Two years ago, The Royal Canadian Legion sponsored a national forum on homeless veterans which identified gaps in services, programs, prevention and research—and ended with a call for development of a national homeless veterans policy.
In March 2015, an Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) report identified 2,250 homeless veterans using data from 60 emergency shelters—a low number, according to some veterans’ advocates, who variously estimate the figure between 7,000 and 20,000.
Now, between Jan. 1 and April 30, 2016, the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy, a community-based program funded by ESDC, is conducting the first national count of
the country’s homeless. Veterans will be asked to identify themselves in this survey.
The United States has
reduced the number of
homeless veterans by
36 per cent.
Generally, the main focus in Canada is on identifying homeless veterans and connecting them with existing community services and supports. But these solutions may not be very veteran-centric. Homeless veterans do better in programs sensitive to military culture, with peer support from other veterans, and in facilities dedicated to veterans with more structure than is found in civilian shelters.
Some advocates envision a cross-country string of veterans-only emergency, transitional and subsidized housing. This is unlikely to develop if attention remains focused on currently available community services, rather than on what will solve the problem in the long term. And in the long term, there will always be some veterans who find themselves in such dire circumstances that they become homeless. Research shows that their downward spiral begins years or even decades before they end up in a shelter, sleeping under a bridge or living in a tent in the woods.
It may seem an insurmountable problem, but maybe we can look south for a solution. The United States has reduced the number of homeless veterans by 36 per cent since 2010, through the efforts of coalitions formed to focus on their particular plight. One arose from grassroots groups, another was generated by political leaders.
Launched 2014, the Mayors’ Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness resulted in seven American cities and two states “functionally” eliminating veterans’ homelessness in 2015 (defined as providing permanent housing within 90 days). Houston, Texas, alone housed 4,000 homeless veterans and their families. And the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans has slowly succeeded in informing policy, encouraging long-term solutions, and increasing charitable and government funding.
The elements for a similar coalition, and templates for how it could work, already exist in Canada. We can build on that.
There are many organizations working on homelessness, but homeless veterans are the sole interest of few of these players. A new coalition focused on homeless veterans and acting as a hub for co-operation and knowledge sharing could come up with innovative solutions for expanding housing stock, repurposing existing properties, encouraging rent subsidies, attracting donations, and building evidence-based programming. Think of what housing solutions could result from a program offering property development expertise to community organizations or individuals willing to include in their projects emergency, transitional or permanent housing for homeless veterans.
All we need is a veteran-centric homeless policy to create the environment for such a coalition to flourish. Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr says homelessness is one of his top priorities. This seems an opportune time for him to take the lead in making it a national priority.