From service to the streets: veterans and Victoria’s housing crisis

Local National News

The percentage of veterans among Victoria’s homeless exceeds both Vancouver and the national average

There are currently 658 000 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) veterans in Canada. These are men and women who completed their basic training and who were honourably discharged from either the Regular or Reserve Forces — and who, as a group, are considered an at-risk population by the National Housing Strategy. These former servicemen and women are more likely than their civilian counterparts to suffer physical activity limitations and mental health difficulties, and approximately one quarter of all veterans struggle to adjust to civilian life after service. 

Homelessness among veterans in Canada has only recently been studied. In 2009, the same year that Cockrell House, one of Canada’s first homes for homeless veterans, was established in Colwood, a member of parliament reportedly stated that there was only about 15 homeless veterans total in Canada. This number was widely inaccurate, as evident from numerous reports and statistics gathered around the country.

A report from the Standing Committee on Veterans’ Affairs presented to the House of Commons in May 2019 stated that homelessness probably affects between 3 000 and 5 000 former servicepeople in Canada. A national assessment of homelessness in Canadian communities carried out in March 2018 found 4.4 per cent of Canada’s homeless population to be CAF veterans. Another 0.3 per cent were former Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) members who are considered veterans by the Canadian Legion, increasing the tally to 4.7 per cent.

Thousands of Canadian veterans experience homelessness. On average, this typically occurs around a decade after being discharged, and these veterans are generally older than those who have never left “civvy street,” or civilian life. The report to the House of Commons stated that reasons that veterans struggle with homelessness are the same as much of the rest of the population — poverty, lack of affordable housing, lack of stable employment, mental illness and addictions, physical health problems, family or domestic violence, and family or marital breakdown — but are compounded by the struggle to adapt to civilian culture and after-effects of military service that can worsen over time. According to the report, PTSD-related homelessness is less of an issue in Canadian servicepeople that is often assumed, but many CAF members begin drinking heavily during their service, and develop substance abuse problems in the first 10-20 years after discharge. 

In Victoria — a city whose name, like that of Vancouver, has become synonymous with unaffordable housing — Canadian military, foreign service, and RCMP veterans are overrepresented in the city’s homeless population given that veterans make up only four per cent of Canadian men and one per cent of women. 

In 2014, 3.5 per cent of Victoria’s shelter users were recorded as being veterans — higher than the national rate of approximately 2.7 per cent, and Vancouver’s rate of 2.4 per cent. For both veterans and non-veterans, the top reported reason for a shelter stay was lack of housing, followed by family/relationship breakdown. Unsafe housing situations were also included in the top 10 reasons for both groups.

It’s important to remember that not all homeless people access shelters, where population counts and demographic assessments often occur. According to the 2018 Greater Victoria Point-In-Time Count, 28.1 per cent of homeless people reported not staying in a shelter in the past year. Of those, 21.4 per cent were able to access other housing, 21.0 per cent stayed with friends or family, 21.0 per cent stayed outside or in a vehicle, and 17.6 per cent felt unsafe staying in a shelter.  

Veterans may be even more reluctant to go to shelters than those with civilian backgrounds, making their true numbers more difficult to record. Perhaps it’s something to do with their survival training, but as Cockrell House Chairman Angus Stanfield told Victoria News, veterans often avoid homeless shelters and urban settings, instead choosing to live in the bush, in their vehicles, or by couch surfing. However, a Greater Victoria survey taken in 2018 indicates that veterans account for 6.8 per cent of people who are unsheltered (living on the streets or in another location unfit for humans), in emergency shelter, or temporarily accommodated in transitional housing, a motel, a hospital or treatment centre, a correctional facility, or on someone’s couch.

Additionally, finding temporary housing that can accommodate the needs of veterans who are struggling to successfully reintegrate into the civilian world is challenging. Many veterans need routine, structure, and peer support from people who understand military service. Cockrell House fits the bill, but only has 11 units.

Cockrell House provides monthly bus passes, food vouchers, and bi-monthly visits from nurses. Residents are connected with Veterans’ Affairs agents and with any other healthcare or counselling support they may need. The Esquimalt Lions’ Club provides mattresses, furniture, pots and pans, towels, and other necessities that veterans can take with them when they leave. Additionally, the culture of Cockrell House is something that other temporary housing facilities cannot provide. A veteran sergeant acts as a live-in manager, providing structure. There are rules prohibiting parties, indoor smoking, and overnight guests. The inhabitants of the house look after each other and find companionship with each other, helping to replace the family in uniform that often disappears after discharge. There is no requirement to pay rent, but Cockrell’s more stable inhabitants often choose to contribute what they can in order to help offset the monthly costs of the establishment, which does not receive government funding and instead relies on Legion and private donations.

But Cockrell House’s space is limited, there is no targeted permanent housing solution for homeless veterans who have moved past the transitional stage, and there are looming barriers for creating similar, government-funded transitional establishments and for establishing permanent housing. 

Many provinces and cities refuse to fund veteran-centric housing projects, seeing them as federal purview. The Legion Provincial Command and Veterans’ Affairs Canada (VAC) work together to help find suitable housing and to provide financial assistance, but affordable housing in Victoria (the least affordable mid-sized city in Canada in terms of both properties for rental and for purchase) is difficult to find, and while the Legion’s Poppy Trust Fund provides veterans with help covering one-time costs, this assistance is not offered over an extended period, making expenses like monthly rent ineligible. 

The 2019 report to the House of Commons recommended that VAC ensure that veterans’ housing projects receive targeted funding under the National Housing Strategy, and that the Canadian government offer a rent supplement to homeless veterans, to enable them to secure their own housing. For a city like Victoria, it’s possible that a simple rent supplement could help keep veterans out of a downward spiral, because if “housing stability is the best indicator of a person’s ability to escape homelessness,” as stated in the report, Victoria’s unaffordability makes the situation for at-risk or homeless veterans even worse.