Pension delays contribute to putting more veterans into financial crisis

A veterans group on the front line of fighting homelessness has seen an increase in the number of crisis calls, notably among ex-soldiers waiting for pensions. VETS Canada conducted an outreach on the streets of Ottawa on Saturday and managed to help one ex-soldier, but the onset of winter has organizers nervous.

It is under-appreciated how many serving military live 'paycheque to paycheque,' says VETS Canada leader

Claude Lord shows off a Canadian Veteran Forces cap recently in Montreal. Lord has been assisted by the federal government under a program aimed at getting ex-military personnel off the streets. He now gets a pension. Lord, a military vet, lives in a shipping container in a poor neighbourhood of Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The federal government's inability to get pension cheques into the hands of retiring soldiers in a timely manner is one of the factors contributing to a sharp increase in calls to an organization that deals with veterans in crisis, says a leading member of the group.

Walter Semianiw, a retired lieutenant-general and a driving force behind VETS Canada in Ottawa,  says it is not widely appreciated that many military members, while still in uniform, live paycheque to paycheque.

They are not financially prepared to wait weeks — sometimes months — for their money when they retire from active service, he said in an interview with CBC News.

This year alone VETS Canada, which has a contract with the federal government for outreach to veterans and homeless veterans, has received 650 calls from ex-soldiers in crisis across Canada.

Fifty of them have come within the last month alone, said Semianiw, who also did a stint as a senior official at veterans affairs.

Robert Praet was living in an Ottawa shelter until he was contacted by members of VETS Canada, which provides aid and comfort to veterans 2:21

"The question is: What is the issue? Why can't the government of Canada get cheques into people's hands — men and women in uniform — when they release (from the military)?" he said

"At the end of the day, in very simple terms: It is their money."

Homeless veteran leaves the shelter

The onset of winter has made the issue more pressing.

There was, however, one small victory for VETS Canada volunteers, many of them servicemen and RCMP officers, during an outreach walk on the streets of Ottawa.

Robert Praet, an older veteran, was living in an Ottawa shelter until Saturday when members of the organization, which has hundreds of volunteers and thousands of supporters across the country, contacted him.

A new report reveals that 2,250 former soldiers use shelters on regular basis. 8:07

Unable to afford housing in Alberta, Praet moved to the Ottawa area recently and found himself without a place to live.

"So many of the vets — particularly the younger ones, the newer ones — ones that need the help the medical help, both physically and mentally, they could use some support like this," he said.

"This is great to see and like I said, what a Christmas for me, what a Christmas present! I'm having a roof over my head."

But for groups like VETS Canada, it is urgent to deal with some of the root causes of homelessness, such as financial instability.

Pension processing delays

Last spring, the country's military ombudsman blasted the pension processing delays, saying both full-time and part-time members wait an unacceptable amount of time for their first payments.
Too many of this nation's mighty have fallen right through the cracks of civilian life. After serving their country, so many find themselves on the street. New numbers show that at least two thousand military veterans are homeless today. 26:38

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, at the time of the complaints, called the backlog "absolutely unacceptable" and pledged to do something about it, but warned a solution "won't happen overnight."

But successive federal governments have struggled with the same issue.
Retired lieutenant-general Walter Semianiw helped set up the Ottawa chapter of VETS Canada. (Steve Fischer/CBC News)

In 2011, the auditor general specifically examined the plight of reservists and a found significant backlog in the handling of retirement pensions for part-time soldiers — something the former Conservative government promised to fix.

"To my understanding, it is a capacity issue and they don't have enough people to deal with the backlog of claims at National Defence," Semianiw said.

It is unclear how much progress has been made since the spring on dealing with the stockpile of claims, but an increase in calls that cite the issue of delayed cheques is a matter of growing concern, he added.

How many vets are homeless?

There is not much in the way of data, in this country, about homelessness among veterans — the causes or the possible remedies.

A 2015 federal shelter study, released earlier this year, estimated about 2,250 veterans use shelters annually, but cautioned the actual number may be much higher.

The report by Employment and Social Development Canada was the first of its kind.

Point-in-time counts of homeless populations in cities across the country show veterans form between five and seven per cent of the homeless population, which would put their number as high as 11,000.

"There are still a lot there and we're finding a lot of them," said Jeff Murphy, the local chapter lead for VETS Canada.

Two homeless veterans were spotted in November, on top of six others identified in late September.

Waiting for action

That was just in the Ottawa area alone.

"A lot of them are nervous," Murphy said. "We come on to them very gently, for lack of a better word. We'll talk with them and ask those questions that only a military person would know. And as we break down that wall, they realize that there are brothers and sisters out there looking for them."
Minister of Veterans Affairs Kent Hehr speaks to stakeholders and veterans at a stakeholder summit at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. A new study from the Government of Canada finds that at least 2,250 veterans are homeless. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

A proposed federal strategy to deal with homelessness among veterans is under consideration and the minister responsible, Kent Hehr, has said he's committed to implementing it in a timely manner.

Last summer, a draft report recommended changing the vets benefits system to make it easier to hand out housing subsidies. Federal officials also seem keen to build affordable housing units dedicated to veterans.

It can't come fast enough for ex-military members who've spent time on the streets.

'Nobody...should be on the street'

Richard MacCallum, a former member of the navy who was homeless and now volunteers for VETS Canada, says many lose their homes and livelihoods through no fault of their own.

"I hate to see anybody who served this country the way I did, and the way these gentlemen did, on the street," he told CBC News in an interview.

Reaching out a finding one veteran at time has become a mission for MacCallum since he was helped out of a shelter.

But there is a still a lingering sense of frustration.

"It's not fair," said MacCallum, whose post-military career in business was cut short by the economic downturn.

"No veteran should be on the street. Actually no one — I'll change that. Nobody, be it veteran or civilian, should be on the street in Canada. There's no reason for it."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.