Increasing numbers of young Defence Forces veterans are facing the threat of homelessness, according to the head of the country’s only veterans’ charity.
Traditionally those seeking help from Óglaigh Náisiúnta na hÉireann (ONE) have been people who have served in the Defence Forces for many years, including those who have been “institutionalised” and need assistance transitioning to civilian life, said Cormac Kirwan, who was recently appointed chief executive of the organisation.
“Those people are still there but the new challenge is the much younger veteran — the people who are leaving after three or five years’ service.”
These veterans have not had the time to build up a support network “or band of brothers” during their service, he said.
“Take myself: I have 28 years’ service so my network would be significant. After leaving I would have reached into my military network to seek advice and guidance,” Mr Kirwan said. “With a younger veteran who leaves early, they don’t have that network. They probably have only served in one unit and don’t have the courses or overseas trips done.”
A range of factors is causing young people to seek help from ONE, he said, including familial breakdown, financial hardship, mental health issues and addiction. “The Defence Forces are a citizens’ army, so the challenges you find in society would be reflected in the Defence Forces.”
ONE’s main focus is addressing homelessness or preventing it from occurring in the first place by “triaging” veterans and linking them in with support services. ONE runs four veterans’ homes, in Dublin, Athlone, Cobh and Letterkenny. A fifth home is expected to open in Cork later this year.
It provides 54 bed spaces a night, or more than 20,000 a year, to veterans “who find themselves homeless, living on the streets or in extreme substandard accommodation,” Mr Kirwan said.
The veterans in Dublin typically stay for a short period of time while they await social housing, while those in the other houses are usually longer-term residents due to their age profile.
Some people have difficulty fitting back into the civilian world and assuming responsibilities, especially if they have spent many years in the Defence Forces, Mr Kirwan said. This includes people who have served for more than 40 years and spent their whole period living in barracks, he said.
“In times gone by you had industrial schools feeding into the Defence Forces so you could have people who have lived in an institutionalised environment all their life. Then they are moving into an environment where you have complete autonomy over every decision you make and have to suddenly pay rent or mortgages.”
ONE also operates 15 veteran support centres which offer assistance and advice on accessing services. But a government-run Office of Veteran’s Affairs is also urgently needed to support veterans who are in difficulty, Mr Kirwan said. This was one of the recommendations contained in the recent Commission on the Defence Forces report.
Mr Kirwan retired from the Defence Forces as a lieutenant colonel before becoming operations manager for Kildare GAA. But he says rank has no role within ONE. “We’re all veterans, and we’re all there to help veterans who are struggling.”
His priority is to address funding challenges for ONE, including by reaching out to the estimated 120,000 veterans on the island of Ireland for financial support.
“We’re for people who have served our country with honour and pride who have nowhere else to turn,” he said. “Ultimately our objective is to move people into independent living because that restores their pride.”