'Boots-on-the-ground' walk aims to get homeless Ottawa vets off the street

Hundreds of volunteers across the country hit the streets Saturday to help support homeless veterans — including here in Ottawa.

Walks took place in 13 Canadian cities, including Ottawa, on Saturday

Veteran Richard MacCallum credits VETS Canada with helping him get off the streets. (CBC)

Richard MacCallum was homeless and living at Ottawa's Salvation Army in January when he was approached by a VETS Canada volunteer.

"This group helped me," said MacCallum Saturday. "They got me out of the shelter. [They] help me immensely. That's why I volunteer with them. To give back."

MacCallum, a Canadian veteran, was one of hundreds of people across Canada who hit the streets this weekend for the coast-to-coast "Boots on the Ground" walk.

The walk — which took place in 13 Canadian cities, including Ottawa — was organized by Veteran Emergency Transition Services (VETS) Canada, a national non-profit organization that helps house homeless veterans and offers support services to those in crisis.

About 190 volunteers took part in the walk to look for veterans. More than 30 vets were identified and another four reached out to VETS Canada after the walk.

VETS Canada held its first coast-to-coast national walk on June 11 to help support homeless veterans. (CBC)

MacCallum said the group helped him secure permanent housing, which allowed him to find work in construction. He said the non-profit is necessary because it assists those who fall through cracks of government veteran services.

"We do a lot to help where they fall out. We fill in the holes," said MacCallum.

'I just felt lost' 

VETS Canada — which was started in 2010 — is run by volunteers, with 100 per cent of the money donated to the organization going to veterans.

"I wanted to get out in the community and do something, and feel like I was needed. Because when I got out of the military, I just felt lost," said the group's founder, Jim Lowther.

He was homeless, and he pointed out three other vets who were homeless ... I couldn't believe it. I literally couldn't believe it.- VETS Canada founder Jim Lowther.

​Lowther did two tours in Bosnia and served on HMCS Halifax after 9/11 attacks, and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

He said he began thinking about starting an organization after meeting a man at a soup kitchen in Halifax.

"He was homeless, and he pointed out three other vets who were homeless ... I couldn't believe it. I literally couldn't believe it. I went home and told my wife. She didn't believe me," said Lowther. 

"I figured if it was that easy to find four, what if we actually did a military boots-on-the-ground walk? How many could we find then?"

Jim Lowther founded VETS Canada to help veterans struggling to reintegrate into society. (CBC)

Ron Allison served for 22 years with the Canadian army and now volunteers with the organization's Ottawa chapter.

"It's really grown into a big organization because of the need. There are disenfranchised troops living on the streets and couch surfing all over the country. So we're just trying to fulfil a need," said Allison.

The group, he said, has become increasingly familiar to Ottawa's homeless.

"People on the street are starting to know us."

'An immediate effect'

Kanata-Carleton MP Karen McCrimmon, who spent five years as an army reservist and 26 more as an air force officer, also took part in Saturday's walk.

She said the organization serves a vital role helping veterans dealing with mental health issues and PTSD.

"This is a grassroots organization that has an immediate affect in the lives of veterans who are struggling. Sometimes being in government, you don't see the immediate impact," said McCrimmon, who also serves as the parliamentary secretary for the minister of veterans affairs.

"I did a tour in Afghanistan and I have a lot of friends who came away with that and were struggling to deal with it," said MP Karen McCrimmon (centre) with VETS Canada founder Jim Lowther (left) and Ottawa chapter volunteer Walter Semianiew (right). (CBC)

McCrimmon said when military members are relieved of duty because of health reasons, it can be very difficult.

"When they're released and they're kicked out of the military, they lose their community. They lose their family, they lose their identity, they lose their security — all in one fell swoop," she said.

"Even to have a kind word or smile, it makes a big difference."