REVEALED: Empty armed forces homes could house half of Norfolk's hidden homeless
PUBLISHED: 12:06 07 January 2019 | UPDATED: 17:30 07 January 2019
Archant Norfolk 2018
A veteran who was homeless for six months has said the Ministry of Defence must do more to help departing servicemen after it emerged empty armed forces-owned homes in the region could house more than half of Norfolk's "hidden homeless".
More than 350 properties owned by the ministry are sat empty across the region, with more than 100 in the NR20 postcode near Swanton Morley alone.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) accepted the number of empty homes is too high and said plans are in place to reduce the percentage of vacant homes to 12pc by next year, down from 23.6pc in IP and NR postcodes.
According to statistics from Shelter, the empty homes could house at least 56pc of the number of Norfolk’s hidden homeless - defined as those sleeping rough or in temporary accommodation.
By housing just one person who is hidden homeless in each empty MoD home, 354 of the 625 hidden homeless in Norfolk could have a roof over their head.
Zane Johnson, who served in the military for around eight years before being medically discharged, found himself sofa surfing and occasionally sleeping rough for six months shortly after leaving the army.
The 31-year-old from Thetford said the army should do more to help leaving servicemen and that he became so institutionalised by being in the service it made it hard to adapt to living a civilian life.
However, he did credit the army for providing financial assistance when he left and said he would spend the money differently if he could go back in time.
Mr Johnson said: “When you come out of prison they have a whole team of people getting you into a place and you can’t leave until you have a rock solid place to go into.
“With the military you don’t necessarily have that rock solid foundation to move into.
“When I was on camp I only paid £20/30 a month and that covered all my bills so you don’t have an idea of how to live as an individual and it doesn’t give you that training or mindset of how to live normally.”
More than 100 of Norfolk’s empty MoD homes are in the NR20 postcode covering Swanton Morley, with 15 homes (or 25pc) empty near Thetford, all 15 MoD homes in IP26 (Methold, Feltwell and Mundford) are empty, as well as 13 near Watton.
Mr Johnson added he felt it was not right veterans were on the street when homes are sitting empty and called on the MoD to do more.
He said: “People leaving the army become vulnerable to homelessness because you don’t really understand what the whole wide world is.
“The younger ones get used to being looked after and can struggle with the transition.
“I do understand from the army’s point of view with regards to keeping options open but then again they should look after people who have served and given a lot of time to them.
“Having guys that served sitting homeless on the streets when it is cold and horrible, that is not right.”
Mr Johnson suggested the potential of using the empty houses as an interim step to support veterans in the early stages after leaving the army.
He added: “There should be a halfway house whilst people find a place with five or six people staying there until they are on their feet.
“Something like that would be good until people can get a rock sold platform to move into.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said: “The MoD is a member of the cross-government effort to eradicate homelessness in the UK. Managing accommodation for serving personnel is fundamentally different to housing in other sectors.
“Unlike other housing providers, the MoD does not operate waiting lists for its properties and it is therefore essential that a management margin of properties is kept available so that homes are maintained to Decent Homes Standard and available for entitled service personnel and their families when they require them.
“We accept the current level of vacancies is higher than we would like, which is why the MoD has developed a Void Reduction Plan to reduce the level of vacant properties to around 12pc by 2020. The plan is under continual review.”