More than 100 military veterans homeless in Vancouver

Vancouver Poppy Fund raising money to help veterans, families

The Canadian Forces veteran had served in Bosnia.

He was living in Stanley Park when the police picked him up more than a year ago and put him in touch with Veterans Affairs Canada.

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Then Jim Howard, the administrator of the Vancouver Poppy Fund, got involved.

“I got him a hotel room for three days while Veterans Affairs was setting up some accommodation for him, and they got him a roof over on the North Shore,” said Howard, a veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force. “And a week later, he was back in the park again because he couldn’t handle living in the confines of a building.”

Howard doesn’t know where the man is today.

The veteran, whom Howard estimated to be in his 40s or 50s, may have been one of the 100 people volunteers interviewed during the city’s annual homeless count in March who said they had served in the Canadian Forces. Another 27 homeless people said they had served in another armed force elsewhere in the world.

That’s a grand total of 127 homeless military veterans.

That population could be larger since about 700 of the 1,847 people counted as homeless in Vancouver in March declined or were unable to be interviewed by volunteers.  The city also acknowledges they don’t find all of the city’s homeless during the annual 24-hour counts.

Volunteers conduct a survey during the count that includes questions about health, income, heritage and how long the person has been homeless. In the 2015 count, the city began asking whether a homeless person had served in the Canadian Forces because data from communities across Canada suggested that a small but consistent number of veterans were homeless. Ninety-five people in the 2015 count said they had served in the Canadian Forces.

The purpose of asking such a question, which was requested by Veterans Affairs Canada, was so volunteers could understand the scope of services homeless veterans require. Volunteers did not record whether a veteran had served in a combat zone, peacekeeping mission or in Canada.

At this time of the year, as Canadians make donations to the Poppy Fund, Howard wants Vancouverites to know that a good portion of the money collected at legions and army, navy and air force branches goes towards helping homeless veterans. Paying for a hotel room for three days for the Bosnia veteran is an example, he said, noting close to $400,000 in donations was received last year as a result of a mail appeal and donations given for poppies and wreaths.

Although the number of homeless veterans is significant in Vancouver, Howard said it pales in comparison to the United States, where some estimates say one in four people living on the street are veterans.

“And they don’t have something like the Poppy Fund to assist them,” he said.

Data on the number of homeless veterans in Canada is not consistent. Information on the Veterans Affairs Canada website says the homeless veteran population “is considered to be relatively small compared to the overall veteran population of about 700,000.”

Tim Kerr, director of the Veterans Priority Program Secretariat at Veterans Affairs Canada, said the agency is developing a strategy to better find and track the country’s homeless veterans. One government study, he said, identified an estimated 2,950 homeless veterans were staying in shelters across the country.

A recent research project conducted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada revealed that 99 of 2,298 participants in a five-city study that included Vancouver identified themselves as veterans. A point-in-time count done in 2015 by government in smaller communities found an average of five to seven per cent of homeless people surveyed said they served in the military or RCMP, Kerr said.

“We certainly don’t know as much as we could about the number of homeless veterans in Canada,” he said by telephone from Charlottetown, P.E.I. “There’s a number of reasons for that. It’s something that is difficult to track due to the nature of homeless individuals.”

Still, Kerr said, Veterans Affairs has a number of ways to track and help homeless veterans, including outreach from branch offices such as the one in Vancouver on Robson Street, and working with legions, shelters and municipalities.

Veterans Affairs also works closely with Employment and Social Development Canada, which has the federal mandate to address homelessness. That agency provides funding to some shelters and liaises with shelter staff to locate veterans. Also, VETS Canada, an organization based in Halifax, has volunteers across the country, including Vancouver, who regularly walk in communities to identify homeless veterans.

The primary goal is to help get veterans off the street and provide them benefits earned for service. If a veteran is not eligible for benefits, Kerr said, that person is connected to services, including housing and health care, available for homeless people in a community.

“We really want to see veterans have optimal well-being,” Kerr said. “They served their country, they deserve to be productive members of society, and for whatever reason they’re unable to achieve that.  It’s up to us to do our best to get them back to where they should be.”

A research study conducted by the University of Western Ontario found that veterans often become homeless one decade after leaving the service. The transition from the military to an unstructured civilian life was cited as a vulnerable period. Issues that led to homelessness included addiction to substances and mental health problems, the study said.

A 2013 study conducted by top researchers on homelessness titled “The State of Homelessness in Canada” said at least 200,000 Canadians experience homelessness in a given year, with at least 30,000 every night.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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