By Annie Bergeron-Oliver | Jul 23, 2014 6:00 am
It was one of the hardest days of her long career in the military. Just one month before launching a volunteer organization to find and help homeless veterans, Capt. Victoria Ryan learned a former corporal had died on the cold streets of Ottawa.
"This gentlemen, he would have come to me because I was his officer. He knew me pretty well," she said. "It breaks my heart to think that he froze to death right before we started."
The veteran died in the capital in February 2013, as Ryan and a group of volunteers were putting the final touches on Soldiers Helping Soldiers.
Ryan said there was no indication the corporal was in need of help. The last time she saw him, he was doing fine.
"You don't keep track of all your corporals. You give them to another officer, another warrant officer and you move on.
"I had no idea he had ended up on the streets. If I had, I would have found him."
The number of homeless veterans identified by Veterans Affairs Canada has exploded over the last five years, jumping from just 35 in 2009-2010 to 236 last year.
But the true figure could be much higher. Experts suggest there could be thousands of veterans living on the streets yet to be located by government and volunteer groups. A City of Toronto report released last year revealed that 16 per cent of the 447 people sleeping on Toronto's streets identified themselves as veterans.
In Ottawa alone, the non-profit Soldiers Helping Soldiers has identified 110 homeless veterans since March 2013. The volunteer group, which is expected to operate in six Canadian cities by Christmas, has found 75 homeless veterans in Calgary and another 50 in both Valcartier, Que. and Montreal.
"I've been told by a reputable souce that there could be in one year, just in Ottawa alone, over 1,000 homeless veterans," Ryan said.
And the numbers are expected to rise. Canada recently wound up its longest war ever, which saw more than 40,000 soldiers deployed to Afghanistan. In the next few decades, experts expect more soldiers to be on the streets.
"We feel that within the next ten years, if we don't get this issue resolved, especially the mental health issues, that it could explode," said Royal Canadian Legion Dominion President Gordon Moore.
But the ways in which the agencies working with the homeless define 'veteran' varies — something which could affect data collection. Soldiers Helping Soldiers considers anyone who ever served a day in the military to be a veteran, even if they served in the military of another country. Veterans Transitional Emergency Services (VETS Canada) — a grassroots group that receives funding from Veterans Affairs Canada — serves only Canadian veterans. They meet approximately 10 to 12 Canadian veterans across the country every day, and have helped approximately 175 veterans in the last year.
'Being able to shoot someone at 600 meters is not necessarily in high demand by civilian companies.'
"For every one veteran we find, we've missed seven," said Barry Yard, national executive director of VETS Canada.
Research suggests veterans end up on the streets because of addiction, transition problems and mental health issues. In her research, Western University School of Nursing Professor Cheryl Forchuk found evidence of a 20-year gap between when individuals leave the military and when they end up on the streets.
Here in Ottawa, most of the veterans Capt. Ryan deals with have some type of mental health issue, generally attributed to their time in the military.
"I would say almost 100 per cent of the homeless veterans have some sort of addiction or mental health issue pertaining to their service," Ryan said, adding that the issues begin affecting the veterans' lives after they leave the military.
While Veterans Affairs does offer those leaving the military various transitional services, Ryan believes one of the hardest hurdles to jump over is simply adjusting to civilian life. Homeless veterans tend to be sergeant rank and below, and many of their combat skills do not translate well into the civilian world, she pointed out.
"They were infantry, they were armoured, they were artillery. Not things that translate well to civilian life," she said. "Being able to shoot someone at 600 meters is not necessarily in high demand by civilian companies."
Many homeless vets miss the familiarity and reassurance of the disciplined military lifestyle, so Soldiers Helping Soldiers operates along military lines. Volunteers wear their uniforms when conducting quarterly searches for homeless veterans, and treat the individuals as members of their squad. Ryan said the veterans wouldn't give her "the time of day" if she weren't in uniform. There's a level of embarrassment and shame, she said, that often stops homeless people from identifying themselves as veterans.
"One of the things that SHS focuses on is reminding them that they were soldiers. And the abilities and the dignity they had performing that job, they can have again," she said.
Of the 110 soldiers that Soldiers Helping Soldiers has helped, less than two dozen have stayed off the street. Capt. Mark Eldridge works with Ryan — conducting foot patrols with soldiers to find homeless veterans — and volunteers at local homeless shelters. He said sometimes veterans don't want help or are unwilling to hand over the personal information required to complete paperwork for Veterans Affairs or the Legion. A big part of the group's job is to inform veterans about the variety of services available to them.
"Sometimes they just want to share a coffee with us. They just want to share a story with us," he said.
Eldridge, who has been working with the organization since its inception, said it's "painful" to find these veterans on the streets. There is no "golden rule" or average length of time needed to get people off the streets. Sometimes, he said, there isn't much anyone can do.
"There is a sadness is that you can see pretty quickly how any one of us, absent a couple supporting factors in our lives, would be one of them," he said.
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The Canadian Veterans Advocacy Team.