First of all, thank you very much for the invitation to speak with you this afternoon.
I'll be happy to answer your questions, in French
or in English.
I plan to take about 10 minutes to go over a couple of things that I hope will be helpful to the committee.
First off, I'll perhaps just give you a very, very quick overview of the Old Brewery Mission. Some of you may not have heard of it, but it is Quebec's largest service for homeless men, and it's Canada's largest service for homeless women.
We began in 1889. We were founded then due to the growth of homelessness in Montreal at that time. I think we've realized now that we were kind of on the wrong track around homelessness for about 112 of those 130 years. We provided overnight shelter and we provided meals and a change of clothing. People could use our services for free for an unlimited amount of time. When you have no other alternative, it's a very important, even life-sustaining service, but we realized that if that's all we're offering, it's facilitating homelessness.
We realized we needed to do something more in our service offering than just offer those basic emergency services, and so we shifted our focus to moving people off the street. Today, housing is the single largest thing we do.
Getting to the point of veterans and homelessness, we responded to the federal study that came out, I think, in January of 2015 or 2016—I forget the year—that revealed that according to that study, there were about 2,250 homeless veterans on the street. It had not been on our radar prior to that study coming out. Of course we knew about it, because we'd seen some come through our doors, but we weren't really familiar with the magnitude of the problem, so we dug into our database. We dug into the profiles of the people who were staying within our walls, both men and women. We realized that about 2% of our population were veterans, and that would mean about 45 people.
We put together a program idea to move homeless veterans out of homelessness and back into homes, and, in an adapted way, to the housing programs we already offered. We pitched it to ' ministry's homelessness partnering strategy, and it was embraced and accepted in the context of the innovation fund the ministry had created.
We put in place what we call the “sentinels of the streets”, a program that is intended to house about 18 to 20 homeless veterans. The idea was that it would be a project that, if successful, might play the role of a model for implementation across Canada.
We forged partnerships along with ' ministry of Families, Children and Social Development. We forged partnerships with the Quebec Veterans Foundation, with VETS Canada, and then through our other urban health programs through the hospital system. As you probably heard from the testimony you've already received, mental illness and serious drug addictions are a part of the profile of many of the people we serve and many of the people who are veterans and are homeless.
We set about not just finding a way to house 18 or 19 veterans; we set about ending veterans' homelessness in Montreal. We thought that if we were seeing about 45 a year and we're the largest resource, then there might be another five or six who aren't coming to our doors and are going to other doors. However, we're seeing the lion's share of the homeless veteran population in Montreal. We think that kind of number is quite manageable to eliminate.
If we keep veterans on our radar, as we will do, we'll see them when they come in, and they won't stay inside our walls for very long. We'll move them into housing.
I think it's important to understand that the idea is to end veteran homelessness, and that's what we pitched to the federal government.
Of course, we weren't experts in veterans matters, and we had to go on a fairly steep learning curve to effectively become responsive to the population we were serving. We underwent a number of lessons early on. One of the things that I think is interesting for this group is that there were a lot of false declarations: A lot of people said they were a veteran and had a veteran's experience and could even tell a fairly detailed story, yet we found out they weren't veterans.
We found out that having people vetted, if you'll pardon the pun, to see if they were in fact veterans by going through VAC was a long, arduous and time-consuming process. You have to understand that if somebody's homeless inside a shelter, whether they're a veteran or not, they may not linger in that condition for very long. If you can't respond to them very quickly, you'll lose them and they'll disappear. We had cases that took as much as two months to verify. We did lose some veterans in the process, who may have resolved their homelessness on their own, but they didn't participate in the sentinels program.
We learned that most of the people who were coming to our doors as veterans and were turning out to be veterans had not had combat experience. Only one of the 14 people we now house had any combat experience.
We learned that these are tough cases, that most of them had left the military perhaps a decade ago. These are not people with recent military experience.
We learned that the model works. We are able to house even these tough cases and we think it's a successful and highly cost-effective model, but it can be more cost-effective. If I have some time, I'll explain how I think that could happen.
A number of people who are veterans are homeless and do not use the resources. They do not come to the shelters. Mr. Eyolfson, I think you mentioned that point when you questioned my Vancouver colleagues. Many do not use those resources for a number of reasons that we've been able to discern, and they have a lot to do with both shame and pride in a paradoxical way. They're ashamed that they have fallen on these hard times when they were given so many skills and abilities that they thought would translate into civilian life and I guess didn't. They also learned survival skills. If anybody's adept at living out on the streets, it's probably our veterans, and so in some ways they employ those skills and stay out of shelters.
With the new VAC family well-being fund, we received funds to hire a person who will now go out beyond our walls, under those bridges and into those encampments, to meet veterans and develop a link of confidence with them and bring them to us. We've just received the confirmation of funding, so we'll be putting that in place as well.
I have a couple of recommendations, and that will conclude my presentation.
