A couple of months ago, Sgt.-Maj. Jason Pickard noticed two homeless men sitting outside National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. He stopped to talk to them and discovered both were former soldiers.  

Pickard was shocked.

"There's no need for them to be on the street and sitting right outside our NDHQ," he said.

Sgt. Major Jason Pickard

Sgt.-Maj. Jason Pickard decided to volunteer with VETS after meeting two homeless veterans outside National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. (Steve Fischer/CBC)

The plight of those veterans inspired Pickard to volunteer with Veteran Emergency Transition Services, or VETS, a national organization that recently set up a chapter in Ottawa. More than 30 volunteers have signed on to help.

Retired lieutenant-general Walter Semianiw, the former commander of Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, helped start the the Ottawa chapter of VETS late last fall.

He said the organization's primary goal is to get former soldiers off the street and into temporary, emergency housing, usually an extended-stay hotel.

The organization provides the former soldiers with food, warm coats and boots. Then volunteers focus on finding the veterans permanent housing and steady employment.

Rock bottom

CBC spoke with one of the former soldiers helped by VETS in Ottawa. 

'I walked in the door and broke down and cried.' - Veteran helped by VETS

The man, who did not want to be named, said after his marriage failed and he ran into financial difficulties, and that he was living at the Salvation Army's downtown hostel.

He said he had hit "rock bottom" when volunteers from the organization approached him and offered to help get him off the street.

Lieutenant General (retired) Walter Semianiew

Retired lieutenant-general Walter Semianiew helped set up the Ottawa chapter of VETS. (Steve Fischer/CBC)

"I was a little skeptical at first," he said, adding that he decided accept their offer to help him find a rent-free apartment.

"I walked in the door, and broke down and cried," the former veteran said.

The man now has a job building homes for a local contractor, and is saving up money for his own apartment.

Some facing PTSD, addictions

Semianiw said some veterans suffer from more complicated issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder and drug and alcohol addictions, so it may take longer to convince some of them to get off the street.

He said even if a veteran refuses free housing, VETS will still provide peer support and counselling.

The group receives funding from Veterans Affairs and private donations.

VETS has so far helped 10 former soldiers in Ottawa, and volunteers said that as long as there are veterans facing life on the street, they'll be there to offer a helping hand.

VETS volunteer talking to men outside Ottawa Mission

A VETS volunteer visits downtown shelters to seek out homeless veterans. They offer them free, temporary housing and help finding work. (Steve Fischer/CBC)