Veterans see need for deep, flexible spending in new homeless strategy
Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr speaks in Vancouver, B.C. Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. The federal government plans to release a long-awaited strategy to tackle veterans' homelessness this fall amid rising concerns from veterans groups and homeless advocates about the Liberals' interest in the issue. (Jonathan Hayward / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Jordan Press, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, August 14, 2017 4:04PM EDT
Last Updated Monday, August 14, 2017 4:47PM EDT
OTTAWA -- An emergency fund overseen by federal officials has doled out almost $38,000 in the last four months to help 40 veterans who faced financial crises, including some who may have been on the verge of becoming homeless.
As of the end of June, Veterans Affairs Canada had 750 veterans identified as homeless in its client database, compared with 650 as of last September. A federal review of shelter data estimated there were 2,950 veterans who used shelters in 2014, or 2.2. per cent of the overall shelter population.
The figures hint at how much more the government may have to spend to house homeless veterans, a cost that one former high-ranking military member believes could run into millions of dollars each year.
The Liberals plan to release their plan to tackle veterans homelessness this fall. Walter Semianiw, a former chief of military personnel, said he and others will look at how much money the government puts behind the plan, how funding rolls and how other measures like the possibility of lifelong pensions work into the strategy.
"It's great to have a strategy, but if the strategy is not brought to life, it's not worth anything," said Walter Semianiw, a former chief of military personnel.
"The only way to bring it to life is money."
Semianiw, a retired lieutenant-general who now works with VETS Canada, a homeless veterans organization, said there is also a need to be flexible with future funding so that a new, $1-million-a-year emergency fund will be more nimble than the existing one.
The present fund is made up of donations from outside groups and grants to veterans flow through organizations like VETS Canada, which has a contract with the federal government for outreach services, and the Royal Canadian Legion.
"Currently, the emergency funding is not that easy to get to. It's not quick to get money from the department when it comes to the current organization or construct of emergency services," said Semianiw, who was also assistant deputy minister at Veterans Affairs.
The federal government plans to release this fall a long-awaited strategy to tackle veterans' homelessness, which, in its one of its most recent versions, has placed a heavy focus on providing veterans in crisis with help in paying the rent or mortgage, including the idea of a housing fund that could provide rent vouchers for veterans to stop them from becoming homeless.
Absent from an October draft of the document is any mention of costs, but officials drafting the plan have publicly said the goal was to have enough money available to help homeless veterans and veterans in crisis.
Semianiw said the amount of money, the rules around how it can be spent and when spending will roll out will help determine the success of the strategy.
The issue was on the government's radar as far back as 2008, when federal officials became aware of homeless veterans in the West. Work on the strategy began in more earnest just over a year ago.
The reasons that a veteran can become homeless include loss of job, as well as mental and physical health issues. The October draft of the federal strategy adds a reference to family breakdown or violence and addiction issues that weren't in an earlier discussion draft.
There is also an emphasis on peer-to-peer support mechanisms and outreach activities so veterans are used to help their comrades in crisis.