This question was asked anonymously via our latest website survey: "What do we know about veteran homelessness in Canada and what is being done to address this issue?"
Veteran homelessness is a growing issue in Canada. The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 reports that there are 2,950 veterans staying in shelters, making up 2.2% of annual shelter users. About 25% of the veteran population in Canada face difficulties transitioning from military service to civilian life and could face a risk of homelessness, mental illness and addictions. While veterans make up approximately 2% of the Canadian population, advocates are concerned with the overrepresentation of veterans in the homeless population. In Metro Vancouver Region’s 2014 Point-in-Time Count, 7% of respondents indicated that they had served in the Canadian Forces. In Toronto, the same percentage was reported in their 2013 Street Needs Assessment. Alberta’s 7 Cities (Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Grade Prairie, Medicine Hat, Wood Buffalo, and Lethbridge) Coordinated Point-in-Time Count found that of those surveyed 6% had military service, and in Waterloo Region it was 5%.
In a 2014 study, Forchuk and Richardson found that 92.1% of the veterans they interviewed were men, with an average age of 52 years old. Of those, almost 10% were Indigenous, and 66% had children. An earlier 2011 study by Forchuk and Ray, reported that 37% of their research participants were either separated or divorced, 42% had a high school education, and 74% identified as Caucasian. The study also showed that many participants had experienced chronic homelessness, over 5 years on average. For many, there was a significant lag time between the time they left the Canadian Forces (over 24 years ago) and when they first experienced homelessness (9.8 years ago), indicating a long path into homelessness.
Another study found that veterans comprised 4.3% of a sample of the adult homeless population with severe mental illness. But beyond these demographical criteria, not much else has been researched, and until further quantitative data is published, no safe assumption can safely be made on the approximately 685,000 active and retired Canadian veterans.
What are the factors at play?
Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) highlights the importance of career transition upon returning from service. Veterans themselves also identified additional challenges beyond starting a new career. Transitioning to civilian life was one of the main factors leading to homelessness, identified in Ray’s 2011 study. One veteran described the transition “like being on Mars and coming back to earth” and another one shared a similar experience:
“I was trying to set up a business at the time with no financial presence in the civilian world…Which made it hard to get loans…I wound up at that time homeless…As a military person living in barracks, I wasn’t entirely prepared for what real finances in the real world was like…all of my expenses came out of my pay check…boiled down to never having been exposed to the reality of civilian finances…I was rather coddled in the military. Big, big difference…Like two completely different worlds…”.
Regardless of the time of their release from military service, many veterans have expressed the need for a structured transitional program over several months that can assist them with adapting back to everyday life in their communities. Supports with personal finances, budgeting, vocational rehabilitation, family counselling, mental health, substance use, housing, and paper work, are just some of the supportive services that veterans mentioned that they would like to receive.
This transition can also affect veterans’ mental health and substance use. Studies show the prevalence of addiction and mental illness among veterans but especially for those experiencing homelessness. This could be a contributing factor to their homelessness or may have been triggered and/or worsened by the stressful realities of not having a home. While 11% of veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), many reported using alcohol to deal with their mental health, and some started using while in the military.
Several key considerations among the veteran population include:
- Homeless veterans have unique needs within the broader homeless population.
- Structure, routine and leisure are important.
- Peer-support requires knowledge of the military service and homelessness-related issues.
- Collaboration includes an integrated and shared response with both homeless and veteran services.
- Permanent long-term housing is preferred over transitional housing.
- Housing First and harm-reduction must be programming philosophies.
- Choice of housing and living arrangement is important.
- Programs need to be outcome-focused with housing stability as a primary goal. Secondary goals include diversion from emergency services.
In the United States, the National Alliance to End Homelessness identified additional factors, such as traumatic brain injury, sexual trauma while serving in the military (especially for women veterans), lack of transferable employment skills, lack of strong social support networks, shortage of affordable housing options, and low living wage jobs. These factors combined with PTSD or another mental illness and/or addiction puts veterans at greater risk of homelessness than the general population.
What is the Federal Government doing?
The Government of Canada’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS) is providing over $700 million over 5 years (2014-2019) to prevent and reduce homelessness in Canada. One of HPS’ directives for this period is veteran homelessness, and HPS and Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) are working together to coordinate the regional and community-level services delivered by both departments. In addition, HPS is working with emergency shelters and crisis service providers to help identity homeless veterans and those at imminent risk in order to connect them with veteran-specific services.
VAC is planning to open staffed offices in Charlottetown, Sydney, Corner Brook, Windsor, Thunder Bay, Saskatoon, Brandon, Prince George, Surrey and Kelowna by spring 2017. At these locations, veterans will be able to access information on supportive services, which include:
- Emergency funds
- Health care and mental health
- Financial support
- Vocational training and support
- Peer support
- Case management
VAC is in the process of drafting a strategy to address rental subsidies for homeless veterans, to be made public later this year. The document doesn’t address prevention but aims to reduce numbers to ensure that “homelessness is rare, brief, and non-recurring, and no veteran is forced to live on the street.”
In addition to these efforts, The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 calls for a Housing First strategy to reduce emergency shelter use among veterans, and urges the federal government to provide:
- Housing First funding for veterans who are at risk of or who are experiencing homelessness;
- New affordable housing units specifically designed to support veterans and their needs;
- And expand eligibility of veteran benefits beyond those who can demonstrate a direct link between military service and their injury or illness including greater flexibility for local offices to distribute emergency funds.
Lastly, on November 22nd, the Government of Canada is releasing the results of the Let’s Talk Housing consultations held over the summer. Being part of the development of Canada’s first National Housing Strategy is a critical step to ensure that it addresses the housing needs of veterans.
With new policy commitments to address homelessness on the horizon, service providers, advocacy groups and all Canadians have an opportunity to demand from the federal government that no veteran ever experiences homelessness.
- VETS Canada (Veterans Emergency Transition Services) is a non-profit organization recognized for their services provided across Canada for veterans at-risk or experiencing homelessness.
- Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) website has links to several community resources and government assistance programs for homeless veterans including information on their offices across Canada.
- Wounded Warriors Canada supports veterans with health services including counseling, rehabilitation, skills-building programs and networking opportunities.
- The Canadian Legacy Project is currently working with organizations to develop a unique housing program for veterans in Calgary and provide support services to those in the area.
- The Royal Canadian Legion has over 1,400 branches across Canada serving veterans and their families with a number of services including housing assistance, mental health, assistance with VAC and financial supports.
This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will provide a research-based answer.