Forces Charities

Veterans Aid marks 90 years of helping homeless veterans in crisis

The charity offers immediate practical support to homeless former servicemen and women

It is a landmark year for the Veterans Aid charity as it marks 90 years of battling homelessness among the ex-service community. 

Since 1932, when the charity was set up by a British Army Major's wife named Gwendolen Huggins, Veterans Aid has been committed to supporting ex-servicemen and women in crisis.

It has continued to help those in need ever since, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Veterans Aid's mission is to provide immediate practical support to all former UK servicemen and women facing homelessness or finding themselves in crisis.

Veterans Aid support for homeless former serving personnel Baking Picture VA Glyn Strong
A veteran gives baking a go thanks to Veterans Aid (Picture: VA / Glyn Strong).

As Veterans Aid mark its 90th year, Doctor Hugh Milroy the charity's CEO, says it is a bittersweet moment. 

Speaking to Tim Humphries of BFBS the Forces Station, Dr Milroy says he wishes the charity did not need to exist at all, saying: "I wish there weren't problems, but this is the reality. 

"Equally I'm overwhelmed by the staff I've got and how good they are and what we do."

Embankment Fellowship Centre residents in the conservatory in 1955 (Picture: Veterans Aid).
Embankment Fellowship Centre residents in the conservatory in 1955 (Picture: Veterans Aid).

Veterans Aid History

Mrs Huggins, wife of Major Charles Huggins, the Adjutant at the Royal Hospital Chelsea in the 1930s, had helped set up The Embankment Fellowship Centre, the initial name for Veteran's Aid, to help the many homeless military veterans who found themselves sleeping on London's Embankment following the First World War.

The centre opened its first home in 1932, 90 years ago, but that is not where the story of Veterans Aid begins.

The seed of Veterans Aid's beginnings was planted in 1924, when Mrs Huggins, along with Major Huggins and their 11-year-old son Ulric, were involved in an accident at sea while heading out for afternoon tea in Malta, where Major Huggins had been stationed as second-in-command of the Gordon Highlanders.

The family had been invited to visit HMS Calypso by the ship's officers but their motorboat was in a collision with HMS Venomous as they made their way across the water - sinking their boat in the Grand Harbour at Valletta, Malta.

Major Huggins and his son were rescued within a matter of minutes, but Mrs Huggins was seemingly nowhere to be found. 

Witnesses who saw the collision reported that Mrs Huggins seemed to be under the water for some time and she was not spotted on the surface until up to 10 minutes after the boat sank, when she had been trapped in an air pocket as the boat went down.

The near-death experience had a profound effect on Mrs Huggins, leaving her feeling like she wanted to somehow pay forward her good fortune, by helping others in distress.

It was not until 1932, many years after the boat crash, that she discovered how she could honour her own wish after seeing veterans, who had risked their lives to serve their country, sleeping rough on the streets of London. 

The desperately sad sight moved her to take practical action.

Embankment Fellowship Centre 1930s brochure Veterans Aid archive photo (Picture: Veterans Aid).
Embankment Fellowship Centre 1930s brochure (Picture: Veterans Aid).

Mrs Huggins was offered to make use of the building at 59a, Belvedere Road in London for three months for the price of £1. 

This started the ball rolling and eventually a canteen and a recreational room for destitute veterans was set up in the building. 

It was called H10 after HMS Umpire (which had the pennant number H10), which had been the ship that came to the rescue of the Huggins family. 

Dame Cicely Courtneidge sipping soup at the Embankment Fellowship Centre (Picture: Veterans Aid).
Dame Cicely Courtneidge sipping soup at the Embankment Fellowship Centre (Picture: Veterans Aid).

In 1954, actress and comedian Dame Cicely Courtneidge appeared on the radio programme 'The Week's Good Cause' on the BBC's Home Service to appeal for money for The Embankment Fellowship Centre. This appearance raised £660 for the charity.

She also visited Belvedere House hostel and joined men in a game of snooker and visited the kitchen to sample the soup.

The charity grew and went through several changes of name before launching as Veterans Aid.

Since then, the charity has also been visited by royalty such as the Duke of Edinburgh in 2016, the Prince of Wales in 2007 and the Duke of Kent in 2011.

