Two years ago Canada Street in Newton Heath, Manchester was earmarked for compulsory purchase in order to make way for industrial units. The street was almost derelict with tired looking, boarded up, red-brick houses with only a handful of stubborn residents remaining.
Surrounded by industrial units and mills, the street had once been the home of local mill-workers but as the mills declined so did the street – that is until Walking With The Wounded stepped in. With the help of BBC’s DIY SOS and their royal patron, Prince Harry and his brother The Duke of Cambridge, they transformed the street into a gleaming ‘Veteran’s Village’.
Established in 2010, Walking With The Wounded supports vulnerable veterans to re-integrate back into society. They offer support with employment, mental health, the Criminal Justice System and housing. Their aim is to help veterans gain independence after their military career by getting them into sustainable long term employment. When the opportunity to create a ‘hub’ in Manchester arose, the charity jumped at the chance and Gary Lamb, the Associate Director for the North West has been working tirelessly ever since.
“This was the first of its kind so it was a blank piece of paper. But we were aware that we couldn’t do anything on our own,” Gary explains, “I set about engaging employers and once we’d built the employer and education base I started looking at temporary accommodation.”
Gary, who served in the Merchant Navy, set his sights on the house next door to the charity’s hub on Canada Street and with the help of DIY SOS and numerous local businesses
transformed it into a four-bedroom paradise for veterans ready to work. Since completion, 34 veterans have moved on from ‘next door’ into longterm accommodation. The charity
also teamed up with other housing associations to offer more veterans facing homelessness temporary accommodation.
“We had zero bed space when we started two years ago. Now we have 65 beds in a five mile radius of this hub.” Gary beams proudly. Heading up the Welfare and Employment support is Scott Duncan, an ex-squaddie himself and a proud member of God Squad, a Christian Motorcycle Club. He admits that being a veteran himself has its advantages:
“You can build trust building rapidly by being a veteran so when you get into the nitty gritty
assessment they are more open and I can find out what their exact needs and goals are.”
“It’s always person centered,” Gary explains, “We help drive them to where they want to be. Employment might be their key focus but they might have all these hurdles that they need to get over in the mean time – we help them get over them.”
“Take one element of life, a job for example, if you don’t have one everything else falls apart.” Scott adds, “Everyone needs a stable place to live and base themselves. Once you get them into stable accommodation then everything will follow through. It’s about fighting
their corner all the time.”
Walking With The Wounded’s well rounded support obviously works. The charity works with over fifty local employers with veteran’s recently securing jobs across a variety of sectors. There’s a whole wealth of employers who want to employ veterans and Gary admits it’s not surprising:
“The work ethic of squaddies is second to none. They’ll start work at six in the morning and finish at six at night. They give 110% because there’s no room for mistakes in combat. Mistakes cost lives so they don’t mess around. They’ve got so many transferrable skills.”
But what happens once the veterans secure work?
“We don’t close the door. We call them up on a regular basis and make sure everything is going to plan. We never shut the file and they know that if in two years time they need us, the door will be open. Most stay in touch anyway.”
One of the beneficiaries who have stayed in touch is Lamin Manneh. Lamin featured on DIY SOS and has been a resident on the street since September 2015. Lamin lost both his legs and an arm whilst serving with the Irish Guards in Afghanistan. Walking With The Wounded has changed Lamin’s life not least because it’s given him the opportunity to remain part of a community similar to the one he experienced whilst serving:
“The work ethic of squaddies is second to none. They give 110% because there’s no room for mistakes in combat”
“It’s the only place that isn’t Afghanistan where troops all live together. It’s so unique. It can be quite scary coming in this project but there’s so much support. You can knock on anyone’s door and have a cup of tea with them.” Lamin enthuses warmly, “But it’s not just about veterans. It’s about their families too. There’s a real community spirit, people to rely on
and that helps so much.”
Lamin was the first veteran to sign up to the project and has received support with his housing, training and mental health. The charity has given the Manneh family a bright future and Lamin an undeniable amount of confidence. When I ask him where he sees himself in the future he chuckles:
“I can be anything I want to be and there’s nothing to stop me. If I want to go to the moon, I’ll find a way to go because of their support. I don’t care what happens – I’ll just go for it!”
