Homeless veteran gets second chance with housing-first program

Mario​ Gagné had only a few dollars left to his name when a fellow veteran brought him to Montreal's Old Brewery Mission. Now, he has an apartment of his own.

Mario​ Gagné says he'd still be 'scrounging on the streets somewhere' if it weren't for assistance

Mario Gagné credits the Old Brewery Mission's housing-first program with helping him get his life back on track. (Submitted by Old Brewery Mission)

Mario​ Gagné had only a few dollars left to his name when a fellow veteran brought him to the Old Brewery Mission, a homeless shelter in downtown Montreal. 

"I used my last $70-something on a motel, and then I was on the street. I had nothing," Gagné, 54, recalled. 

After a week in the shelter, Gagné was enrolled in a program that helps homeless veterans get a place of their own. 

"They actually paid $300 for the rent and they actually furnished my apartment and all that," he said, explaining that the extra money supplemented his monthly welfare cheque.

"That's what helped me to get off the street and to be able to get on my feet."

​It's difficult to say how many veterans are on the streets in Canada, but a landmark 2015 study by Employment and Social Development Canada put the total at 2,250. In all, the study found, veterans account for about 2.7 per cent of the homeless population.

'Enormously frustrated'

"The veterans that are homeless didn't become homeless the afternoon they left the military," said Matthew Pearce, CEO of the Old Brewery Mission.

"These are people who are often enormously frustrated with Veterans Affairs Canada because, in their view, that ministry did not step up to give the support that they thought they would get, having served their country."

Pearce said the Montreal program was developed in part, in response to the 2015 study. 

The program was launched in 2017 and is currently helping its first 16 veterans. 

Matthew Pearce is president and CEO of the Old Brewery Mission. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

"They get the occasional visit from Old Brewery Mission counsellors just to make sure they are staying on track, and if they are not, to put them back on track," he said.

Earlier this year, Veterans Affairs Canada announced it will provide $192,000 over two years to keep the program running. The money comes from a fund devoted to "the well-being of veterans and their families," a spokesperson said.

Pearce said the program has proven so popular that a number of homeless people have falsely claimed they served in the Armed Forces. Staff had to deny them admission, even if they needed help too.

"It speaks to the hunger of homeless people to get in a program that will get them out of homelessness. It's kind of a tragic thing, in a way," he said.

The mission has other housing-first programs, an increasingly popular approach to countering homelessness, but the demand still exceeds the supply, he said.

Lifelong struggle

Gagné, who was abused as a child and lived on the streets as a teen, served in the Armed Forces for three years. He was never deployed, but when he left he struggled with depression and anxiety.

He had just been released from a psychiatric hospital in Quebec City when he arrived in Montreal last summer after breaking up with his girlfriend. He credits the Old Brewery Mission with saving his life.

"I'd be scrounging on the streets somewhere," he said.

After a year in Montreal, Gagné moved back to Trois-Riviè​res, 140 kilometres northeast of Montreal, a smaller city where he's closer to doctors he trusts. 

"It's more quiet here for me," he said. "There's not as much people so I can do my little routine in the mornings and so on."

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler

Journalist

Benjamin Shingler covers politics, immigration and social issues for CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.