Serving up hope to former soldiers

Good drills to the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation!

By Angus Crawford
BBC News

On any night in London approximately 1,100 former members of the armed forces are homeless.

They live mainly in hostels, bed and breakfast accommodation or on friends' floors.

Now one military charity has taken inspiration from the example of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, to employ some of them at a new restaurant.

The Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation is setting up a cafe in a park in Fulham, west London, to help veterans who have fallen on hard times learn the skills to work in catering.

Thirty-one-year-old Dave Clark used to be in the First Battalion the Scots Guards.

After he left the service in 2001, his relationship broke down and he felt isolated and alone.

"It just spiralled and spiralled until I hit rock bottom," he said.

"I was kipping on my mate's floor, drinking quite a lot and taking drugs. It was probably the worst time in my life."

He came to the project through a charity called Veterans Aid, which thought he would be a good candidate.

It runs New Belvedere house, a hostel in the east end of London dedicated to the care of former members of the military who have become homeless.

The new cafe, Pryors Bank, plans to take four veterans each year as apprentices, train them and then get them catering jobs elsewhere.

It is in a lovely setting, a far cry from hostel living. The red-brick Victorian building with gothic turrets sits in a small park by the River Thames.

Fulham Football Club is close by, as are the expensive shops of the King's Road.

"If we give our guys hope, they'll respond," says project director Bob Barrett.

He is 58 and a former soldier himself. He left the forces in 1971.

He had a successful career in business, but his marriage broke down and he became ill. Then he lost his home and his job.

He now lives in a flat owned by the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation and decided to help out some of the other residents.

Without pay he used his expertise to set up a mobile catering service. That worked so well he is now repeating the experience with Pryors Bank.

"Some of the people that have got problems today had those problems before they went in the forces, but they were never addressed or attended to," he said.

Ex-service homelessness is actually far less of a problem now than 10 years ago.

In 1997, 22% of homeless people claimed to have a background in the forces. Now that figure is closer to 6%.

The dramatic reduction has been caused by a number of factors. There is now greater information and training for those about to leave the armed forces.

The government has also taken action to tackle rough sleeping.

And the formation of ESAG, the Ex Service Action Group of charities, means those charities work together to provide help to veterans.

But Rick Brunwin, chief executive of the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation, is still concerned.

"Our fear is that this whole issue is slipping off the government agenda," he said.

He worries ministers think the problem has been solved, and he is concerned about the possible impact of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Two or three years down the line we'll find we're not going to cope with it, because of the large number of people coming though."

At Pryors Bank, Dave Clark is just happy to start his new job and have a second chance.

"It's given me a totally different outlook on life. It's going to change my life totally."
What a great idea and well done to them all - I will certainly be calling in next time I am down that way. Anyone from W Sqn RY, perhaps it should become your local?

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