But whilst Lamin credits the charity with giving him a sense of direction, Gary admits that Lamin has played an instrumental role in helping the street and the charity to develop.
“I was quite fresh faced coming into this environment and Lamin made my life a lot easier. It’s not just me doing the ‘giving’, he’s supported me so much as well.”
“If you don’t have people in your life it doesn’t matter how rich you are,” Lamin adds, “on your last day you can’t put yourself in a crematorium, people put you there. They are the most valuable thing in your life.”
Many troops leaving the Forces feel isolated. One veteran who found himself facing loneliness was James Lyons. Jamie, as he is known amongst his friends, served as part of the Scots
Guard and embarked on tours of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Upon leaving the Army he took a job as a security guard which is where it all started to go downhill.
“I wasn’t where I was before with people around me who I could speak to. I was working nights, living on my own and I suffered from anxiety and depression. It just got worse and worse.”
Jamie was issued with an eviction notice and was about to become homeless when he met Gary who invited him to come and stay ‘next door’ whilst he got back on his feet. Jamie is now working on getting his confidence back. He’s started the New Year on a new course, Futures for Heroes.
“I’ll find out what job suits me best. I’ll come back with a fresh mind, be able to go back in and they’ll help with my housing and I’ll get back into work. It’ll allow me to live a life.”
Like Lamin, Jamie thrives off the strong sense of community the street offers.
“I feel like I’m in a family again. When you come out you’re on your own and I didn’t know any other veterans down here as I was in a Scottish regiment. Everyone I know lives in Scotland. Being next door to veterans gives you the motivation and well-being that you need.”
Jamie is passionate about the work Walking With The Wounded do and urges other veterans facing problems to get in touch with them.
“Walking With The Wounded isn’t just important for me but for the many other veterans struggling. As a solider you have a lot of pride and sometimes it is hard for people to say ‘I need help’. My advice is to come forward and speak to somebody. Don’t build it up inside.”
“Before, I was inside myself. Depression and anxiety takes a toll on the mind and the body. It’s such a dark place. You’re thinking and worrying all the time. It’s good to have the support.”
Gary agrees, “We want to reach those individuals that are too proud to ask. Jamie has been on a journey, he’s still on that journey. When the wheels fall off, he falls with grace. He doesn’t stick his head in the sand anymore he comes and talks to us.”
“We need to do more. Not just with these guys but with everybody. Mental health is a sensitive subject among a lot of people but it doesn’t need to be. I think we need to talk about it more, get rid of the stigma” Prince Harry
But none of the work the charity does would be possible without the support of fundraisers, other associations or local businesses.
“Veterans need support,” says Lamin, “companies who offer their support can have such a huge impact on lives and allow veterans to be part of society. By giving your support to Walking With The Wounded you are helping a veteran to be with his family and do what he wants to do.”
The charity hosts a variety of fundraising events throughout the year. In December, they held their annual ‘Walk Home For Christmas’ event which in Manchester sees the residents, staff, general public and businesses walk from Manchester Town Hall to Veteran Street. They also run walking challenges such as the Cumbria Challenge for teams of four.
“It’s for all abilities. It’s a competition but I’m not the fittest or youngest and my team won it! You can bring as many people and have as many teams as you like.” Gary explains. “We do all sorts of expeditions as we are trying to demonstrate that those who are wounded, injured or sick can get back into society.”
But for those who don’t want to walk or go on an expedition, Gary says there’s still plenty of ways to get involved.
“Ring us up, we’ll have a chat and see what we can do. Don’t be scared to ask or offer. Anything from work placements, training, donations to a sponsored event. We can’t do any of this without it. It’s all greatly appreciated.”
The work Walking With The Wounded is doing is evidently changing lives and Gary and his team are set to continue for a long time to come. Whilst veterans may come and go as the charity moves them into new homes, new jobs and new lives, the bonds will remain constant.
If you want to learn more about the work Walking With The Wounded does or get involved call Gary on 0161 205 9287 or visit walkingwiththewounded.org.uk