The first one is not to think of this as a homeless problem first, but as a veteran's problem first. This issue belongs at VAC. Homelessness is a symptom of someone whose life has fallen off the rails. It's not who they are; it's what they're dealing with right now. Obviously, the homelessness has to be resolved, but it's not the core issue.
I've said it before: I think we should be focusing not on better managing homelessness for veterans, but ending it. Even the national numbers are manageable, if they turn out to hold up at 2,000 to 2,250. Ask organizations like ours to transform our services such that when they come to our doors, they don't stay any longer in homelessness than they have to. In doing so, we can end homelessness.
Get good, reliable data. Expect impact from funds. Measure progress towards measurable goals, and adjust the goals and actions as our knowledge improves, because our knowledge isn't great around veteran homelessness. This committee is building knowledge, and it will be a very important mechanism to do that. However, we can't run on anecdotes; we should be running on good data, and we can obtain that.
Where funding is available, extend the funding horizons. Our project, the sentinels of the street, was funded for one year and then extended for another year, which is terrific, but when you are offering someone housing and you can't offer it to them for a long enough period of time....
As I said, these are tough cases. They don't resolve in 12 months. They don't end up in an autonomous situation necessarily in 12 months' time. There need to be longer funding horizons to allow the supports to stay in place and decline over time, not stay at a high level. However, over time, withdraw those supports to the extent that the person can live in autonomy, and don't withdraw them for those who won't survive without them.
Of course, there is not one response to homeless veterans. There are a number of them, as many as there are homeless veterans. There needs to be consideration given to extending funding horizons and funding support to veterans.
The final recommendation is obviously around prevention, around stopping veterans from becoming homeless in the first place. What we find, as I mentioned, is that most of them didn't have a combat background. What they had was a real hell of a time moving from military life to civilian life. I think we could better prepare our veterans for that experience. In moving from military life to civilian life, there's a cultural and a social shift that is really significant. At least for the people who are coming to our doors, it doesn't appear that they felt they were well prepared to do that.
Some vets are struggling and at risk of homelessness. Thinking of supports before they end up at our doors might be cost-effective as well—things like temporary rent subsidies to keep people housed and that kind of thing. There are ways to prevent homelessness in vets, especially since I mentioned that for most of them it's a 10-year trajectory of degrading circumstances that leads them to the street.
We can see it coming, in a way. If you can keep an eye on these people, you can see that they're on a trajectory toward the doors of the Old Brewery Mission. We should find a way to head that off at the pass. I think with some good thinking on your parts—and count on me to contribute—we can get there.
I appreciate your taking the time to listen to what we have to say. We created the Homes for Heroes Foundation three years ago now. The goal was to develop a system through which we could help our homeless veterans across the country.
Our goal is to build villages of tiny homes across Canada in every major market where there are homeless veterans, with a full resource centre. It's not just the housing; it is the idea, the understanding, to make sure we have wraparound services.
We built this program by meeting with veterans and having a chance to discuss with vets living on the street what their needs are. They came to us and said that they'd like to be in a space where they're with like-minded individuals, people who are veterans. Some of them already had been in spaces that they found too big. Large apartments of 600 or 700 square feet were too much for them, and what happens is that they start hoarding. That's why we went to these tiny homes.
The resource centre is a very important key to this project in terms of the fact that there would be a resource officer assigned to it. The goal here, hopefully, is to work with Veterans Affairs, have a case manager assigned to the project, and have them work through the process.
What the veterans have told us is that they want to come into a place, make sure they understand that they have a home, and work on themselves. If there are issues with drugs and alcohol, they want to get support and treatment for that and get back on their feet and get full-time employment. They have said to us that they then would want to move out of the project, make room for the next person and be the mentor for that project.
That is our program.
We're working with municipalities across Canada. Our cost is roughly $2.5 million a project to build a Homes for Heroes project of 20 homes per village. That is for the homes and for the cost of putting $500,000 in trust. What that doesn't include is the land. We've gone to municipalities and said to them that they have an issue in regard to homelessness on their streets, with many veterans within that, and it is costing them money. We understand that the cost can be anywhere from $60,000 to $70,000 per person, so it's to their benefit to work with us and get land.
We have our first piece of land. We're building in Calgary. That is starting already. It will be open in July. We have another piece of land in Edmonton.
The problem we're finding is that municipalities and provinces are saying that they have a lot of homeless vets and that it isn't their problem—that it's Ottawa's problem and it's a federal issue. We're having a difficult time convincing them that they should give us land for this project. It's one of the obstacles we have. We understand that housing for homelessness doesn't fit within the Veterans Affairs mandate, and that is an issue for us. It's difficult for us to get any support on funding if it doesn't fall within their mandate.
