OTTAWA – Standing a few discreet metres away from those selling Remembrance Day poppies at shopping centres across the country this week will be the ragged, faceless and forlorn pleading with people for their spare change.
Many of them once wore the smart, crisply pressed uniforms of Canada’s military forces and they have become a small army of homeless veterans. That army will undoubtedly grow in size as troops returning from Afghanistan absorb the horrors of a decade of fighting there.
They’re struggling with alcoholism and addictions. They often lack everyday skills like financial planning. And they often don’t know where to turn to put their life back on track.
But homeless veterans also have a natural community of support that is quickly learning more about who they are, how they ended up on the street, and how to help them.
Across the country, small organizations of former soldiers are taking matters into their own hands, actively seeking out their homeless peers and matching them up with shelter, social services and government programs.
“We call ourselves ‘ground support,'” said Jim Lowther, who started up the Veterans Emergency Transition Services network in Halifax, which is now being copied in several different provinces. “We stick with them until they get back on their feet. It’s been really successful.”
The volunteers are often effective at a very local level, helping dozens of vets off their city streets. But they are frustrated at the lack of a larger plan and bracing for the inevitable wave of Afghan vets as they process their experiences from home.
“It’s absolutely wonderful that the vets are looking after their own. But at the end of the day, we need a different way of dealing with homelessness that would ensure that the second you touch the sector, all of a sudden you’re plugged in to the services and supports you need in a seamless way,” said York University’s Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network.
Lowther and his crew track down vets on the street or search for those living in precarious circumstances. They give them shelter, food and clothing. And then they set to work filling out tedious forms and linking the homeless vets to social services and programs provided by Veterans Affairs Canada.
Recently published research shows that a typical homeless veteran in Canada is 55 years old and left the armed forces 27 years ago after six or seven years of service. Most are single or divorced and are better educated than most of the others living on the street.
Most served on a base rather than in war zones. Upon leaving the Armed Forces, they had a terrible time adjusting to civilian life, turning mainly to alcohol or perhaps drugs as a crutch.
The drinking often started during the vets’ military experience, says researcher Susan Ray, since it was a core part of the military culture. When faced with a tumultuous return to civilian life, these vets kept drinking, found themselves depressed, and sank into a spiral. A few years later, they were homeless – some of them long term, some of them sporadically.
It’s a spiral Lowther knows well. After his second tour in Bosnia, he recalls his boss advising soldiers grappling with the trauma they’d seen to drink up.
“He told us, ‘What you do is take three shots of whisky before you go to bed,'” Lowther recalls.
Ray and her University of Western Ontario colleague Cheryl Forchuk interviewed 54 homeless vets in the country’s first academic attempt to figure out who they are and why they are on the street.
Their research was paid for by the federal government and their recommendations were handed to Veterans Affairs Canada this summer.
Specifically, they want Ottawa to extend their transition services for vets into years, instead of the current six months. The services would be aimed at teaching life skills, improving mental health and preventing homelessness by spotting addiction and alcoholism early.
The homeless vets told the researchers they would also benefit from having more Veterans Affairs outreach workers coming to them and explaining how to qualify for government support.
Veterans Affairs, for its part, says it is already doing this in Canada’s biggest cities, pointing to outreach projects in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. And it works on a less formal basis with community groups in 50 other towns and cities across the country.
Indeed, front-line volunteers say nothing but good things in their dealings with Veterans Affairs.
But it’s not enough, especially as they prepare for the fall-out of the Afganistan effort, says Dave Gordon, executive director of the Royal Canadian Legion’s Ontario Command.
Ray’s research and work in the United States shows the problems leading to homelessness don’t arise immediately after a military operation, he adds, but a few years later.
He and his team, in cooperation with a Veterans Affairs outreach worker, have spent the last year or so seeking out homeless vets and then arranging for shelter and social services. They’ve assisted 65 people so far, finding accommodation for about 30 of those.
He is now expanding his program to other Ontario communities such as the military town of Petawawa, Oshawa and Ottawa.
But Gordon sees a need for a more permanent structure. He is in the early stages of setting up a long-term housing facility for vets in need, that would not just supply the basics of life but also teach life skills and provide health and social services.
“But I think we’re hitting the tip of the iceberg,” Gordon said. “There’s a need for a national program.”