January 6, 2016 3:56 pm
Updated: January 6, 2016 9:57 pm

Is Ottawa underestimating the number of homeless vets?

WATCH: For the first time, the federal government has done a detailed analysis of how many former soliders make up Canada's homeless population. As Vassy Kapelos reports, the numbers were higher than expected.

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A recent study conducted by the federal government woefully underestimates how many of Canada’s homeless are former soldiers, says a group dedicated to supporting at-risk veterans.

The March 2015 study by Employment and Social Development Canada, obtained earlier this week by the Canadian Press, estimates that 2,250 former soldiers use shelters on a regular basis. That represents about 2.7 per cent of the total homeless population that uses temporary lodging.

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But according to Jim Lowther, a veteran himself and now president and CEO of Veterans Emergency Transition Services (VETS) Canada, the real number is much higher.

“Try 16 per cent,” Lowther said. “These numbers are very low. We’re looking at 10,000, 15,000, possibly 20,000 homeless vets out there. We’ve helped 800 alone.”

The Ottawa Mission, which helps to connect veterans with appropriate services, says it conducted a one-day survey of its clients in April, and found eight per cent were former soldiers.

“It’s tough to identify veterans often because they don’t self-identify,” said Peter Tilley, executive director of the mission. “I was surprised to hear 2.7 per cent. I thought it was higher.”

The report’s authors have acknowledged their data is incomplete. Only 60 emergency shelters were able to provide data about the number of clients who identified as veterans between Jan. 1, 2014 and Dec. 31, 2014. In addition, the data does not capture the number of homeless vets who avoid shelters.

Although there are approximately 700,000 Canadian veterans, this is the first time the government has tried to estimate how many of them are living on the streets or in unstable housing situations. As such, it’s difficult to know if the situation has gotten better or worse in recent years.

READ MORE:  National homeless count planned for winter and spring of 2016

According to Lowther, homelessness among veterans is a problem that could be solved — or at the very least alleviated — with increased public awareness and action from the federal government.

“If we did what we just did with the refugees, with the prime minister getting involved, the ministers getting involved,” Lowther explained.

“We had Canadians opening up their doors, their homes saying ‘come stay with us.’ We had churches giving them buildings, giving them donations. If (veterans) had one-tenth of the support that our newest Canadians have — which we definitely think is wonderful, we think it was the right thing to do — we could seriously end veteran homelessness.”

‘Shocking’ to see any veteran homeless

As a start, Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr has promised to re-open nine veterans’ services centres across the country that were closed by the Conservatives, who argued the facilities were being under-utilized.

“That’ll have an impact because it’ll be a contact point for veterans who are struggling,” Hehr told Global News on Wednesday. “Also, (the government is) hiring 400 more staff members to deal with veterans’ files as they come in, to spend that one-on-one time with veterans who are struggling.”

Those additional hires should be in place within a year, he added. Hehr said he recognizes that Canadians “are disappointed” when they hear about a veteran who is homeless, and that his department is taking the issue seriously.

WATCH: Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr on rebuilding lives

Gen. Jonathan Vance, the country’s top military commander, told the Canadian Press this week that “it’s shocking in Canada that we would have any veteran who is homeless, but it is a sad reality.” Vance said the focus must be on supporting men and women as they transition back into civilian life, a period when many begin to experience mental health issues, or start to struggle with addiction.

Lowther, who has met with Hehr since he took office, said he’s optimistic about the Liberals’ plan. The government should take full advantage of organizations like VETS Canada, he noted, which are already established in communities across Canada

“This is a no-brainer,” he said. “They have lightning in a bottle with us. We just have to be utilized.”

— With files from Canadian Press

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