Veterans Affairs reaches out to homeless vets

  • October 14, 2010
Dion MacArthurTORONTO - Veterans Affairs has come to The Good Shepherd mission in downtown Toronto looking for vets. And they’re finding them.

In her first two weeks as the Veterans Affairs case worker at The Good Shepherd, Dion MacArthur had already identified 15 homeless vets ranging in age from mid-30s to mid-80s, having served Canada in missions from Afghanistan to the Second World War.

A one-day survey earlier this year of more than 600 homeless people who came to The Good Shepherd for a meal found nine per cent claimed to have served in the military. Good Shepherd executive director Br. David Lynch concedes the survey may be less than scientific, given a propensity among the homeless to answer yes to any question if it might lead to extra service. But anyone who has been around the homeless knows that stories of time in the military are pretty common, he said.

Veterans Affairs ombudsman Col. Pat Stogran got himself in hot water with Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson in 2008 with a report called “Leave Nobody Behind.” In the report Stogran claimed Veterans Affairs was unprepared to help a shocking number of veterans who wind up homeless. Stogran’s contract was not renewed and his last day on the job will be Nov. 10.

Thompson rejected Stogran’s claims.

“Why hasn’t he (Stogran) forwarded those names to Veterans Affairs Canada, knowing full well we have the programs there to help them?” Thompson asked The Canadian Press in May 2009.

Though it may have cost him his job, Stogran is pleased to see Veterans Affairs doing something for homeless vets.

“I’m pleased that things are happening. I’m pleased that there is another initiative. I would be surprised if it’s actually part of a bigger plan out of head office,” he told The Catholic Register.

Local Veterans Affairs staff in the past have run pilot projects for homeless veterans in Vancouver and Montreal. The Good Shepherd pilot project is the first initiated by head office in Ottawa.

Stogran still feels this new program is a “drop in the bucket.”

“How can you build a program without really knowing the magnitude or the scope of the problem?” he asked.

While the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the British government have financed extensive scientific studies into homelessness among veterans, no similar research exists in Canada.

Trying to get a handle on the scope of the problem is just one of the goals for the new program at The Good Shepherd, said MacArthur.

The big breakthrough with this program is that Veterans Affairs is meeting the homeless where they live, she said.

“I’m on their turf. I’m making myself available to them to break down that barrier,” said MacArthur.

That addresses one of Stogran’s biggest complaints.

“That’s the problem with the whole Veterans Affairs system,” he said. “You have to self-identify. You have to know that the program exists. Then you have to cross the thresholds to get there.”

When Stogran began complaining about the lack of programs for homeless vets, Thompson listed off programs including home care.

“Well guess what Mac, they don’t have homes,” Stogran said. “They don’t need those kinds of programs.”

Before MacArthur moved her office down to The Good Shepherd, homeless veterans had to make their way to Sunnybrook Hospital, find the Veterans Affairs office, provide proof of their service and apply for one of the programs.

By working with The Good Shepherd and the dozens of agencies The Good Shepherd works with regularly, MacArthur hopes to deliver appropriate programs for veterans who may be suffering mental illness, addiction or have survived family breakdown.

MacArthur is pleased to find herself at The Good Shepherd working with people who know homelessness and know the homeless.

“These people are so compassionate,” she said. “They’re here to treat everybody with dignity and respect. It’s all about building relationships, building trust.”

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