Michael Blais watched helplessly as one of the men who served beside him in the Canadian Forces ended up homeless and died on the streets of Toronto.
It was a tragedy that the former soldier and founder of the group Canadian Veterans Advocacy never wants repeated, and he congratulated the federal government Tuesday for announcing funding for a pilot program to reach out to homeless veterans.
"I think this is an extraordinary first step and I'm very hopeful that this is a pilot project that will be successful and will be expanded across the nation," Blais said from his home in Niagara Falls, Ont.
"Let's face it, we have people living under bridges," Blais said, and there will be an influx of modern-day veterans in the coming years who are dealing with the fallout from serving in places like the former Yugoslavia, Africa, and Afghanistan.
"I think we're just breaching the cusp of a problem that's going to be very large."
'One veteran on the street is too many' —Veterans Affairs Miniser Steven Blaney
Blais lauded the program announced by Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney and Human Resources Minister Diane Finley in Calgary. The program will see $1.9 million in cash and $1.8 million worth of in-kind contributions from Veterans Affairs Canada to community groups in Toronto, Victoria, Calgary and London, Ont., that run existing homeless programs.
The funds allow a co-ordinated effort to identify and reach out to homeless veterans and ensure they have access to any programs in either department that will help them to get off the street.
"The government is apparently starting to listen. There was a time when they would deny there was homeless veterans or dismiss or marginalize the problem, saying that the numbers are so small that social services locally can handle it," Blais said.
The office of the veterans ombudsman began sounding the alarm over homelessness within the ranks of Canada's veterans in 2008. Advocates suggest there are thousands of former soldiers living on the streets across Canada and that number will only grow following Canada's decade-long war in Afghanistan.
"One veteran on the street is too many," Blaney said in a telephone interview following the announcement. "The challenge with homeless veterans is reaching them."
Blaney said it's extremely difficult to know how many former soldiers are living on the streets of Canada, but it is a problem. There are programs in place to help former soldiers transition into civilian life, but homeless veterans are likely not accessing them.
Finley said that in Calgary alone, city police believe there are approximately 40 former soldiers living on the streets, and they've been able to locate only about 20 of them.
Hope that pilot project will grow
The pilot project announced Tuesday will combine the existing expertise of the community groups who have long worked with homeless people, the experience of Human Resources Canada in dealing with issues of homelessness generally, and the strengths of Veterans Affairs in helping veterans.
The aim of the program is to first make contact and then help veterans to access the array of counselling, housing and services available to them.
"It's the people on the ground who really have the best contact with the homeless ... far better than someone in Ottawa working in an office," Finley said.
NDP critic Peter Stoffer congratulated the government for the program, and urged the Conservatives to quickly expand it to major cities across the country and make the funding permanent.
"It's an admission from the federal government to accept its responsibility for the case of homeless veterans and hopefully for RCMP, as well," Stoffer said. "I thank them for doing that, but ... I want to make sure it's not just downloaded onto provincial or municipal or community groups."
Stoffer said Ottawa also needs to expand preventative measures before ex-soldiers reach such a crisis state, by reaching out while they're still soldiers and following up with veterans and their families once they've left the military.