Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I'd like to thank my MP, Gord Johns, for inviting me, and thank the committee for the work you're doing.
I've asked myself a number of times over the past few months why I'd want to come here and testify to the veterans affairs standing committee. What impact would my voice bear on the decisions that this committee will make? To me, from sitting on the outside, you're all just a bunch of pretty faces, wearing pretty clothes, without the lived experience of a veteran. Veterans seem to perceive a lot of finger-pointing, paper-shuffling and talking, with little or no direct outcome to assist the struggles that the contemporary veteran in Canada faces today.
To me, talk's cheap and seemingly meaningless. Veterans are used to receiving orders, conducting our mission analysis and assigning our groupings and tasks while carrying out the mission. This does not happen at Veterans Affairs. The mission and tasks are being passed down, but they're not being understood or received at the local level. Case managers are not aware of what to do when a veteran, like me, is soon to be homeless and then becomes homeless. We're told to contact our local Legion, and yet the Legion at the local level can't assist us.
The current system is designed to place roadblocks in the way of veterans. For example, since my release in 2016 I've had nine case managers, two of whom were actually qualified for the position. All the others were, typically, three-month contract hires with no experience. They, the contract hires, were unable to provide me with any support or answers to any questions I had.
Case managers are kept at a distance, yet federal offenders have better access to their parole officers than I do to my own case manager—and I served my country rather than commit crimes. I was released against my will six months before my 20 years, medically released. Those extra six months could have been the difference in keeping me from being homeless.
Last year I called the director of Veterans Affairs to inquire about the Veterans' Land Act. I was told on the phone, by their staff, that I needed to pick a fight I could win rather than one I'd lose. So, as a fighter, I chose to fill out my application and mail it off, with support from the Chief of the K'ómoks First Nation and their chief land claims negotiator, Mark Stevenson, and I've yet to receive a reply from the director to my application for the land act.
My journey to homelessness began post-deployment in 2012. I was not provided with decompression upon returning from my deployment. I was given five days' leave and then thrown into a high-stress teaching position, which pretty much ended my career. Upon my release from the royal Canadian Army, I was living in Shilo. I was paying $800 a month in rent, then moved back to Vancouver to be closer to my two sons, one of whom has autism and requires specialized care. The cost of rent for suitable homes in B.C., as most know, for me was $2,500 a month—that's all I could find. That was taking two-thirds of my income and all of my pension. I was unable to provide any support to my boys. I couldn't provide food. I couldn't provide insurance coverage and health care.
The housing crisis is only one issue facing veterans in B.C. Those of us who require medical service dogs are at a huge disadvantage.
On January 1, 2016, the B.C. legislature put into force the B.C. Guide Dog and Service Dog Act. This act does not recognize any service dogs or guide dogs from outside British Columbia. It recognizes one agency and one organization, an American organization. This is a complete violation of my charter rights. The human rights act of Canada is being violated, as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This act has prevented me from obtaining housing in B.C. because I have a service dog that isn't trained by this American organization. This was one of the main driving forces for me, in May of last year, to go homeless and live in my trailer in the parking lot of Walmart. The only reason I was able to find housing was that a former veteran sat on that board, and he was a Commonwealth veteran, not a Canadian veteran.
Upon my release in February 2016, a mountain of paperwork was thrown at me, with little to no help from the release section. At that time, I completed three TD1 personal income tax forms: one for my pension through Public Works Canada, one to Manulife and one to Veterans Affairs. None of those forms was actioned, which subsequently left me with a tax bill of $6,700. Without a fixed address, I was unable to access a post office box, as Canada Post requires a fixed address to obtain a post office box. I was unable to to get access to information from the Canada Revenue Agency because I didn't have a fixed address. I was unable to renew my B.C. driver's licence because I didn't have a fixed address.
Once I was able to access the information, I was informed that my request for my tax forms was not processed. I contacted each office, and only Public Works apologized and realized they had made a mistake. Veterans Affairs' answer was that they hadn't receive it, and so was Manulife's. I again filled out the forms and filed them. Once again, none was actioned for the 2017 tax year, leaving me with a tax bill owing to the CRA of $12,000. Right now, that's going to be require me to pay the CRA $1,184 a month over the next two years to keep from going into arrears and to keep my pension from being garnished by the CRA.
The disability tax credit must be reinstated for veterans with complex PTSD and OSI. Currently, we are not able to receive those benefit deductions.
