11/07/2011 05:25 EST | Updated 01/07/2012 05:12 EST

Homeless Veterans: Claude Lord's Life In The Shipping Container (PHOTOS)


MONTREAL - He steps over piles of trash, past the dog wolfing kibble off the floor, across his tattered mattress and into the perpetual darkness at the back of the shipping container.

Meet former Canadian Forces soldier Claude Lord — and welcome to his home.

He is one of 150 veterans the federal government says it has helped in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver under a program aimed at getting ex-military personnel off the streets.

Since connecting with Veterans Affairs Canada a couple of years ago, Lord meets regularly with government social workers and collects a monthly military pension of $1,200; he is now hunting for a proper abode.

If it weren't for the active involvement of a concerned businessman, Lord might never have known this help existed.

He also would have struggled to navigate the months of phone calls, meetings and paperwork needed to finally claim his pension more than three decades after leaving the military.

The retired corporal's case raises questions as to whether more outreach is required to help Canada's homeless veterans, many of whom might be eligible for a military pension and not even know it.

IN PHOTOS (Story continues under slideshow)

The wiry 53-year-old with the mop of grey hair has toughed out three biting winters in his cluttered, steel-walled quarters, primarily with the help of a good sleeping bag and the wood-burning stove he installed at the back of the shipping container.

He tries to block out the rumble of nearby trains and the sound of prostitutes at work behind the nearby dumpsters; he's even gotten used to having his belongings stolen, most notably a generator, a camping stove and a stack of firewood.

After seven years on the streets, nearly half of them in the container, he figures it's time to use his pension money to find something a little more stable.

The thing is, he might never have had this chance without the help of a local businessman named Will Scully.

The beer-guzzling veteran — he candidly admits to knocking back 40 to 50 cans a day — was completely unaware that he in fact qualified for a pension despite previous warnings that he didn't.

"I would've stayed here in the container," said Lord, who plans to move away from the muddy lot near a Montreal railyard to a home outside the city.

"And life would have continued like that."

Scully, who works in a building near Lord's container, helped the vet wade through six months of bureaucracy, which included driving him to several appointments on the other side of town.

He credits the program for reaching out to homeless vets. But when it came to the pension application, he was stunned by the daunting amount of work and commitment expected from Lord over such a long period.

Scully was happy to give his neighbour a hand, though he wonders who's going to help other veterans with no support network, or fixed address like Lord's red shipping container.

"It's not fully thought out," Scully said of the process.

"Does a homeless person have a Daytimer (for keeping track of appointments)? Does he have an alarm clock? Does he have electricity? Does he have a telephone? Does he have bus fare? Is he hungover at 8 o'clock in the morning?"

Lord was discharged from the army in 1979 after serving four-and-a-half years with the First Field Engineers at CFB Valcartier, Que. He applied for a military pension in the 1980s, but was told he was ineligible because he hadn't been in the army for the mandatory five-year minimum.

Scully made a few phone calls on Lord's behalf and discovered the pension requirements had changed over the years.

Lord, who developed post-traumatic-stress disorder following an explosion at Valcartier in 1977, was eligible for a pension.

He was never posted overseas and never engaged in battle — but that doesn't mean he avoided the psychological scars of war. For more than three decades, Lord has relived the same nightmare every day.

The images of the May 1977 explosion, which killed two of his comrades and wounded several others, replay in his head.

Lord, just 19 years old at the time, was part of a crew working on a bridge at the base, north of Quebec City, when they heard the noise.

A team of soldiers, which had been clearing brush from a field, had accidentally detonated a live shell.

Lord, who was at the helm of a boat near the bridge, said he helped bring the casualties across the water, including a man who lost his arm.

"It was disgusting — one of them didn't have a head," Lord recalled.

"The boat was full of blood. I'm sorry, but I wasn't used to that sort of thing."

There are no statistics on how many Canadian veterans are homeless — or on the verge of homelessness — but Ottawa has estimated the numbers to be in the dozens.

Veterans-rights advocates believe the number of homeless vets is actually much higher and have criticized the program for failing to find, and assist, enough former soldiers.

Some believe the homeless-vet population could spike in the coming years, fed by soldiers who served in Afghanistan.

Lord said the government has to get the word out, so other veterans are aware of the homeless services and can find out whether they're eligible for pensions.

He suggests the government publicize these benefits on TV and in newspapers, and by putting up posters at soup kitchens and shelters.

"They have to announce it," said Lord, who used to earn his living collecting the deposits from bottles and cans. "It has to be well-explained."

Since meeting Lord a couple of years ago, Veterans Affairs workers have helped encourage and guide him through the process of moving to a more permanent home.

Lord admits there are also many things he likes about living in the container: friends, freedom and ample space for Rita, his protective — and beloved — German Shepherd-mix.

"It's like the country in the middle of the city," he said recently, while swigging an 8:30 a.m. beer outside the container.

"It's not really any more complicated than living in an apartment."

Initially, he didn't want to leave the container, where he keeps piles of items, including his yellowed novels, canned vegetables and a crest of the Canadian Military Engineers.

The home even features a chimney and a window, which he cut himself with a grinder.

It's the surroundings that are starting to get to him.

The main source of his restlessness is the very thing that makes him different from his poor, itinerant neighbours: money.

The flow of pension cash, which started about a year-and-a-half ago, opened the door to a rush of hangers-on into his life, particularly people who borrow money and never pay him back.

He doesn't mind helping out those who need something to eat and drink, but there are others whom he describes as "sharks." If he doesn't share his cash with them, they'll steal it from him anyway.

"They're always harassing me, it's almost too much to handle — that's why I want to move and rent a house," said Lord, whose conversations are frequently interrupted by his harsh smoker's cough.

The rest of the money, he says, is spent on his $250 monthly rent for the container, restaurants and beer.

Scully, who has hired Lord to do odd jobs around his business and offered him a warm place to sleep during winter cold snaps, says Lord's story is still unfolding and is far from a happy ending.

"Even Claude with his money, and the progress that's (been) made, he's still on the street — that's where it gets crazy," said Scully, who noted that Lord lived in the container last winter even though he was collecting his pension.

"The snow is about to fly and he's still living in a shipping container.

"From a selfish perspective, I don't like coming to work... and having the potential of going outside and finding him frozen to death."