By Annie Bergeron-Oliver | Published in iPolitics.ca on Jun 30, 2014
The number of homeless people identified by Veterans Affairs Canada has skyrocketed over the last five years, jumping from just 35 in 2009-2010 to 236 last year.
But the true figure could be much higher. Experts suggest there could be thousands of veterans living on the streets yet to be located by government and volunteer organizations. A City of Toronto report released last year revealed that 16 per cent of the 447 people sleeping on Toronto’s streets identified themselves as veterans.
“It’s quite shocking,” said NDP Veterans critic Peter Stoffer. “How many more have not been identified?.
“Either they are couch-surfing, or they just haven’t come forward in that regard, or they walked in and identified themselves as something else because … maybe they had lied, or had been embarrassed to say that they were once in the military.”
The increase represents proactive efforts on the part of organizations like the Royal Canadian Legion, Wounded Warriors and Veterans Emergency Transition Services Canada (V.E.T.S.) to seek out and identify veterans living on the streets. Although the federal government does have its own programs in place, many have criticized Veterans Affairs for relying too heavily on these types of independent organizations.
Sean Bruyea, a former RCAF intelligence officer and advocate for veterans’ rights, said Veterans Affairs has not adequately responded to the growing homelessness crisis among Canadian veterans.
“Most of these veterans are being identified through self-identification, or through partnerships with community organizations. Veterans Affairs itself makes no effort whatsoever to actually proactively find out who these homeless veterans are,” he said.
In 2012, Veterans Affairs gave $1.9 million in cash and $1.8 million in contributions to community groups in London, Victoria, Toronto and Calgary that provided long-term housing for homeless individuals. Cockrell House in Victoria was the only program that catered specifically to veterans. This year, the department gave V.E.T.S. $900,000 to provide 24-hour emergency counselling services to homeless veterans. The department also provides emergency funding to homeless veterans in need.
The pilot projects gave the department good insight into what homeless veterans need, and that’s getting people out of shelters and into permanent housing, said Deputy Minister of Veterans Affairs Lt-Gen Walter Semianiw. The department, Semianiw said, relies on partner organizations to act as their “eyes and ears.
“We are just starting to get a real handle on what is the size of the issue,” he said. “We need to get out there, we need to do more for our veterans and we are doing more for our veterans. We can even do more, and I know (Veterans Affairs Minister Julian) Fantino is committed to doing that.”
Bruyea said the department needs to act faster.
“(Veterans Affairs is) moving at a glacier pace, which is just subjecting these veterans to more harm,” Bruyea said.
Former veterans’ ombudsman Pat Strogan first raised the alarm about the homelessness issue in 2008, saying the government needed to do more to track the scope of the problem. That’s when he launched the “Leave Nobody Behind” campaign — aimed, in part, at finding RCMP and military veterans at risk of becoming homeless.
The new veterans’ ombudsman, Guy Parent, has continued his work, making homeless veterans a priority. Parent said he believes the government should implement a national homelessness strategy that includes a section about veterans. Such a strategy, he said, would raise awareness about the services available to veterans and help link existing initiatives.
“There are mechanisms in place to deal with homelessness in all the municipalities and a lot of different programs in urban areas that are there already … To coordinate all of that, I think you need a national strategy and I think that is where it comes into play,” Parent said in an interview with iPolitics in late April.
Many factors push veterans onto the street, including addictions, family problems and mental health issues. In her research, Western University School of Nursing Professor Cheryl Forchuk found evidence of a 20-year gap between the point individuals leave the military and when they end up on the streets. That gap, she said, can be attributed to underlying issues like alcoholism.
“Alcoholism is a very big thing. It takes years of drinking before it really takes its toll,” she told iPolitics at the first-ever forum on veterans homelessness at the Royal Ottawa Legion headquarters in April.
Literature in the United States has consistently linked war trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder to homelessness among veterans, who represent roughly one in four homeless people. In Canada, however, Forchuk said the situation is “quite different.”
“It is a much slower trajectory and it has much more to do with drinking,” she said.
There is some disagreement among experts about where the homeless veterans are coming from. Sixty per cent of the more than three dozen people in Forchuk’s study did not serve overseas. But Barry Yhard — national executive director of V.E.T.S. Canada, a volunteer group that works with homeless veterans — said most of the vets his organization deals with have fought abroad.
“I don’t know where they got that data from, but perhaps they should have done a bit more research and investigation,” Yhard said.
“Our client base is very broad, so it covers clients from the Second World War, up until and including Afghanistan. Pretty much every major operation or mission that Canada has been in over the last bunch of years.”
V.E.T.S. helps identify homeless veterans across Canada, provides emergency services and funding and connects veterans to local organizations. The veteran-to-veteran contact helps people feel more comfortable coming forward and sharing their stories, Yhard said.
The organization meets about 10 to 12 veterans a day, and has identified at least 171 homeless veterans in cities across Canada. But for every one veteran the group identifies, Yhard said they miss another seven — which suggests there could be 1,300 veterans living on our streets.
“Homelessness is kind of a strange affliction,” he said. “Most of the people, once they get off of the street they stay off of the street, but there are those that prefer that particular type of lifestyle and they will go back to living on the street after a short period of time, maybe a month, maybe six months or maybe a year.”
That’s why it’s important to provide veterans, and homeless people in general, with respect and a safe place to call home every night, he said. It’s this housing-first principle that has dominated the conversation in the emergency housing community of late.
The number highlighted by the government only represents the number of veterans who have been found, a “gross misrepresentation” of the problem, according to Bruyea.
Advocates believe the government needs to act quickly to get veterans off the streets and into existing programs. More than that, experts insist the government needs to do more to address addiction and mental health issues now, so people who are just retiring from the military won’t end up on the streets down the line.