We can’t afford not to end veteran homelessness.
At the end of this week, in Ottawa, hundreds of individuals will gather with Prime Minister Trudeau around the fallen soldier memorial to place poppies on the monument and recognize the lives of Canada’s soldiers and veterans.
At this time of year in November, the idea that veterans in Canada experience homelessness and poverty seems particularly egregious.
Considering Canada’s wealth, it is shocking that veterans represent up to 11% of the homeless population in the city of Vancouver. In March 2015, a study from Employment and Social Development Canada made waves by identifying that 2,250 veterans utilize emergency shelters on a regular basis in Canada.
In fact, recent statistics reveal that veterans in Canada also experience significant rates of food insecurity. According to information from the Veterans Food Bank in Calgary, the number of individuals using their services has doubled since 2015.
The cycle of poverty and homelessness for veterans is further entrenched by social assistance rates that are woefully inadequate. As one participant noted in a Canadian study on veteran homelessness, “[t]he first direct experience of realizing that I would be homeless was due to the government policies regarding receiving EI, and receiving welfare…the government of the day decided that they were going to be hard core in their policies and not give people as much money, or as much services…I couldn’t work enough to get enough money to pay the rent and the food here”.
Former soldiers and veterans face particular challenges when returning to civilian life, including high rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental illnesses, as well as obstacles in re-entering the workforce. Previous surveys have found that 27 percent of veterans found it very or moderately difficult to adjust to civilian life and many experienced chronic mental and physical conditions. Many veterans cite alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental health issues as reasons for their experiences with homelessness.
In the study on veteran homelessness mentioned above, one participate explained, “I would say the number one cause [of homelessness]…alcoholism & drug addiction, that’s how I dealt with the problems when I came out of the military. There isn’t enough help for you to make the transition…you resort to drugs & alcoholism because it makes you forget.”
These distinctive causes and impacts of homelessness for veterans are why, in our Guide to International Human Rights Law and its Domestic Application in Poverty Reduction Strategies, CWP recommends that poverty strategies include “special consideration for marginalized groups”. The need to target subpopulations with particular needs in a responsive and appropriate way is echoed in the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness’ report on veteran homelessness.
Right now, Veterans Affairs Canada is in the process of drafting a strategy to address rental subsidies for homeless veterans in Canada, seeking to create an environment in which “homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring, and no veteran is forced to live on the street.” At CWP, we’re hopeful that these new strategies, alongside the forthcoming National Housing Strategy and Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy, will work to eliminate poverty – not just reduce it.
With new policy commitments to address poverty and homelessness on the horizon, Canada has an opportunity to ensure all veterans have access to the services they need.
In fact, we have a legal responsibility end homelessness for all people in Canada. In March 2015, when the shockingly high rates of veteran homelessness were released, some individuals responded that instead of providing asylum to Syrian refugees, the government should first provide services to veterans. This sentiment is perhaps best addressed by the comments of a Canadian veteran who said: “I just think it’s apples and oranges and I also think Canada can afford to do both.”
Laura Neidhart is the Development & Communications Coordinator for Canada Without Poverty.