Military charities said the shameful figure is a record high and the Government is failing those who risk their lives for Queen and country.
They also issued a stark warning that the crisis deepens every month.
Les Standish, who won the Military Medal in the Falklands War, said: “The Government has let these people down. These men and women were willing to fight and lay down their lives for this country and the only help available to them is from charities.
“The Government needs to do more for them. It’s a disgrace.”
Les, who saved the life of a comrade who had his leg blown off in the 1982 Battle of Goose Green, was homeless for six months after suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.
The 56-year-old says during his time on the streets and since, he has met hundreds of veterans, from the Falklands campaign through to more recent conflicts, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many are reduced to sleeping in doorways, bus stops and parks, begging from passers-by.
And almost all are struggling with the devastating affects of PTSD, which often leads to other problems, including addictions to drugs and alcohol.
“All of the homeless veterans I met had PTSD and were in need of help,” said Les, a former member of 2 Para who became a prison officer.
Describing his own ordeal, the Bolton Armed Forces Centre volunteer said: “I could see the faces of the men I had killed and would wake up screaming, soaked in sweat.
“I became too scared to go to sleep and began drinking heavily. I was medically retired form the prison service. My world collapsed and I was homeless. I slept in my van for six months and felt unable to talk to anyone. But eventually I got help.”
Cait Smith, 45, runs the Bolton Armed Forces Centre for Veterans, where she helps homeless ex-service personnel.
She said: “Homelessness among the veterans community is getting worse by the month. The youngest we have dealt with is an 18-year-old and the oldest is 97. And we helped people of every age in between.”
Cait was diagnosed with PTSD 20 years after her entire command was wiped out in the 1994 Mull of Kintyre helicopter disaster.
She said: “When I left the Army in 1997 I was a single mum. I had nowhere to live and a child to look after. I felt as though I had somehow failed. I was eventually given help and got my life back together.
“But I received no help from the armed forces. It was from charities and friends.”
Northern Ireland veteran Tony Hayes, 58, is now the chief executive of Veteran Assistance UK, a charity helping homeless ex-servicemen and women and those who are struggling with PTSD.
He said: “Nearly all the homeless veterans we come across have PTSD or some form of mental health problem. Once they leave the Army, they loose their support structure.
“Those suffering from PTSD will often turn to drink and that can have an impact on the marriage and in a short period of time a veteran can find himself homeless.
“We estimate 13,000 but we believe it’s an accurate figure from what our outreach teams are seeing.
“From our experience, the problem of homeless veterans has never been greater. I’d say 13,000 is a minimum – it could be far higher.”
Charity bosses say the problem has been made worse by cuts to the armed forces, which has led to almost 30,000 troops losing their jobs since 2010.
Homeless numbers have soared, despite the Government outlining its duty to serving and former personnel by enshrining the Armed Forces Covenant in law in 2011.
The covenant says veterans “should have priority status in applying for Government-sponsored affordable housing schemes, and service leavers should retain this status for a period of discharge”.
And it adds: “Support should be available for all service personnel in order to assist their transition from service to civilian life.”
Hero Craig Mealing, 42, completed tours of Afghanistan, Iraq, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Bosnia with the Rifles.
But he was left homeless for two months in 2016 after his long-term relationship buckled under the strain of his PTSD and he turned to alcohol.
The dad-of-three, who joined the Army at 16, said: “For years all I’d known in the military was flight or fight mode. Then adjusting to civilian life while suffering flashbacks and nightmares was so hard.
“Soldiers are strong and asking for help felt like weakness. I refused to acknowledge my mental health issues and my life spiralled out of control.
“Before I knew it I lost everything – and becoming homeless to me felt like hitting rock-bottom.”
Craig, from Corringham, Essex, added: “I thought I was fine, but I was drinking to self-medicate.
“My partner said I needed to get help after I lost it with her a couple of times.”
Craig contacted the helpline for veteran charity Combat Stress and went to a support group to tackle his drinking. Soon after, he was diagnosed with PTSD and began treatment – but his relationship broke down.
He said: “My partner changed the locks after I had a huge bust-up and spent a night in a police cell. I slept in my car or an old mate’s sofa for two months after that.
“It was demeaning and a horrible blur for me, especially after feeling so powerful and respected in the military. The stress of the situation made my symptoms worse, the flashbacks and nightmares were worse and they became more frequent.
