Outdated Ontario law bars Afghan vets from getting emergency grants

Claude Lord, a homeless veteran living in a shipping container in Montreal, shows a cap to a photographer. PAUL CHIASSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS

By the summer of 2009, Phillip Kitchen and his growing family were reduced to living in a tent.

Kitchen, a veteran of the Afghan war, had left the army a year before, and had plowed $10,000 in pension contributions the military returned to him to pay for a year in an apartment. But eventually the money ran out.

“We were up against tough decisions,” he remembers. ”There was little to no money coming in. We couldn’t afford to live in Ottawa anymore, so Sonia, my wife, got on Ontario Works, and we rented a U-Haul and did a midnight move down to Kingston, where we figured it would be cheaper for us to live.”

The family of four, which included a baby and a six-year-old boy, moved into a tent in a campground outside Kingston.

“We tried to make it so that the kids didn’t notice that anything was wrong, that this was just normal camping trips that we’re doing, and we’re just staying out here for a little longer because everybody likes to camp. But it was very stressful on Sonia and I, just wondering day to day what we’re going to need for the next day, and living out of a cooler where we had to buy ice to keep any food fresh for any length of time. ”

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“We always made sure that the kids never knew what was really going on, as hard as it was.”

Kitchen had endured some of the toughest combat Canadian troops encountered in Afghanistan, in 2006. He witnessed an incident in which a soldier died and dozens of others were wounded in a friendly fire incident involving an American A-10 Warthog aircraft.

Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Kitchen eventually got his claim to a medical discharge approved in 2011 and now has a pension from Veterans Affairs.

As Kitchen and his wife worried and made do through that long summer, a little-known arm of Ontario’s government was approving dozens of grant applications from veterans down on their luck, issuing crisp cheques for up to $2,000 to deal with life’s problems – home repair, or medical devices.

Kitchen would have used $2,000, if he’d had it, to put a roof over his family’s heads. (“I would have asked for a grant to secure a place to live – an apartment. That would provide for a first and last deposit and furniture – we didn’t have anything,” he explains.)

The only problem: he chose the wrong war to serve in.

READ MORE: Invisible wounds, revisited: Canada still falls short in treating soldiers’ psychic scars

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Ontario’s Soldiers’ Aid Commission, originally set up in 1915 to help First World War veterans as that war still raged, has a long history – in November of last year, it marked its hundredth year of operation.

In 2014-15, the commission distributed about $170,000 in grants to 141 veterans who asked for help. About 90 per cent of the applications submitted were approved. All went to Second World War or Korean War veterans living in Ontario – Canada no longer has living First World War veterans.

Ontario legislators opened the fund to Second World War veterans in 1950 and to Korean War veterans in 1970. But the law hasn’t been updated since then.

Veterans of later wars are not eligible, a spokesperson for Ontario’s social services ministry confirmed.

The grants, intended “to resolve a specific problem when all other resources have been exhausted,” cover living expenses like home repair, medical devices or moving bills. Grants are capped at $2,000 in any two-year period.

During the 1920s, the commission had over 200 local branches in Ontario. It was authorized to operate as a children’s aid society, and at one point had custody of 584 children orphaned by the First World War. In the late 1920s, the commission shrank as responsibility for veterans shifted more clearly toward the federal government.

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Ontario’s Soldiers’ Aid Commission Act originally provided for veterans of the First World War …… and later for veterans of the Second World War …… and finally for Korea. It hasn’t been updated since, which means veterans of the Afghan war (or peacekeeping missions like those in Cyprus or Bosnia) aren’t eligible to apply.
Ontario’s Soldiers’ Aid Commission Act originally provided for veterans of the First World War …… and later for veterans of the Second World War …… and finally for Korea. It hasn’t been updated since, which means veterans of the Afghan war (or peacekeeping missions like those in Cyprus or Bosnia) aren’t eligible to apply.

Debbie Lowther of Veterans Emergency Transition Services, which works with homeless and at-risk veterans, estimates that there are about 10,000 homeless veterans in Canada, though “it’s just a really hard number to track.”

READ MORE: Is Ottawa underestimating the number of homeless vets?

Most of the people the organization helps are in Ontario, she says.

“Based on things that we see, a $2,000 grant would assist somebody with maybe first and last month’s rent, if they were struggling. We see it all the time – people that have a little bit of an income that they could sustain housing, but it’s that initial laying out the first month’s rent and the security deposit and all that stuff that goes along with it.”

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“Two thousand dollars, in a case like that, would make all the difference in the world.”

Lowther said she was aware of the commission, but didn’t refer clients there because they didn’t qualify for grants.

Ontario’s social services ministry oversees the program. The ministry will finish a review of the commission’s mandate by the end of 2016, Alissa Von Bargen, a spokesperson in social services minister Helena Jaczek’s office, wrote in an e-mail. The review “will address this issue,” she wrote.

Grant applications from veterans of more recent wars are screened out “quite often, as in hundreds a year,” said Susan Beharriel, a member of the commission.

“Under its present format, it will either evolve or end, because eventually there won’t be any qualified vets alive,” she said.

(Somebody who was an 18-year-old soldier in 1953, when the Korean War ended, would be 80 now.)

“There are 52-year-old veterans who are on the street, and not one of them would be eligible for that grant,” says veterans’ advocate Michael Blais. “It’s ridiculous.”

A $2,000 grant in the right situation would get someone off the street or keep them from becoming homeless, he says.

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“There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of Ontario veterans who we have taken to their local Legion to take advantage of the Poppy Fund, because they were broke, and as a family they have no food, can’t pay their bills, and get to the point where they’re shutting things off. This grant would be very, very helpful.”

“If this is provincially sponsored, and there are levels of discrimination there that are completely unwarranted and unworthy, that’s not acceptable.”

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