First, I'd like to thank you for the opportunity to be here today, to share some of our experiences that we've learned over the last 10 years.
In the spring of 2009, we started Cockrell House and got our society status in August of that year. It is transitional housing and I believe that we're still the only such place in Canada.
Over the years, we have participated in two of the HPS studies that the doctor spoke of. That's where we learned an awful lot of what we know, from the professionals. We found it to be of good value.
The housing first model is the slot that they put us in. We are convinced that it works, but not in isolation. Food and a bus pass, which allows mobility, cannot be overrated. That's right from the start, when we first get one of them in. You give somebody a bus pass and it's more than giving them a car. They can finally get around. If they have an appointment, they can keep the appointments. It's really been an important part of our program.
Counselling and peer support must be part of the program. We would like to be a success with them all. We don't want it to be a revolving door. We don't want it to be considered just a cheap place to live. It's a place where you can decompress, sit back and take stock of your situation, to figure out where you are and how you got there.
We're often asked questions like, “Why are these people helping us? We've been alone drifting and whatnot”. I think the relative comfort that they feel.... Without that relative comfort, it's difficult to make good decisions. When you wind up in a place, like being homeless, you're not in a position to make good decisions. You're just not. I believe this could happen to any of us.
We immediately hook a new resident up with a Veterans Affairs caseworker, if they don't already have one. Typically, most don't at that point in time. They should, but for various reasons, they don't. The Veterans Affairs office is a great big scary place. An awful lot of them have said, “I went in there and I was treated like a dog”. Of course, that is not true, since it's just their perception. They walked in and they didn't know the questions to ask.
We get them hooked up with a caseworker right away and we've been really fortunate. We've had some great front-line people with Veterans Affairs. They are people that care a lot more than just a nine-to-five job. There are some excellent people doing some great work.
Another thing that we've learned is the value of veterans helping veterans. This was something we envisioned at the start, but we were unsure how it would work. It does work and I think it's a big part of the success that we see. The realization that they are still part of a family, with others that have served, can be quite a revelation. People that have served are used to being part of a military family, where they have each other's backs. It's the culture, so to find out that now that they're out and they're veterans they are still part of a family, it's a big step.
One of the better things that we've done is that we have a resident manager now who is there 24-7. He's a veteran himself. He was kind of drifting in life. I talked to him for a little bit and got him to come on board. He's totally committed. He did 20 years in the service and came out as a sergeant. They relate to him.
Another real bonus is that some people that have gone through Cockrell House and are now back in society. They have connected with family members and whatnot. With just a phone call, they're willing to come and speak to the guys and women. As the doctor mentioned, there are female homeless veterans, too. In the time that we've been going, I think there have been seven females who have gone through our program.
A veteran, a man or woman who has served, is different from those who have not. They possess pride and an understanding and acceptance of rules, an understanding of rank and structure, of responsibility. They want to know what the rules are. They might want to figure out how to get around them, but they want to know what the rules are and who ultimately they have to answer to. They were trained that way, and understanding some of these things has made it a little easier to help them.
Rarely have we found a veteran in a shelter—rarely. They are more likely to avoid society, to shun the urban setting. You're not going to see them sitting on the corner in a city. You're just not. It's back to that pride. A lot of the ones who are still of age are possibly living in the bush. We found them living there, or maybe they have a camper that's sitting on the ground and stuck away. Also they're couch surfing. Often we've had quite a few who have been living with a buddy in their basement, and finally the buddy's wife says, “Look, he's been here long enough. Christmas is coming. We have guests. He has to go.” They hear about Cockrell House and that's where they end up.
Most of them, a large percentage of them, aren't living in shelters. The fact that they won't have anything to do with a shelter, I think, skews some of the statistics too, because obviously that's where the statistics have to be collected. But the others, how do you ever account for them? I've come to the conclusion, and my belief is, that probably 8% to 10% of the homeless population has worn a uniform.
Mental health and PTSD and whatnot are not usually primary causes of homelessness. In a lot of cases, any addictions are self-medicating health issues. The average stay at Cockrell House is about one year, although a few have stayed with us for less than a year and successfully got back into society. Many have been in the two-year range.
Indeed, we have one veteran right now who has already been with us two and a half years, who served 19 years in the military. He was medically released, and within the next few years he fell apart. His family fell apart, and he was living in his vehicle when we first found him. He's taken courses, he's worked hard, he completed his grade 12 and he's now taking a course in addiction counselling. He has a son with special needs and he's very focused. I think his son is definitely his motivation. We're going to continue to support him until he's completed the courses. It doesn't matter how long, because we don't have a definite period of time. We can't say, “You've hit three years. You have to go.”
When we started we set three years for various reasons, but we got rid of that. We put it to two years and we got rid of that. With everybody, it's whatever each person needs and what will help them. The idea is, once again, that it's not a revolving door.
The cost to operate the house works out to be about $1,100 a month. While that seems low, there are quite a few reasons. One of them is that we're all volunteers, but we have a lot of in-kind help. The only furniture we buy is a brand new bed when we get somebody. Other than that, all the furniture and things we have are donated. There are people who pass away, and the estate will say, “We've heard about Cockrell House and the veterans. We'd like them to have first shot at everything they want before we put it out for sale.” We've had a lot of that. We've had people, especially veterans themselves, downsize and go into a condo.
We have gotten much of the furniture that way, and some of it nice stuff. When veterans are finished, when they are successful and can move on to their own place, we send them away with everything they need. They come in with nothing; you can't send them back out with nothing. We send them with everything they need to set up a home. In some cases, if it's going to be an apartment, it's first month's rent and whatnot. In many cases we'll continue supporting them for a while, even if it's just with a bus pass or a food voucher to help out now and then, just to get them on their feet.
The other thing we do, after the first couple of months, is assess each individual's own situation. We encourage them to make a contribution—we're careful not to call it rent, ever—to the project. This can vary from $200 to $500 a month, depending, obviously, on their income. This has proven helpful not just to extending our program but to their feeling of worthiness. They are now helping themselves. They're helping the program. They're helping what's helping them. We found that to be quite inspirational.
Our daily struggle, of course, has been for funding. We've never received any financial support from the federal or provincial governments. Without the Royal Canadian Legion we couldn't survive.
But we have to grow. The need is too great. Right now, if we had three times the number of rooms we have, I'm confident that within three or four months the place would be full. It's not that we turn people away. Those who will go to a shelter go to a shelter or just stay where they are until we have room. I wish it weren't so.