Veterans emergency fund runs out of money

The emergency fund for helping troubled Canadian military veterans has been depleted, says Veterans Affairs.

Other funds exist to help vets but come with restrictions that exclude some former soldiers

An emergency fund administered by Veterans Affairs that helps veterans in need has run out of money. VETS Canada, a charity that assists homeless vets, is one of the groups that has drawn on the fund. (Steve Fischer/CBC)

When a military veteran is in crisis and can't wait for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn, veterans caseworkers and volunteer organizations have been able to call on a special fund for quick help.

The homeless vet who needs help on a winter's night, or the vet facing eviction who has no money to pay the rent, has often been able to count on an emergency injection of cash — up to $1,200 per veteran in any given year — from a trust fund administered by Veterans Affairs.

The fund does not contain government money. Instead, it is made up of donations from individual Canadians, mostly in the form of bequests left in wills. Because it isn't taxpayer money, it can be accessed quickly with a fraction of the paperwork involved in accessing most veterans benefits.

"It's that area where the case manager can make a difference immediately," said Michel Doiron, assistant deputy minister of veterans affairs.

"We can put food in your fridge, we can get you into a homeless shelter or maybe even, in a city where there is no homeless shelter, into some hotel where we can take care of you and make sure you're not on the street, especially in winter time."

Debbie Lowther is co-founder and chair of Veterans Emergency Transition Services (VETS) Canada, a charity staffed largely by veterans to help former comrades in need and which helped clients draw on the fund a couple of times a month. This was the "go-to fund" for desperate situations, she said.

But Lowther said the charity was recently notified that the fund had run dry.

No veteran turned away

Doiron and other officials at Veterans Affairs stressed that the exhaustion of the fund does not mean that desperate or homeless vets will be turned away, although it may be harder to find them the kind of immediate help the fund provided.

"We will use other funds that they may be eligible for, we have programming sometimes, for example we have one that came to us earlier this week, and we accelerated a government program to ensure he is not without services and/or money."

Doiron said Veterans Affairs caseworkers are resourceful people who know how to look for money from other sources. No homeless veteran will be turned away, he said.

But Doiron acknowledges that money that comes from government appropriations can never be as flexible as an emergency fund stocked with donations from ordinary citizens.

"We can turn around a cheque within 24 or 48 hours. But sometimes you need it that Friday afternoon at 4 o'clock."

Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr said in a statement Wednesday that there is no interruption of help or services to veterans as a result of the fund's depletion.

"Veterans Affairs Canada keeps ensuring that all veterans, including homeless veterans and any veteran in crisis, get the services they need, when and where they need them," Hehr said in the emailed statement.

CBC News first became aware of the story when it was contacted by a volunteer who works with homeless veterans to say that an attempt to access the emergency fund had been denied.

"It was even a surprise to me to be honest," said Doiron. "Because we look at it quarterly, and in March, when it was the end of the year and we balanced the budget, we realized whoops, this one here is at that point."

Doiron said the veteran who didn't receive emergency funds will be helped through other channels. "This is very, very recent. It came to our attention Friday of last week and we've taken steps since then."

There are other sources of help as well. The Royal Canadian Legion has a program of its own that provides funding to homeless shelters to care for veterans, and it says it has money on hand to help those in need.

The Legion raises money privately — with support from any level of government — and doles it out across the country. The Ontario command of the Legion has 405 branches, and they're equipped to help those in immediate need with food vouchers or gift certificates. The Legion also actively works to help veterans find housing.

Some funds have narrow focus

The emergency fund that has run out is far from the only one that exists to help veterans in need. Several others remain and still contain money. The problem is that many people put conditions on how their bequests can be used.

"Sometimes it is extremely narrow," said Doiron. "They say you can only use it for veterans of this conflict, or veterans in this city. Other times it is more general, just help veterans."

But the emergency fund is one in which Veterans Affairs pools money that comes with few or no caveats attached.

City-specific funds exist to help vets in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Quebec City. The veteran who was unable to access the emergency fund was living on the streets of Victoria.

The amount in the fund has fluctuated over time, rising as new bequests come in and falling as veterans draw from it. At times recently it has held upward of $200,000, but this year it has been drawn on heavily and no new bequests have been received.

A survey released in January by Employment and Social Development Canada estimated that there are about 2,250 veterans who use homeless shelters in Canada in a given year, and that the rate of episodic homelessness among veterans is higher than among other Canadian adults.

Doiron said that the fund, although depleted, remains in existence.

"We can't control when the money comes in, or when it goes out," he said. "We keep replenishing it. So if you leave money to us, and you're not too specific in what it's to be used for, we would put it in that emergency trust fund."