the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, Ellen Pain served as a senior nurse in the 1982 Falklands conflict. Speaking to her at the Project, she is visibly shaken when talking about her experiences. “[The war] That was enough for me,” she said. After returning to civilian life, she suffered a mental break down which tore her family life apart. Asking what life is like for her nowadays, she said, “Some days I’m fine. Others I’m not. This place is a big part of my life. When I’m in trouble, I head for here.” Ellen became heavily involved with volunteering when the Project first started up in its current location on the Grassmarket. She helps with the running of the various classes, particularly the art group.

Was she given much needed help when she was returned back in the UK? “No, because they don’t know how to deal with us. They help no body. Quite a lot of ex-servicemen come here. We all sit on a wee table to ourselves,” she says with a wheezy chuckle. “We talk our experiences out at the table.” Many of those she sits with are fellow Falklands vets. Some were, in a bizarre coincidence, wounded men she cared for. “Yes they remember me! Very strict they said I was. I was a Captain. I was very strict. My ward had to be spotless and my nurses.” Daring to ask, we enquire as to what Christmas holds for her. “I don’t have Christmas in my house. For me now, Christmas is for children.”

Whilst chatting to Ellen, a man with a limp sits next to us at our table. Affectionately named Mickey by the other volunteers, Michael Glancy explains he chipped a bone on his foot after slipping on the ice. He, too, is an ex-serviceman. Serving in the Royal Artillery in Kosovo as a young man of nineteen, his life was turned upside down with the close deaths of his father and uncle. Since arriving through the doors of the Project at the drop-in clinics, he has developed aspirations to rejoin the Army to train men like the younger man he was a decade previous. Not only that, he wants to go to college to study sports science. These two volunteers, both of military backgrounds, are just two of over a hundred people who congregate at the centre in any given week, taking part in and leading classes.

On a tour of the building by Josiah, we encounter woodwork leader Tommy Steel supervising a group in the workshop. Having had some machinery donated and some bought by the Project, the centre is run on the profits of workshop sales. Some of the volunteers are soldering designs onto wood. Others are hurriedly completing an order for shutters for a church conversion in Fife. Speaking to him briefly, he told us: “We need to change people’s lives for the better. We run the project as a business so we have financial incomes to achieve. We also have environmental outcomes.”

Starting in humble beginnings in a portacabin in the kirkyard, the business entails the recycling of church pews into high quality furniture. The wood is collected from churches all over Scotland and used to produce products ranging from gift items like candle holders and chopping boards up to household furniture like coffee tables and chairs. Tommy was part of the pilot project and has watched as the work of the volunteers has evolved into commissions, selling to notable names as Finance Minister John Swinney, and exhibitions.

 “The guys get a lot out of it. It’s not just about teaching woodwork. It’s the confidence, the self-esteem, the purpose in life. Recently, a large number of people have come off medication as a direction result of attending here.

“Medication for depression, mental illness. Through coming here, they’ve put structure back into their life and come off their medication.” One of the volunteers Tommy closely with had walked in off the street for the drop-in clinic and eventually left to study furniture making and upholstery.

With such schemes not made available by the MOD or British government as they are in countries like the United States and Australia, what does this mean for troops returning back to Britain with no prospects? Not all but a small minority – so small they cannot be accurately counted – fade into the ether and are forgotten. It is social projects like the Grassmarket Community Project that provide a stepping stone for those in a desperate situation to better themselves. This is felt no more so than at Christmas.

It is too early to tell how the cycle will touch soldiers currently deployed on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the future either. There are over 5.5m veterans in the UK. There are the regrettable few that failed to blend back into civilian life as seamlessly as the 96% of ex-servicemen who did. It is these Glyn Strong believes are disproportionately reported in the British press. “One homeless veteran is still one too many” she concedes. Just how many serving in Iraq and Afghanistan will make a similarly uneasy transition back into civilian life is yet to be known. It will be Edinburgh’s long-established charitable organisations who will likely bear the strain of getting those without homes or those without shelter living on the streets back on their feet this Christmas. In attending independently-run groups like the Grassmarket Community Project, those living rough on the streets or in sheltered accommodation, veteran or otherwise, will have company and a warm environment to be keep their spirits bright this Yule tide.

 *Statistics for Edinburgh from Bethany Christian Trust.