Alberta's homeless war veterans seek help from national support group
'Not a good news story when we hear it,' Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr says
Dozens of former soldiers in Alberta have turned to a national organization for support after they found themselves living on the streets.
Debbie Lowther, co-founder of Vets Canada, said in the past three-and-a-half years her organization has helped about 200 veterans in Alberta, one of three provinces where the organization is most active. The other two are B.C. and Ontario.
"Lots of times when military personnel release, sometimes they'll stay in the area where they are, and Edmonton is a large base," she said.
"A lot of people will, when they get out of the military, get into the oil industry, and sometimes that doesn't work out because they have that difficult process of transitioning from military life to civilian life."
A March 2015 study by Employment and Social Development Canada suggests 2,250 veterans use shelters on a regular basis, a number that has jumped by 236 since 2013.
The numbers were obtained through an access-to-information request by the Canadian Press.
Canada's mission in Afghanistan
Lowther said the spike is likely a result of Canada's mission in Afghanistan, as a majority of her clients are now dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression related to their service.
"Sometimes those things don't come out for several years after a traumatic event," she said.
"So there are people who may have served in Afghanistan five years ago, and it's just kind of starting to come to light now that they have issues that have not been dealt with."
Transitioning from military to civilian life is the "No. 1 reason" former soldiers end up on the streets, said Lowther, whose organization is based in Halifax but also assists many homeless veterans in Ontario and British Columbia.
She said the problem is even greater than the federal estimate suggests because it does not take into account vets who are couch surfing or living in substandard conditions.
"This is not a good news story when we hear it," Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr told CBC on Wednesday.
'Shocked and stunned'
"And Canadians are rightfully shocked and stunned when they hear of homeless veterans. These men and women have served our country honourably, and we have to ensure they're getting the best opportunity to succeed."
He said his ministry is working aggressively to reverse the trend by reopening nine veterans' affairs offices shut down by the former government, likely by the end of the year, and by hiring 400 additional frontline workers to connect veterans with provincial services.
Hehr said rather than the the "ad hoc" approach of the former government, Ottawa would tackle the issue through social infrastructure investments, a national housing strategy and work with its provincial counterparts.
Despite the increase in the number of soldiers living on the street, Lowther said the federal government is on the right track, leaving her feeling "hopeful."
She said veterans affairs is cutting red tape which makes it easier to access services and providing support earlier on to soldiers transitioning into civilian life.