Halifax volunteers look for homeless veterans for Boots on the Ground walk

About 20 volunteers armed with tuques and Tim Hortons gift cards hit the streets of Halifax today in search of homeless veterans.

VETS Canada founder Jim Lowther says the number of homeless vets is climbing

Two volunteers wear VETS Canada identification vests as they set out on the Boots on the Ground Walk in Halifax on Saturday. (David Irish/CBC)

About 20 volunteers armed with goodwill hit Halifax streets today in search of homeless veterans who need help. 

But before the Boots on the Ground walk began around 1 p.m., the volunteers cozied up in a small office in the Salvation Army on Gottingen Street — the same shelter where the walk began six years ago. 

VETS Canada founder Jim Lowther prepared the group for what to expect. They were raising awareness, he told them, but they were there to talk with homeless people, to find out if they served in the military and if they need help. 

"If we find a veteran in crisis or in need, [we] take them from the shelter, break the cycle of homelessness and get them back on their feet," Lowther told CBC News.

VETS Canada founder Jim Lowther prepares the group of volunteers on protocol when helping homeless veterans. (David Irish/CBC)

The Nova Scotia-based organization has been hosting walks like this across Canada for the last six years. Lowther says if they do find veterans who want help, the group will help find them temporary accommodation and liaise the next phase of support through Veterans Affairs Canada. 

In January alone, Lowther says VETS Canada helped 97 homeless veterans in Canada. That contributes to a much larger number since the organization began. 

"We started out with one or two homeless vets that we found and now we're pushing almost a thousand now," Lowther said. 

Numbers climbing

Peacekeeping in places like Yugoslavia, as well as over ten years of recent conflicts is producing more and more homeless veterans, Lowther said. He's seen vets aged 18 to 88. 

"Ninety per cent of what we see, these guys have PTSD. And along with that comes, for some, substance abuse."

First-time volunteer Neil Silver is a 20-year veteran. (David Irish/CBC)

Neil Silver of Mahone Bay, a retired 20-year veteran but first-time VETS Canada volunteer, says he hates the thought of his comrades in crisis. 

"I didn't realize the impact of the problem," he said. 

"These people have taken their lives and put their lives in jeopardy and given us such a great country that we have here. I think they deserve help if they need it." 

For those veterans who decline the organization's support, Lowther told volunteers to pass along a Tim Horton's gift card to help with their next meal. But even if their help goes unwanted, Lowther's determination remains strong. 

"We're going to end homelessness for vets. We're going to do it," he said. 

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