Princess Alexandra performed the official opening ceremony of New Belvedere House in 1973.

Former service personnel enjoy a BBQ at New Belvedere House thanks to Veterans Aid (Picture: VA / Glyn Strong).
Former service personnel enjoy a BBQ at New Belvedere House thanks to Veterans Aid (Picture: VA / Glyn Strong).

Veterans Aid today 

Since then, the organisation was renamed the Ex-Services Fellowship Centre in 1970 and in 2007, was finally named Veterans Aid to reflect more accurately the nature of the work done by the charity. 

Although it is a London-based charity, Veterans Aid has helped UK former service personnel based in more than 70 countries since the end of 2007.

Dr Milroy says that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the charity has been in demand more than before and did not miss a single operational day, saying: "We were in the right place at the right time. 

"We were saving lives." 

New Belvedere House Veterans Aid (Picture: BFBS).
New Belvedere House (Picture: BFBS).

How does Veterans Aid help? 

One former Royal Engineer named Andy is one example of how the charity helps those in need.

Having left the British Army in 1986, he had worked in the hotel industry in Indonesia. 

After contracting Dengue fever, the veteran suffered three heart attacks before he was faced with yet more tragedy when his wife died of a brain haemorrhage in 2019. Then, when his health insurance lapsed following a month of hospital treatment, Andy discovered his care was no longer covered so he travelled to the UK for further treatment. 

As he explains to Tim, after 14 days in quarantine, Andy had nowhere to go. He said: "I literally had about £3 in my pocket. 

"No food, nothing. I had a roof over my head because I had the accommodation where I was staying but I had no way of feeding myself."

Just 30 minutes after Andy got in contact with Veterans Aid, his life started to improve. Within half an hour, a taxi arrived with bags of food to last two weeks and an envelope containing some money. Veterans Aid had also booked a hotel for Andy so that he had somewhere to stay when the time came that he had to leave the temporary accommodation where was staying at the time. 

New Belvedere House refurbished (Picture: Veterans Aid).
The New Belvedere House has been refurbished (Picture: Veterans Aid).

Andy has lived at Veterans Aid's New Belvedere House now for more than a year and a half. The London home, which offers single room accommodation to 66 veterans, has helped turn around the lives of more than 1,000 homeless, socially isolated or vulnerable ex-servicemen and women and set them on the road to independent living. 

Residents stay for an average of 9.5 months and staff are on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

In 2021, the charity saw a rise in the number of female veterans seeking help. Of the 216 people they helped, 8% were women. 

The Veterans Aid 'Welfare to Wellbeing' model, introduced by Dr Milroy in 2009, underpins the work the charity does as the charity's CEO explains: "The methodology we use - welfare to wellbeing - is unique to us. 

"It is an empowerment model, it's building the capacity for the individual to continue with their life, to sustain. 

"The fact that we are willing to listen, to evolve according to need and that's such an important issue."

Veterans enjoy an ice cream at BFBS' Operation Ice Cream van (Picture: VA / Glyn Strong).
Veterans enjoy an ice cream at BFBS' Operation Ice Cream van (Picture: VA / Glyn Strong).

During 2020, when people were coming to terms with how living in worldwide pandemic would impact them, Veterans Aid homed 133 former service personnel, got 102 into employment and prevented 114 falling into homelessness. 

Veterans Aid reports that New Belvedere House, which was formally opened by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan in 2018 after a refurbishment costing £8.2 million, helps 90% of the former service personnel who spend time there to go on to lead sustainable, independent lives. Speaking about his time there, Andy said: "It's your own little place to be honest. You get your own room. 

"They are there to help you if you need it. If not, they just leave you alone to get on with your own things. 

"They help you to get everything sorted out and rearrange your life." 

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan chef veteran Dr Hugh Milroy Veterans Aid CEO New Belvedere House (Picture: BFBS).
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan chats to a veteran and Dr Hugh Milroy, Veterans Aid's CEO, at New Belvedere House's official opening in 2018 (Picture: BFBS).

Cover image: Embankment Fellowship Centre residents reading in TV lounge (Picture: Veterans Aid).