Homeless Veterans: Shedding light on a long hidden problem

Victory Square Park in Vancouver. Photo by SqueakyMarmot.


Langford's Royal Canadian Legion recently had a remembrance service, a time for veterans to don their military attire and gather to remember the life of a comrade just passed.


Dark wood tables stretch down a front room filled with the busy chatter of the uniformed as they celebrate a life. Flower arrangements spot the room, refreshments and beverages stand ready. The pomp and grandeur of the service overwhelms the simple white-walled, fluorescent-lit room.


Just past this room sits a bar with the familiar wood-paneled walls of any Canadian Legion, cluttered with plaques, pictures and memorabilia. Red-cushioned chairs circle dark wood tables, a few filled with animated conversation.


In one corner sit Terri Orser and Phil Quesnelle, both recently released from the Canadian Forces on medical disability after receiving diagnoses for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and both committed to addressing the problem of homelessness among war veterans.


They sit on the board of the South Mid Vancouver Island Zone Veterans Housing Society, which, a couple of years ago, founded the Cockrell House in Colwood (a suburb of Victoria), an 11-unit multiplex that provides transitional residence for those struggling to find shelter.


The house, the only one of its kind in Canada, is equipped with a swath of services from acknowledging the simple necessity of a bus pass and food vouchers to onsite counseling services. The idea is to provide a two-year transitional residence to help those who have served readjust to civilian society. The house is run like a regular apartment building with no common area and no supervision.


“This house will give people a step up to get back into society,” says former B.C./Yukon Legion Command president Dave Sinclair. “Man didn’t have the care they needed when they were released.”


After being out of the military for close to five years and now on the brink of losing her own home, Orser will move into the house in early November.


“Once I was out (of the military), I could no longer afford the mortgage of my house,” says Orser, running a hand through her short crop of auburn hair. “Along with moving there, I’m also going through a rehab program, so hopefully I’ll soon be on the right track.”


Homelessness among war veterans has become an acute but mostly unidentified problem in Canada over the past decade. Thousands who served to protect their country have been struggling to find basic shelter; 68 have been identified in Vancouver alone. 


“You just don’t think about it in Canada,” says Susan Ray, an assistant nursing professor at the University of Western Ontario (UWO). “People think homeless vets, that’s Vietnam, that’s American.”


Before 2008, no Canadian-specific research existed until the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman looked at the issue that May. Early the following year, the office published an observation and discussion paper asking for a program designed specifically for homeless veterans and research designed to focus specifically on Canadian veterans.


Ray, already interested in the subject matter, decided to launch the first national study in April 2010. Partnered with fellow nursing professor Cheryl Forchuk, the study was devoted to looking at the underlying causes of homelessness and the supports needed to prevent it. It interviewed 54 male participants, none of whom had been deployed overseas, averaging 55 years in age. It took an average of 27 years from military release for the participant to become homeless.


Veterans comprise of roughly two per cent of the Canadian homeless population, Ray estimates, numbers that are comparable to the U.K., but differ drastically from the U.S. at 25 per cent.


Alcoholism—many participants stated they began drinking in the military, as it was part of the culture back then—substance abuse and mental problems were cited as some of the major issues that led to homelessness. Ultimately, these factors would begin a downward spiral of broken relationships and inability to hold a job.


Regardless of whether they served on the base domestically or overseas, a common theme between struggling veterans was the difficulty in transitioning from the military to civilian society.


Two different worlds


After spending nearly a decade serving in the Gulf War, two tours in the former Yugoslavia and South Africa, Orser was released in 2006.


“The shock of being back is brutal, really,” she says. “I’m still struggling with it. I didn’t want to leave the military. If it was up to me, I’d still be there.”


Orser doesn’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be part of the military to “help [her] country." Attracted to its structure and support, she responded to the ads straight out of high school. Quesnelle, who served overseas, also feels the military is part of his identity.


“I joined when I was 17. I never knew anything else, so when I came back, I didn’t know what to do,” he says, now with flecks of gray in his black hair.