I currently receive benefits from Manulife for long-term disability. The private contracted insurance company required me to file for early CPP disability. I am now going to have less when I’m 65. I am now going to be paying more in taxes and have even more medical forms and paperwork to fill out. Members receiving LTD benefits from VAC are not required to file for early CPP. Again, there are two classes of veterans: those of us prior to 2006, and those after that; those of us who are on Manulife long-term disability benefits, and those who are on VAC long-term disability benefits. Because I was forced to file for CPP or lose my long-term disability benefits, I'm unable to claim my medical forms on Manulife, but those who are on VAC can claim their medical form expenses. This past year I spent over $400 that I can't claim—Manulife does not reimburse.
This past week I received a letter from Public Works, which administers my pension, requesting a lump sum payment of $8,167.76. Because of Manulife’s requirement for veterans to file for early CPP, I'm now required to pay back my bridge benefit that Manulife wants two and a half years' worth of. I’ve also incurred over $11,000 in credit card debt as a direct result of the eight-month delay in receiving benefits upon my release.
After just finding housing, I'm again facing homelessness because of the two-tier benefits system we're facing. I suspect that in the next six months, because of the financial pressures placed on me and my kids by my four service providers—yes, four financial service providers—I will become homeless again.
To navigate the financial requirements of all these providers requires weeks of research, volumes of paperwork that a veteran with complex occupational stress injuries is unlikely to manage, and it's too much to bear. This is a prime example of why veterans commit suicide.
What I want to see change is that the minister immediately needs to step in and move me off Manulife long-term disability benefits and onto Veterans Affairs long-term disability benefits. It's unfair for me to pay more to get less. I pay $211 a month to top up my pension so they can take away $486 a month.
Members on the Manulife plan who have been deemed 100% disabled should be moved. Any members on Manulife should have their medical documentation covered 100% like VAC. The disability tax credit for veterans suffering from complex PTSD and OSI must be reinstated by CRA. That difference could save a veteran from being on the street.
Access to the Veterans Land Act could provide a similar structure to Habitat for Humanity's and provide homes for veterans. There's an act in place; let's tweak it and move it so we can find affordable housing for veterans. Right now, affordable housing is set up for the hard to house, not for those of us who have children.
The support received from VAC financially is an emergency fund, yet case managers are either unaware of it or don't know what to do or how to administer it. It doesn't reflect the cost of living in communities such as in the Comox Valley, and it's not accessible to those of us who are homeless.
Support from Legions doesn't even recommend it. At the local level where I live, there's no help. They're unaware of what the contemporary veteran is facing in today's reality.
Community organizations won't touch a veteran in my area because they assume that Veterans Affairs will take care of us.
Salvation Army won't assist us. When I became homeless, they told me to go to the Legion or call Veterans Affairs. The military family resource centre at CFB Comox can assist vets, but they're very limited because they believe that VAC will help, and the local executive director is even unclear about his mandate to assist veterans. No one is able to track veterans' homelessness at this time.
Ontario has good numbers. I know of three veterans who are on the street homeless in our area, who I'm working with. From the numbers I've received from OSISS, it's probably more likely that there are six. Veterans' assisted housing is always in larger metropolitan areas, leaving those of us in rural areas with no help, unless we move to a large metropolitan area.
I served my country and never questioned it for 20 years. The oath I took was not just an oath to serve, but to give my life if needed. If a sitting MP can receive a pension after six years, why is it that I have to fight and scratch my way through a system designed to fight me every inch of the way, destroy my family and break me down.
My former MP Pat Martin joined the CAF the same month and year I joined. We served the same amount of time, yet he's receiving an annual lifetime pension of $93,000 to a tune of $3.8 million. I only receive $14,400, $10,000 below the Canadian government's target for the poverty line.
Many studies and reports have been done since 2006 regarding the prevalence of PTSD and homelessness among combat veterans. In particular, the last study on the reasons why veterans become homeless was done in 2011. “Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and the Mental Health of Military Personnel and Veterans” was the name of the study.
Every morning I wake up, I have a choice. I can choose to fight the system and spin my wheels, become disillusioned, frustrated, downtrodden, or I can choose suicide. Those are the choices that contemporary veterans face.
Today, I choose to live and fight the losing battle only so my sons don't have to live on the street again. However, this is a battle that I am slowly losing.
I ask you, what choice will you make when you wake up to address the reality that we veterans face every single day in our country?