“I just went on walkabout. I had nowhere to go,” he said. He hitchhiked from Cessnock to Toukley on the Central Coast and went to the family of an ex-army mate for showers but lived in the bush at Watagans National Park.
“I was in the scrub about 3½ months on and off. They have toilets and rainwater showers and it’s all free.” In total he was homeless for six months.
In March the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) stepped it up a notch, he said. “I ended up getting put into emergency accommodation at a drop-in centre at the Toukley RSL. They got me in contact with RSL DefenceCare. At that time my pension hadn’t come through. I had no income so DefenceCare really looked after me.”
Mr Youngman now has a house and gets help with the rent through DefenceCare, partly funded by the Poppy Appeal, and hopes to see his children soon.
He is one of the lucky ones. The number of former defence personnel who have ended up homeless far exceeds previous predictions according to research released in September
The DVA-commissioned study showed 5.3 per cent of Australian veterans who left the Australian Defence Force (ADF) between 2001 and 2018 experienced homelessness.
The rate equates to 5767 veterans and is significantly higher than that for the general population (1.9 per cent) and higher than the previous estimate of about 3000.
The study was conducted by the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW and Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies at University of Adelaide.
Dr Fiona Hilferty, at the UNSW, said defence veterans were not regarded as a priority under housing homelessness policy.
“It’s the best estimate of veteran homelessness in Australia ever done and I don’t think it can be dismissed by government as being too high,” she said. “What is required is for ongoing tracking of veteran homelessness, there’s no funding for any of that type of work.
“Veterans fall through the cracks. Many of the veterans we interviewed are very self-sufficient. They typically don’t seek help until it is an absolute crisis. This issue falls off the agenda and it needs to stay on the agenda.”
A spokesman for the DVA said investment in research had already delivered valuable insights into the issue of homelessness in the veteran community.
“The Government has significantly improved access to mental health care, and improved transition support. It has supported veteran employment through rehabilitation and training support, introduced initiatives such as the free mental health care for life for all veterans, issuing DVA white cards to all transitioning ADF members, and the Veteran Payment for those in financial difficulties while their claims for compensation are in train.”
Katherine McKernan, chief executive of Homelessness NSW said there was a need for co-ordination between state, commonwealth governments and community organisations.
“That should include investment in support when people are considering exiting the ADF and then for veterans and their families – including housing, preventing domestic violence and specialist mental health and drug and alcohol support,” she said.
In a separate issue relating to veterans’ mental health, Scott Morrison is considering ordering a royal commission into veteran suicides but the RSL has condemned what it says is a “costly and unwarranted” idea.
The prime minister floated the inquiry after meeting the mothers of six army veterans who took their own lives. “I haven’t ruled it out, it’s something that I am actively considering,” he told Sky News.
The RSL warned a royal commission would cost “an enormous amount of money” that could be better spent in other areas to assist veterans.
However, Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie, whose swing vote is crucial on controversial legislation, said there was a “shocking” culture in the veterans’ affairs and defence departments.
“They’re still in denial; what they’re doing is, instead of worrying about fixing the problem, they’re worried about covering their arses,” she told Tasmania Talks on LAFM.
Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling 1800 011 046
Lifeline 13 11 14
beyondblue 1300 224 636
Tim Barlass is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald