06/11/2012 07:45 EDT | Updated 08/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Legion launching program to help homeless veterans

The Royal Canadian Legion is launching a new fund to help homeless veterans across the country.

The Legion made the announcement at its national convention in Halifax Monday.

It will spend $500,000 on the 'Leave the streets behind program.'

"It's a start and that's what we want," said Pat Varga, Dominion President of the Royal Canadian Legion. "We have a huge homeless problem in Canada. But our veterans are not the type of veterans that you'd expect."

Varga said homeless support programs already exist in Ontario, Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Alberta.

"What we have done is dedicated half a million dollars to the commands to expand or put in place programs across the country."

There are no details yet on how that money will be divided in the different regions. But Varga said the money will be matched dollar for dollar with each of the commands.

"What it's for is immediate assistance to veterans so we can get them help and get them down the path to where they need to be."

Varga used the example of a 27-year-old veteran who served in Afghanistan who was living on the street. He recently entered one of the existing programs.

"This is a man who signed that contract to give his all. We owe him to help him get him on his feet," she said.

The investment is a stepping stone, she said, and one that will have to continue.

Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, the keynote speaker for the convention, said the money will be helpful.

"There is lots of activity from our military returning from Afghanistan around our military bases, so we are ready to adjust to their needs, especially in terms of mental health," Blaney said.

Jim Lowther, president of VETS (Veterans Emergency Transition Services) Canada, says the funds set aside is a start, but it will just scratch the surface of the problem.

"A half million dollars — I probably could do two transition houses. One here in Halifax and one in New Brunswick ... and that would be on the cheap trying to find as many volunteers as we could get," Lowther said.

"It's not a lot, but anything is good and I salute them for that."

The Legion admits the funding is only a start and told CBC News the money will come from poppy sales.

Benefits a priority

Members of Legion say veterans benefits will be at the forefront over the next few days.

More than 1,200 members from across the country are attending the five-day conference, which began with registration Saturday.

While the group has gathered to pay respects to its history, some legionnaires say the current debate over the handling of veterans benefits is taking the spotlight.

"They fight, they die for their country," said Legion member Gary White. "The ones that come back, they have fight all over to get their benefits. I think it should be more seamless."

In February, veterans ombudsman Guy Parent said Veterans Affairs Canada's letters to former soldiers who have been denied disability benefits revealed a pattern of providing information, but no adequate explanation of how decisions are made.

Since then, veterans have been speaking out about their cases.

Medric Cousineau has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder since a devastating rescue operation off the coast of Newfoundland in 1986.

Only now is he able to talk about his case. He said it's good to see the legion talking about what happens after a crisis.

"So many of those who are afflicted are falling through the cracks, through the safety net," he said. "Is the legion becoming conscious? Yes, I would say definitely."

Minister cuts red tape

Blaney announced the federal government will drop some paperwork for veterans claiming benefits.

They no longer have to submit receipts for travel claims to medical appointments.

"This will cut hundred, thousands of transactions."

The claims are worth about $18 million a year.

"Anything we can do to make life easier for our veterans is a bonus," said Varga. "Don't forget that a lot of the veterans that are doing the Veterans Independence Program or the travel receipts are up in their 80s or 90s, so this has got to help them."

This year's federal budget includes a $36.6 million hit to Veterans Affairs, which will lead to job cuts in the department. But Blaney said the government is protecting veterans' benefits.

"I feel this is my way to go on the front line, and do the best I can for the veterans by supporting this budget, having it passed, so we can move forward maintaining benefits to veterans, cutting red tape and improving our program."

Blaney told the convention that the department will continue try to write more user friendly policies.

The national convention is held every two years.

The conference continues through Wednesday.