RCMP officers marking during the Vancouver Remberance Day Parade in 2006. Photo by SqueakyMarmot.


Once the heavily structured and regimented lifestyle is stripped away, those recently released find it difficult to readjust to the flexibility of civilian life. Coupled with the fact that few understand their experiences, many veterans suffer from the sudden changes.


“It’s not a switch you can turn on or off,” says Quesnelle looking at the table through his glasses. “But people expect you to go back to normal over the span of that 10 hour flight back to Canada. It doesn’t work that way and people just don’t understand it.”


“But it goes both ways,” adds Orser. “When I came back, I kissed the pavement because I was so grateful. And then to hear people say, ‘Oh, it’s raining outside. What a crummy day.’ That’s a crummy day? I just don’t understand that. They have no idea the types of things we’ve seen.” She shakes her head, eyes wide and glossy.


The Cockrell House serves as a place to specifically address these issues. It caters to the needs of homeless veterans rather than attempt to address the general homeless population as well, a distinction that proves to be invaluable in the peer support it provides.


“It’s undeniable that veterans are different,” says UWO military historian Jonathan Vance. “The very fact of having served in the military makes you a little bit different. If they can be reintegrated through a facility where people understand them, they don’t have to explain everything they’re going through, this would prevent more psychological issues down the road.”


As a board director and co-founder of the Cockrell House, Angus Stanfield has been able to witness such occurrences first hand. “Having people live together could be difficult, but there’s a bonding there. They’ve all been in the military, they’re all homeless and they’ve got a story. So they’re going to tell that story and listen to other people’s stories,” he says with a smile.


“Peers have been through the same thing,” adds Orser. “I don’t want to burden my family with my thoughts, dreams, horrors because it’d be way over their head. ‘My daughter did what?’ It wouldn’t be the person they know.”


Upon his return, Quesnelle decided to stay close to the military and become a peer-support coordinator. He now travels the island identifying homeless or struggling veterans and helps them find the support they need. The day-to-day processes between civilian and military life rarely overlap and for many veterans the skills acquired when serving simply didn’t transfer into the civilian world.


One of the participants in Ray’s study explains his experiences when he tried to set up a business after he was out: “As a military person living in barracks, I wasn’t entirely prepared for what real finances in the real world was like. I was rather coddled in the military. Big, big difference, like two completely different worlds.”


Sinclair says that often military personnel do in fact contain the skills needed for certain trades in civilian society, but lack the proper documentation to prove this. In response, the legion has introduced a program at BCIT where the school looks at all the training and gives credits accordingly towards a BA or trades training.


Currently, students have to attend the school, but by January the program will introduce distance learning where it can be accessed across Canada. “They can start even before they leave the forces.”


What’s in a name?


Funding for programs like the Cockrell House and BCIT comes from Legion branches and donations, leaving them in a precarious position should the funds run out.


“We don’t get anything from Veteran Affairs because housing is not part of their mandate and there isn’t really any funding there,” says Stanfield.


Veteran Affairs operates at both a local and federal level, with hundreds of district offices spread out across the country. People like Vance and Sinclair would like to see a more proactive role in Veteran Affairs. They say the department’s processes could be sped up as it can take about eight months to turn over a case.


“If someone was really destitute, they’d be on the streets by then,” said Sinclair.


Vance says that another key issue lies in the fact that it’s up to the veteran to prove their injury or health problem is linked to their time in service. This can be difficult in cases where medical records have either been lost or incidents simply not documented depending on the situation.


“I think that’s a big thing,” says Vance. “The fact that recently discharged soldiers should not have to jump through hoops and go before panel after panel after panel and argue that they’ve been damaged because of their service. We presume there is a relationship between service and health, then we can move to see what we can do to get people back to normal society.”


Veterans Affairs Vancouver district director Adrienne Alford-Burt says the department is working on addressing these issues.


“Speeding up the process, particularly since there’ll be troops returning from Afghanistan, is one of our major priorities right now,” she says. “We’ve reached a goal of a 12 week turnover at the moment and are still looking to improve that. We have also tried in most cases to err on the side of the claimant when it comes to benefits for disabilities.”


Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. Source: Wikipedia

Since the regional district offices don’t receive any funding from the government for housing and homelessness issues, they rely heavily on community partners for funds, according to Alford-Burt, while the district office helps with the outreach and to raise awareness.


“We help to get the word out there,” says Alford-Burt. “We have volunteers who go out to shelters to identify homeless veterans and put up posters. We send referrals out.”


Shortly after the ombudsman’s paper in 2008, the Vancouver district office launched the

Homeless Storefront Initiative in July of 2009 community partners, to address the lag in turnover. Wounded Warriors donated $16,000 to offer immediate help to any veterans such as vouchers for food, clothing and shelter. The initiative is set up at the Veterans Memorial Manor on Alexander Street and is manned by four staff from the district office. Similar projects exist in Toronto and Montreal.


Alford-Burt says it’s sometimes difficult to identify veterans in the community as some might feel shame and refuse help. When the storefront initiative first launched, 43 veterans were identified, but only 35 received help. However, sometimes veterans aren’t even aware they are eligible.


“We’ve realized that many vets don’t even consider themselves veterans,” says Alford-Burt, pointing to an issue raised by many. “They think the word veteran is for an older person or for someone who’s served in a big war like the Second World War. So we’ve become cognizant of that and encourage people reaching out to ask if they’ve served in the Canadian

Forces instead.”


However, the government recently announced plans to cut $226 million from its Veteran Affairs budget in the coming year due to decreasing numbers in Second World War and Korean War veterans, making a clear division between those who’ve served in these wars versus those who’ve served in peacekeeping missions or on the base—a distinction many have been trying to avoid.


“The whole did-you-ever-go-away-for-service issue is tough especially when civilians are the ones asking,” says University of Victoria psychology professor Tim Black, psychologist who works with the residents of the Cockrell House. “Then you’re putting a value on the type of service and you just don’t do that.”


The government recently introduced the New Veterans Charter, readjusting their programming to target the younger veterans returning from Afghanistan. $189 million has been set aside over the next five years for soldiers who have been seriously injured. These changes will not be affected by the cuts, according to ministry spokesperson Jean-Christophe de la Rue.


“We will maintain benefits for veterans, including enhanced benefits introduced by our government,” de la Rue wrote in a statement. “Changes at the department of Veterans Affairs are focused on improving efficiency, cutting unnecessary red-tape and improving service to veterans.”


Looking Ahead


Alford-Burt and Stanfield are also beginning preparations for the return of the Afghanistan troops.


“We are aware that there will be an increase,” says Alford-Burt. “We’ve been increasing our outreach, doing more community presentations. Our major goal is to make sure people know we exist and what our role is so that we can help from the beginning.”


Stanfield says that the housing society will be proactive in their approach to find those medically released. If there’s a waiting list for the Cockrell House, they’ll help those on the list to find housing elsewhere.


“So far we’ve only had one troop from Afghanistan, but there will be a wave,” says Stanfield.


Although people like Stanfield and Ray believe that Afghanistan troops will be different from those who returned to the U.S. from Vietnam, trauma therapist Lyn Williams-Keeler says that there are similarities between the wars.


“Afghanistan is the same kind of miserable war, where you’re not too sure who the enemy is,” she says. She warns that people should be aware of the public’s sentiments towards these troops.


“I think that as a society Canada is more compassionate [than the U.S.],” says Stanfield.


Still, Orser recalls being heckled at times when she wears her uniforms by kids who refer to her as “killer.”


“Particularly in light of Afghanistan, there needs to be more resources, not less,” she says. “We still need more people out there to help.”


She opens the door to her soon-to-be-apartment at the Cockrell House and walks into the main open living area with a fireplace along one wall and an open kitchen at the other end. Down the hall are two bedrooms, a closet, bathroom and en suite laundry.


“This is it,” she says with a smile, ready to begin a new chapter.


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