Another key thing we found, I think, is in terms of the numbers that are being reported. The last I heard, what was coming from Veterans Affairs was roughly 2,200 to 2,500 homeless vets. Even their own Veterans Affairs people in Calgary with whom we've spoken believe the number is probably double that. The issue there is that these counts are being done in shelters, and veterans aren't self-identifying. They're not sitting up and saying that they're veterans. Also, a lot of them aren't using shelters, and a lot of them are couch surfing.
These are some of the issues we're facing right now in trying to get our project going, but we believe that we have a project that we can implement across Canada and that we can solve—if not end—the problem.
Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for the opportunity. I'm pleased to be here speaking to you from Calgary, from the traditional territories of the people of Treaty 7 in southern Alberta. The city of Calgary is also home to the Métis Nation of Alberta, region III.
I'm here in my capacity as the President and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness with some expertise in preventing and ending homelessness, including experience developing housing programs for homeless vets. I also served just over six years in the Canadian Forces and am a Veterans Affairs client myself. All that is to say that this is an issue that's really close to my heart, and I'm thrilled to be here. I'm really glad that you're studying the issue.
I think I have two main messages for you.
The first is that veteran homelessness in Canada is readily solvable. The number of homeless veterans in Canada is relatively small. It's unknown, but it's relatively small. We know what to do and we know how to do it.
Our American friends have cut veteran homelessness in half in just over eight years, and there are eight U.S. cities that have ended veteran homelessness altogether. To put the scale of that achievement in perspective, there are about 37,500 American veterans homeless on any given night, compared with all Canadian homelessness, which is about 35,000 people per night. That's a significant improvement and a significant achievement in the States, which shows that it's certainly possible.
I believe that with a focused effort and a sense of urgency, veteran homelessness in Canada could be eliminated within three years or less.
My second message is that we know what to do. We have a strong veterans network. We have solid expertise in communities like Homes for Heroes. We have proven models to follow, and I think we have strong public support. What's missing is federal leadership and decisive action. We need a federal government prepared to make a clear and unequivocal commitment to ending veteran homelessness and to invest the fairly modest additional resources needed to get the job done.
What would it take to end veteran homelessness in Canada? There are five things that I think are essential, and I'll go through these quickly.
First is prevention. We have to stop the flow of veterans into homelessness. There are tools being developed to assess veterans for risk of homelessness today, including some excellent work being done in the States by a gentleman named Dr. Dennis Culhane, from the University of Pennsylvania, who is a research director for the VA's National Centre on Homelessness among Veterans. If we understand who's at the greatest risk of homelessness—and I think we can understand that—and we understand a veteran's pathway into homelessness, then we can intervene before homelessness occurs.
The second is borrowing the old military axiom that time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted. Solving homelessness requires actionable, real-time, person-specific data on everyone experiencing homelessness. We can't gather the necessary information to house homeless veterans solely by counting them anonymously once every two years or by having information collected by a handful of agencies or Veterans Affairs. We have to document the names and unique needs of every veteran experiencing homelessness and have an ability to share that information among those in the community who can house and support them. We have to be able to monitor performance, notice fluctuations, identify problems and respond in real time.
This approach to homelessness data is being wired into the new federal homelessness strategy, Reaching Home, that will launch in April. So that you don't think that getting this level of data is impossible, as of today, there are already 11 Canadian cities with quality by-name lists on chronic homelessness, and another 23 actively working on it.
The third issue is paying the rent. A critical gap in our federal response to veterans homelessness, in addition to the point David made about having it within the Veterans Affairs' purview, is the absence of a veteran rent supplement program. We should carve out of the new Canada housing benefit a federally administered veteran housing benefit modelled under the U.S. HUD-VASH voucher that the Americans are using. Any person meeting the VAC definition of veteran, meaning anyone who has completed basic training and has been honourably discharged, should be eligible. This would be a powerful homelessness prevention tool and an efficient and very cost-effective way to move veterans directly off the streets and into housing.
The fourth is to use Housing First. This is a recovery-oriented approach to ending homelessness that centres on quickly moving people experiencing homelessness into independent and permanent housing and then providing additional supports and services as needed. Housing First is an evidence-based approach that has been proven to work with homeless vets and is at the heart of every successful effort to prevent and end homelessness.
I think Veterans Affairs should stick to what they're good at and partner with local organizations to do the housing and work with veteran service organizations and others to provide the outreach support.
The federal government already has the community-based infrastructure through the homelessness partnering strategy in Employment and Social Development, the new Reaching Home strategy.
I would use that infrastructure and presence in 61 communities in every province and territory. Ending veteran homelessness would require an additional investment in housing supports and coordination in those communities, but the infrastructure is there, and there's an opportunity to leverage provincial and community resources.
I'll wrap it up there, but I want to reiterate the point that veteran homelessness in Canada is readily solvable. We know what to do and how to do it. We have strong veteran networks, solid expertise in communities, solid infrastructure in place and proven models to follow. All that's missing is federal leadership.
We have a duty to these men and women, and I think we should get on with it.