Veteran Perry Gray served his country in Croatia but this week he almost faced eviction, and advocates hope his story will show the government how to help resolve the complex issue of veteran homelessness.
An intelligence officer during Canada's campaigns in Cyprus and Croatia, Gray left the service with post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression.
'I started breaking down reading these letters about what is so completely avoidable had Perry received the right help.' - Sean Bruyea, veterans advocate
He volunteered for a veteran's advocacy website called Veteran Voice as a way to put "meaning back into my life," he said. He remained chief editor as his disability took a dark turn two years ago, making him unequal to the task of coping with mounting debt and accessing services through Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC).
On Monday he received a court-ordered eviction notice for Nov. 15, and he finally reached out for help.
His friend Sean Bruyea — himself a longtime veteran's advocate — went to Gray's Ottawa home and found him in crisis.
"He was in very rough shape," Bruyea said. "This was a guy who had briefed generals at national headquarters — extremely articulate. This is what PTSD does."
Stacks of unopened mail dating back two years sat on the kitchen table, a situation referred to by some vets as "brown envelope syndrome" — the fear of opening bills and envelopes from Veterans Affairs.
"It was as if these piles of letters from Veterans Affairs, from [the Canada Revenue Agency], from the mortgage company, for Perry these were bullets, exploding rounds around him," Bruyea said.
Bruyea spent the next several days opening the mail with Gray, piecing together what had happened. He discovered Gray was being evicted after failing to respond to a renewal notice for his home insurance, which set off a cascade of consequences, put Gray's mortgage in jeopardy, and led finally to a lender's decision to seek the court order.
"I started breaking down reading these letters about what is so completely avoidable had Perry received the right help," Bruyea said.
In the stacks of unopened mail, Bruyea also found eligibility documents for a veteran's benefit.
Bruyea used his contacts at VAC to arrange an emergency meeting with officials to access the money Gray should have received.
Within 24 hours, a year of back payments from VAC and a top-up from the non-profit VETS Canada were dispatched to the mortgage lender Friday afternoon — in time to rescind the order and save Gray from eviction.
Gray also found out Friday, as Bruyea talked to a new case worker assigned by VAC, he may also be eligible for benefits dating back to 2011.
Overcome with emotion and relief, Gray sat down and began to cry.
"It's a shock, because you don't think it can happen to you," said Gray, who had come so close to living his worst nightmare, acknowledging that others don't have the benefit of having someone like Bruyea to help.
Bruyea — who also suffers from PTSD — said the experience helped him better understand how vulnerable veterans with disabilities are to falling through the cracks, including himself.
"That was the most painful thing to admit all week," said Bruyea.
"I had to help him, because if I couldn't save him, then maybe I'm the one that's next in that situation."
The experience also shows how a coaching or peer mentoring program, already recommended by the veteran's ombudsman, could help veterans avoid losing housing, according to Debbie Lowther, chair of Veterans Emergency Transition Service Canada (VETS) Canada.
Solutions to homelessness will be the focus of the soon-to-be-released federal strategy on veteran's housing.
Veterans Affairs does have the resources to help, but "it's a cumbersome process," Lowther said.
"[Gray] was fortunate to have somebody by his side," she said, adding the group's research has found that, along with financial and health concerns, a lack of social supports is a major contributor to veteran homelessness.
"Overwhelmingly, the veterans we've interviewed identified lack of social support as their biggest issue," Lowther explained. "One veteran told me, 'When I was a veteran I was a member of a family, and when I took off the uniform I became an orphan.'"
The federal government would not comment on Gray's case, citing privacy concerns.