More help needed for homeless veterans in Edmonton

At first they’re anonymous, but organizations like VETS Canada and the Royal Canadian Legion know they’re out there -- homeless veterans, men and women who have served our country, who for a variety of reasons no longer have a place to call home.

Those working with homeless veterans say they need more volunteers, more housing

"They're alone, they don't know where to turn, they don't want to ask for help," said Gwen Beasley with the Royal Canadian Legion Poppy Fund in Edmonton (CBC)

Often, they live in the shadows, forgotten in the present, haunted by the past.

But organizations who work with veterans know they’re out there - men and women who served our country, who kept the rest of us safe in our homes, but no longer have homes of their own.

“The biggest challenge is to find them," said Gwen Beasley, chief administrative officer of the Poppy Fund, a branch of the Royal Canadian Legion that helps homeless veterans in Edmonton. "A lot of the times we don’t know they exist, they’re living in their vehicles, living in their trailer.” 

A recent encounter Beasley had with a veteran is fairly typical of the people she sees walk through the doors of the Legion office in downtown Edmonton.

About a month ago, a man in his fifties showed up, after he discovered the job he thought he had lined up when he arrived in Edmonton didn't’t exist. For his first month in the city, he spent nights in his vehicle.

Through a staff member at one of the city’s shelters, the man was connected with the Legion. Two weeks after learning his name, Beasley found him a place for him to live.

“Just to give him that step up and give him that sense of security, is what they’re looking for,” Beasley said. 

Once homeless veteran speaks about his experience

A veteran who met with CBC News on Remembrance Day has spent the last decade living on the streets of Calgary and Edmonton.

Racked by post-traumatic stress disorder, he struggles with addiction and is desperate to piece his life back together and renew relationships with his three grown children.

A Canadian military veteran speaks to the CBC about his experiences of being homeless on the streets of Edmonton and Calgary. (CBC )
CBC has agreed to protect his identity. He’s currently working and fears he could be fired if his employer discovered his PTSD diagnosis.

His story is sadly typical. After months of living in his car, his “bedroom” as he called it, he finally decided to reach out for help. He now has a modest apartment, a bed, a television, and the security of four walls.

He left the military with the feeling, "I can do and be anything I want to be." Not long after, he felt "absolutely destroyed." 

He served with the Canadian Forces for fours years, left the military in 1981 and joined the Calgary fire department a year later. Three months into his new career he found two children dead in their beds during a fire. Picking up those small bodies still haunts him.

“Those two kids changed my whole life," he said. "I went right in the toilet after that"

He soldiered on, as the military and the fire department had trained him to do. Despite the nightmares, he stayed with the Calgary fire department for 20 years.

In 2002 he resigned from the fire department. His weekend warrior drug-and-alcohol party scene quickly grew into a daily habit, and soon his wife and three children left him. At 44, he showed up at a drop-in centre with a few hundred dollars in his pocket and three changes of clothes in a duffel bag. 

The path to homelessness

The reasons veterans end up homeless are as varied as their stories. Through her work with Veterans Emergency Transition Services, Albertine Payne often sees men and women who struggle with the transition to civilian life.

“When you do go out onto the street and work for civilians, sometimes civilians don’t understand what you’ve gone through,” she said.

Compounding an already a difficult transition is the underlying reality that many homeless veterans suffer from PTSD. Beasley with the Legion thinks at least 90 per cent of clients she sees have PTSD, although it often goes undiagnosed.

“They go inside themselves, and they don’t see you reaching out to them,” Beasley said.

The homeless veteran CBC spoke with can relate.

“Our men and women in uniform, and I don’t care what uniform it is, they’re getting in deeper and deeper all the time,” he said.

“In the last four years, Remembrance Day has come to be a really sacred thing to me,” he said, emotion rising in his voice, the next story about his sometimes roller-coaster life bubbling to the surface.

More help needed

Both Payne and Beasley say more help is desperately needed for homeless veterans.

Although Payne is part of a larger national network that helps veterans, she is the only employee with VETS Canada in all of Alberta.

“We should be going out onto the streets, finding these homeless veterans,” she said. More volunteers would mean they could actually find and reach out to those who want and need help.

“A veteran will identify a vet faster than anyone else,” she said, citing her 25 years as a reservist and her decade as a regular forces member, with two tours overseas.

When Payne finds veterans, or when they come to her, she helps them find places to live, fills out paperwork, and ensures they’re receiving the money they are entitled to from Veterans Affairs. She encourages many to be assessed for PTSD. She said most are men who retired from the military in the 1990s, after serving in Bosnia or Croatia, who for whatever reason have lost their way.

“The most difficult challenge is making sure that I keep in contact with them,” she said.

With no help, Payne said, “it’s draining, sometimes emotional,” work.

The Poppy Fund helps veterans, some of them homeless, in Edmonton. (CBC)
Even if organizations like Payne’s and the Royal Canadian Legion can locate veterans, there’s no guarantee there will be places for them to live.

“There’s just not enough room, there’s no places we can quickly put them,” said Beasley.

Some homeless veterans eventually find suites at Veteran’s Villa, a 35-unit apartment complex on the city’s south side.

Beasley said there’s enough homeless veterans to easily fill another Veteran’s Villa, but what’s really needed is transitional housing.

How many homeless veterans?

Even organizations doing this work have no clear idea how many homeless veterans are out there. Last month, the Poppy Fund helped four of them. VETS Canada told CBC News that in the past seven months they’ve talked to and helped house 18 homeless veterans.

“It’s really hard to say, they are a proud breed and they just don’t come forward enough,” said Beasley, adding she hopes the numbers from Edmonton’s homeless count done last month will help paint a clearer picture of the problem. That count, for the first time, included a question about whether those on the streets are former or current members of the Canadian Forces. 

It’s hoped that once organizations who work with homeless veterans know how large the population is, they can raise awareness about those who are suffering, often silently, on our city streets.