A report released last week by Employment and Social Development Canada suggests there are nearly 2,300 homeless veterans in Canada. This is the first time an official government study has been released on the subject and the numbers only take into account those who have used homeless shelters. There could be hundreds more living on the streets without relying on the shelter system.
It is, frankly, a national disgrace. While it is not solely the fault of failures in the social safety net, (the study cites alcoholism, drug addiction and mental health issues as contributing factors), there is no doubt Veterans Affairs could have done more to provide the services necessary to help these veterans make the transition to civilian life and make it stick over the long run.
Some of the more disturbing findings of the report are veterans are more likely to be engaged in episodic homelessness than the average person, meaning they are often existing on a treadmill where they just can’t find their way in society. And episodic homelessness is even more prevalent in female veterans than male ones. The average homeless veteran’s age is 52, significantly older than the average of the general population at 37 years-old.
This latest report is seen as confirmation by many of the failure of the federal government’s strategy, going back decades, to think about the needs of veterans long term. Second World War veterans have generally expressed satisfaction with their treatment by Veterans Affairs over the years, but those of the Korean War era, Peacekeeping era and younger veterans of the Afghan War era have not received the same benefits or level of care. The system has created two classes of veterans in this country, and now we see the results: Hundreds of younger veterans falling through the cracks despite facing many of the same debilitating issues of substance abuse, alcohol abuse and mental trauma brought on by their service.
Canada’s top soldier Gen. John Vance and Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau both have said helping these veterans, and helping even younger veterans, make a more successful transition to civilian life is a priority. Given that we have heard these types of promises before, and that many of the currently homeless vets served in the era under previous Liberal governments, Canadians should remain skeptical. If this Liberal government continues to take the cheap way out as its own predecessors, (and the Harper Conservatives), did, the homeless numbers for younger veterans will continue to grow.
The problem is a complex one that even with dedicated effort will take perhaps as much as a decade to solve. It will also take more than just throwing money at the problem; it will have to ensure that money is well spent on affordable veterans’ housing, addictions treatment, employment training and long term mental health care. It can’t be cookie cutter either, by having more boots on the ground at Veterans Affairs and Employment and Social Development the individual needs and circumstances of veterans must be understood and met.
It’s a great national challenge in a time of economic uncertainty, but there can be no more excuses. We have allowed these men and women to fall through the cracks for too long.