“Luckily, my friends and family were very supportive.
“But if I had acknowledged my issue sooner I would maybe have avoided losing my home and partner.”
Craig also had intensive PTSD recovery courses through Combat Stress to manage his condition. During occupational therapy he discovered a love of pottery, which helped him.
He added: “I want to tell other soldiers to know real strength comes from admitting you have a problem.”
The Ministry of Defence said: “We provide extensive help to veterans and their families, including funding the Veterans’ Gateway.
“The Government is spending more than £1billion to prevent homelessness and rough sleeping.”
The crisis at Harry’s door
The Sunday People has led the way in campaigning for better treatment for veterans with mental health problems.
We have told how former troops suffering illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety lost their homes after being unable to find new jobs.
That made their illness worse and drove them to the brink of suicide.
One of the most vocal campaigners is Prince Harry – a former Army officer who rose to the rank of captain and completed two tours of Afghanistan.
Earlier this month he was drawn into the UK’s homelessness crisis after a councillor in Windsor, where he will marry Meghan Markle this May, called for homeless people to be expelled from the town’s streets before the big day.
It is the home of Windsor Castle and two barracks, giving the city a proud military history and presence.
Murphy James, of the Windsor Homeless Project, tonight told the Sunday People: “There are 12 to15 rough sleepers on the streets of Windsor and we’ve got 50 to 60 on our books.
“Typically, two in ten at any one time will be former military.
“They may not necessarily have just left the military, but that is where they developed their mental health issue which led to them being homeless.”
Murphy added: “The problem is that the Government aren’t doing nearly enough to help.
“They haven’t done anything and whatever they have done amounts only to lip service.
“They’ve been making cuts to mental health services and that’s the crux of the problem in this country. “
Murphy has just launched a new project to help anyone suffering a mental health problem. See more about it at www.theknowhow.org.
‘I hope to help others like me’
By PATRICK HILL
Standing with comrades in Afghanistan, there is no mistaking the pride Michael Chambers feels in serving his country.
The 35-year-old was a private in the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment and also completed tours of Kosovo and Northern Ireland.
But in 2007, five years after he joined up aged 20, he accepted a dishonourable discharge in a bid to get out of the Army.
His desperate move came after he was crippled by what he later discovered was post-traumatic stress disorder.
The condition was sparked by a harrowing incident involving a suicide bomber in Afghanistan in November 2005.
After leaving the Army, he returned to his hometown of Windsor and worked in a warehouse for three-and-a-half years.
But he could not escape the painful memories of military life and turned to drink – routinely downing around nine litres of powerful cider a day.
Michael served just over a month in jail after being convicted of assault and battery in January 2014.
Despite finally being diagnosed with PTSD later the same year, his life continued to spiral out of control. In June 2016 he was homeless and taking drugs including heroin.
He said: “I was homeless for about six months but it felt like years. I was dossing down in drug users’ flats and going from pillar to post. Initially the Army was perfect for me. They train you to fight and kill and everything you need to do, and they do everything for you.
“But when you get out they forget about you. The drugs helped me block it all out. I got medals for my service in Afghanistan and Kosovo but I threw them away when I was homeless. I just wanted to forget.”
Michael, who has a 17-year-old son, now has a home again but he knows of many former soldiers who are also suffering.
He said: “I’ve met plenty of former veterans who were homeless and in the same situation as me. Dozens, probably more than 40. I am getting help now and I’m getting my life back on track.
“I’ve got a flat and I’ve got a girlfriend who is supportive.
“I hope I’ll be able to help other veterans who have been through the same as me.”
‘They deserve better’
By VOICE OF THE PEOPLE
If veterans’ charities are right there could be more than 13,000 war heroes living on Britain’s streets.
Outreach teams have found people of all ages from all levels of service, sleeping rough with nowhere to go.
And in almost every case they discover the same thing – post-traumatic stress disorder.
Veterans are at risk when they quit the forces. They have often seen harrowing things and are left with long-term psychological damage. Without support for their PTSD, many veterans lose everything. And cuts to the armed forces have made things worse, as veterans struggle to adjust to civilian life.
The Sunday People has been campaigning since 2016 to get more help for those suffering PTSD.
We want the Government and military to do more. These veterans were prepared to make sacrifices for us. The least we can do is make sure they get the care they deserve.