OTTAWA — Veterans Affairs officials are ready to recommend that the federal government give rental subsidies to veterans who are homeless or nearly so in order to combat what they describe as an unacceptable situation in Canada.
A draft of the new federal strategy to combat homelessness among veterans also recommends the government build new affordable housing units specifically for veterans, suggesting Canada doesn't have enough units to handle the unique needs of former military members who can have addiction and mental health issues related to their service.
The strategy says that what homeless veterans require is access to immediate housing, peer support and outreach to get them off the street, and months or even years of intensive case management with a broad range of services.
The draft strategy, dated Aug. 4 and obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, says the government has an obligation to help the potentially thousands of veterans who are homeless in Canada.
Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 16, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
A final draft of the strategy isn't expected to be completed and made public until later this year.
The document doesn't suggest that a veteran will ever go homeless again, but aims to reduce the numbers to a point where "homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring, and no veteran is forced to live on the street.''
"As a department, we've got a mandate for the care, treatment and re-establishment to civilian life of veterans in general, and clearly somebody who is homeless is not successfully re-established in civilian society,'' said Tim Kerr, director of the veterans priority programs secretariat at Veterans Affairs Canada, which is heading up work on the strategy.
"Because of that, our minister, and our deputy minister and I and my team believe that we have an obligation to address this issue of veteran homelessness.''
The recommendations, if implemented, would mark a shift in veterans benefits programs that leave no room to provide things like housing subsidies that have been successful in the United States at keeping veterans off the street.
"We have an obligation to address this issue of veteran homelessness.''
Benefits only flow to Canadian veterans who show a link between their military service and their injury or disease, a difficult task for a veteran who becomes homeless a decade after his or her service, said Jim Lowther, president of Veterans Emergency Transition Services (VETS) Canada, a volunteer-based group that has helped about 1,200 veterans off the streets in the last six years.
Veterans affairs workers can get emergency funds from charitable trusts to help homeless veterans pay for rent or food, but the process can sometimes be lengthy, the document says. Instead, groups like VETS Canada and the Royal Canadian Legion step in to help pay for housing and supports.
Jim Lowther, president of Veterans Emergency Transition Services, poses for a photo at his home in Halifax, N.S. on June 20, 2012. (Photo: Mike Dembeck/Canadian Press)
"We need housing in every province designated housing for vets. We need transition homes in every province to help them get back on their feet,'' Lowther said.
The strategy calls on the government to expand the eligibility criteria for benefits and services to help homeless veterans, give local offices the flexibility to quickly get emergency cash for a veteran in need, and better connect those local offices with local service providers to reach more homeless veterans.
Kerr, who spent 28 years in the navy, said the recommendations are based on years of research and months of work by the departmental task force. The strategy itself is a high-level document with the details of how to implement it to be worked out at a later date, he said.
An estimated 2,250 veterans use shelters
It's difficult to get an exact count on the number of veterans who are homeless in Canada.
A federal shelter study estimated about 2,250 veterans use shelters annually, but cautioned the actual number may be much higher. Point-in-time counts of homeless populations in cities show veteran form between five and seven per cent of the homeless population, which would put their number over 11,000.
Many homeless veterans in Canada avoid shelters, unlike their American counterparts, because the shelters lack the structure they were used to in the military, said Cheryl Forchuk, a professor of nursing at Western University in London, Ont.
The document says the average homeless veteran is over age 50, became homeless about 10 years after being released from service, and abuse alcohol or drugs.
There are cases of veterans two or three years out of the military who are homeless with some even sooner than that as they burn through savings while waiting for their military pensions to kick in, Lowther said.
Forchuk said research suggests post-traumatic stress disorder doesn't appear to be a central factor in them becoming homeless.
"Substance use takes a long time to get really full-fledged, particularly alcoholism.''
The military could reduce the risk of a veteran becoming homeless by identifying early on whether they need help with things like money management, or substance use that left unchecked could manifest into addiction in a decade and push someone onto the street, Forchuk said.
"It's just a matter of where your eyes are. The trauma issues and the PTSD are the obvious things at the top and they're doing a relatively good job of at least paying some attention in addressing that, but substance use takes a long time to get really full-fledged, particularly alcoholism,'' she said.
The document doesn't call for the establishment of harm reduction programs where, for example, participants receive small amounts of alcohol at regular intervals to help them manage their addiction. The practice is politically contentious, but has been shown to have positive results.
Kerr said his group is looking into how to harm reduction programs could work in the overall strategy.
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