By Sandrine Murray
They are strong and resilient. They fought for our country. It’s hard to imagine veterans could end up homeless, and yet, they do — especially in Ottawa.
There is little data on how many veterans are homeless. A five-city research project conducted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada reported that 4.3 per cent of participants identified as veterans in Canada. In Ottawa, that percentage is 8.5 per cent, according to research by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. Based on the average homeless population of Ottawa, around 85 veterans lack proper housing each night.
Next year, a new house for homeless veterans will be located on the former CFB Rockliffe Airbase. The $8-million project is a 40-unit housing community, which will also include programs to help veterans deal with physical health, mental health and addiction issues.
The idea for the social housing project started in 2013, thanks to two events. The first, organized by Ottawa Councillor Steve Desroches, was to bring awareness to homeless veterans. The second was a public consultation hosted by the Canada Lands Company for the redevelopment of the former airbase. Suggestions to commemorate the history of the base were presented. Build a monument. Build a statue. Name a street. Maybe a building. None of these resonated with Suzanne Le.
Instead, Le, the executive director for Multifaith Housing Initiative (MHI), came up with the more practical proposal to build a home. Le suggested the idea to Don Schultz, the Canada Lands Company planning lead for the land development. She says he loved the idea.
Since 2013, MHI waited for the land to be available. Because it was contaminated, the lot needed to be remediated. After a long wait, it’s finally ready. The building needs more than a conventional housing, says Le, because it’s dealing with a group that is more than just homeless. “In the case of veterans, you’re also looking at PTSD,” she says.
Through partnerships and relationships with other organizations, like Ottawa SALUS and Soldiers Helping Soldiers, MHI developed a blueprint for housing geared towards veterans to include mental health support services.
“How do we bring them back to the place where they were proud, functioning, and happy with who they were?” says Le. “Maybe not happy with how their life is doing, but with who they were.”
The full-support system at the Veterans House is crucial. The housing serves as a bridge from military culture to civilian life. The idea is to embed military culture into the building. Designed with a military unit in mind, it includes a floor of communal space. It’s an environment for veterans to support each other, but they each have individual rooms, which means they can also be alone as much as they like.
Originally the housing was only going to include 16 units. The City of Toronto has a 10-unit rooming house for veterans supported by Mainstay Housing, so MHI figured 16 should be sufficient for Ottawa.
Le soon realized there were way more homeless veterans in Ottawa than she originally thought, thanks to numbers from Soldiers Helping Soldiers (SHS) and research by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH). The building will house 40 veterans instead and will include a garden, a sitting area, a patio for barbeques and a water feature.
The Canadian Armed Forces releases about 5,000 personnel a year, of which 20 per cent are due to medical reasons. Mark R. Eldridge, who works with SHS, wrote in an email response that the situation for homeless veterans can only worsen, as post-Afghanistan veterans become the statistic.
Housing is one step, but Canada still has a long way to go in terms of supporting veterans, explained Le.
“Compared to other countries, we don’t do a very good job of taking care of our homeless vets. They have a lot more programs in the United States. They’ve studied the population a lot more in depth.”
Still, many people are often unaware homeless veterans exist on their streets.
“It doesn’t make sense, but they’re there,” Le says.