By Tyler Hooper
Relief for thousands of homeless Canadian military veterans may be just around the corner. Recently the Canadian Press reported that the Canadian government and Veteran Affairs Canada are putting together a draft strategy to address the issue of homeless veterans.
The strategy, titled “Coming Home: A Strategy to Prevent and End Veteran Homelessness in Canada,” proposes the creation of subsidized housing and additional support services for veterans.
The draft summarizes its strategy, “to achieve and sustain a well-coordinated and efficient system that assures homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring, and no Veteran is forced to live on the street.” It also says every veteran should have access to affordable housing.
In 2015 a ground-breaking report was released by the Government of Canada, which estimated that at least 2,250 Canadian military veterans are homeless. The report also suggested veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were more likely to end up homeless, or be in a state of crisis.
“I knew there was going to be a lot of broken soldiers,” said Jim Lowther, president and founder of Veterans Emergency Transition Services (VETS) Canada. Lowther added that Canada has been at war, or peacekeeping, for more than 20 years; it’s a reality that “never stops.”
VETS Canada started as a grass-roots organization and has grown to include more than 500 volunteers in almost every major city in Canada. Since its inception in 2010, Lowther says VETS Canada has helped almost 1,400 veterans transition to civilian life. VETS Canada provides services and support for veterans looking for housing, employment and even helps those struggling by paying their bills or buying groceries for families.
“It’s not rocket science, it’s just veterans helping each other without judging,” said Lowther.
“It is an urgent issue, there is no doubt about it … It’s never been more urgent than it is now,” said Lieutenant-General (ret’d) Walter Semianiw, National Director of VETS Canada. Semianiw added that the issue of veteran homelessness is very complex. For example, VAC doesn’t currently provide housing for struggling veterans; as a result, organizations like VETS Canada have to work with the cities or local organizations to try and find housing for vets. It’s a complicated system with government and municipal bureaucracy around almost every corner.
Semianiw also added that the plethora of paper work necessary to acquire benefits or support can be overwhelming for veterans already battling mental health issues. Furthermore, there isn’t one organization or support group that provides all the support services needed by veterans. And, according to Semianiw, for those already homeless, it’s incredibly difficult to break out of the cycle of homelessness and despair. Semianiw says that most, not all, veterans don’t go homeless right away. Sometimes it can take years for addiction and mental health issues to manifest, which can quickly spiral out of control. For those discharged or medically released from the military without a pension, it becomes almost impossible to become financially independent or stable. And without a job, it’s incredibly difficult for veterans to find or afford suitable housing.
“It’s not just about housing, it’s about housing and employment — they go hand in hand,” said Semianiw. “It isn’t getting fixed, especially for those who may have mental health issues, [are] single parents, [or for] those living pay cheque to pay cheque.”
The United States has also seen an issue with homeless veterans, particularly because of its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2010 the U.S. government enacted a strategy called “Opening Doors,” which addressed the issue of veteran homelessness (it also addressed youth as well as family and chronic homelessness). The initiative has seen positive results, estimating U.S. veteran homelessness has been reduced by almost 50 per cent since 2010.
A completed draft of the Canadian strategy is supposed to be made public by the end of the year.
“I want to see that homeless veterans have the opportunity to rebuild their lives, through support and housing, and join the middle class, and that’s very hard to do, if not impossible, without a home to live in,” said Kent Hehr, Minister of Veteran Affairs, in an e-mailed statement to Esprit de Corps.
In March of 2016 the Trudeau government announced it would enrich soldiers’ disability compensation, impairment allowances, and would provide more income solutions for wounded soldiers.
“In Budget 2016, our government announced new funding to provinces and community groups to address homelessness and provide affordable housing. Veterans have been a priority group for initiatives that address homelessness,” said Hehr.
Budget 2016 is supposed to deliver over $5-billion in additional benefits and care for Canadian veterans. In late September 2016, the VAC pledged almost $3-million to help veterans struggling with mental health issues find employment.
The Canadian strategy also says a veteran’s eligibility for benefits need to be widened and more emergency funds need to be available for veterans in crisis. Although there are estimates, it’s unsure of exactly how many veterans are homeless in Canada.