Mr. Speaker, I am profoundly honoured today to provide a government response to the first report from the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, entitled “Moving Towards Ending Homelessness Among Veterans”. It is especially important to note that Veterans Week starts tomorrow, and, leading up to Remembrance Day on November 11, we will be commemorating those who have done so much to safeguard our democracy.
For generations, Canadians have gone to military service for reasons that can be both unique personally and remarkably similar all at once, most notably the common desire to protect and defend the values that they and their fellow Canadians believe in.
More than 650,000 Canadians bravely served in World War I. During the Second World War, over one million people from Canada and Newfoundland would enlist for service on battle fronts all over the globe. Thousands more Canadians would serve in Korea, the Persian Gulf, the Balkans and Afghanistan. Here at home, members of our military have responded to natural disasters, like major flooding and devastating ice storms. Of course, they have been counted on during the COVID-19 pandemic, most notably tending to our seniors, including veterans, in long-term care facilities.
Today, one in 60 Canadians is a veteran. It is our responsibility to meet their needs in post-service life and to commemorate and remember their incredible service and sacrifice.
Many former members were released from the military without needing any major assistance. Their transition was for the most part smooth, and from one day to the next they were able to move on to a new chapter in their lives. However, for others, the transition from a career in the armed forces to post-service life is much more difficult, owing to any number of factors, including dealing with physical and mental injuries that limit post-career employment opportunities, experiencing financial instability that makes it hard to make ends meet, or having difficulties adapting to a life that is far less regimented than what a former member is accustomed to.
The consequences can be devastating, with homelessness being one of them. The government's position on veteran homelessness is clear: One homeless veteran is one too many. Of course, the issue is much more complex than that. As the report notes:
Homelessness likely affects between 3,000 and 5,000 veterans, or between 4.6 per 1,000 and 7.7 per 1,000 of the nearly 650,000 veterans living in Canada.
Therefore, there is quite obviously a problem. It is one we know we can address and prevent with a determined and coordinated effort.
Before we can even seek to address homelessness, we have to know exactly what it is. Let me spell it out. Homelessness is a symptom of a failed or challenged transition process. It is an outcome of a system that lacks the right supports at the right time and one in which gaps exist. Most obviously, it is a grave concern that impacts a person's overall well-being.
Each of these points brings up some tough questions that we must ask ourselves. What do we know about homeless veterans? What leads them to end up without a home? What are the key factors? What do we not know? Who is leading the research in this area? What have our partners found out? Where is the latest information on the issue? Who offers what services? Whose are the most innovative and effective? How do our allies approach veteran homelessness, and what can we learn from them?
These are questions that are constantly asked, and we are working with allied countries, community organizations, the homeless sector, veterans groups and federal partners to address and understand them. As more is learned about the issue, we will be able to do even more to identify and help our veterans.
One way is through public consultation and stakeholder engagement. Last week, the Minister of Veterans Affairs and the Minister of Housing and Diversity and Inclusion hosted three national round table events on veteran homelessness.
Participants included a veterans organization, a homeless sector organization and a veteran who themselves have experienced living without a home. They talked about identifying gaps and barriers for diverse groups of veterans experiencing homelessness, the impact of COVID-19, the best practices, and how different sectors can work together to find solutions.
They explored a number of themes related to veteran homelessness. Some of the themes are as follows: ensuring veteran housing supports, for example, through rent supplements; making wraparound services available in conjunction with affordable and safe housing, to ensure a personal route out of homelessness; integrating mental health, addictions counselling and other health and medical services into supports for our veterans; having better data and data-driven approaches to veteran homelessness; increasing awareness of available programs and services for veterans at risk of or experiencing homelessness; and coordinating across sectors, government departments and levels of government to prevent and reduce homelessness.
We have also worked in collaboration with partners such as the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness in addressing homelessness among veterans to provide all Canadians with a safe and affordable home.
The government itself has also taken several steps to address this issue. Over the last two years, we have invested over $100 million to launch a new veteran homelessness program. In partnership with community organizations, it will provide wraparound services and rent supplements to veterans experiencing homelessness.
These investments show how important this issue is for our government, and they add momentum to our efforts to address homelessness. Veterans experiencing homelessness have unique circumstances that require unique supports. We are always seeking to work with outside organizations and other government departments to ensure that veterans have a safe and affordable place to live.
Veterans Affairs also supports homeless and at-risk veterans in other ways. These include the VAC assistance service, which provides free psychological support for veterans, former RCMP members, family members and caregivers. The service is free and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by simply calling the toll-free 800 number that can be easily found on the VAC website.
Veterans experiencing homelessness or who are at risk can also obtain assistance through the veterans emergency fund, which provides prompt financial supports to veterans, their families and survivors who are facing an unforeseeable financial emergency that is threatening their health and well-being. It can cover essentials such as food, clothing or mortgage payments, medical expenses, and expenses required to maintain safety and shelter. The emergency fund exists to provide financial assistance to veterans and their families quickly and without complicated eligibility requirements and approval processes.
For longer-term help, VAC will refer applications to other resources and other internal and external programs to assist our veterans. We also have the veteran and family well-being fund, which provides supports to organizations that are coming up with new and innovative ways of improving the well-being of Canadian veterans and their families. In 2018, over 60 organizations across the country received more than $25 million through that fund.
Thanks to the new increased funding in budget 2021, the well-being fund awards $8 million a year until 2023-24. This year, we have funded projects to support veterans and their families during COVID-19 recovery, including those experiencing homelessness.
The Homes For Heroes Foundation is a good example of an organization that has benefited from this fund. Earlier this year it received $250,000 to go towards the Calgary veterans village and another $315,000 each to similar projects in Halifax and Winnipeg. These villages give veterans access to affordable and innovative housing as they transition into life after service. Not only that, but they also have access to the resources, training and counselling that can help them live independently in the long term. We also awarded Homes For Heroes $712,000 in 2021 to hire a national coordinator to oversee the operation of its national expansion plan.
Fredericton Homeless Shelters is another organization that has received support from our veteran and family well-being fund. In 2020 it was awarded nearly $60,000 to support its homeless veterans pilot project, which identifies veterans in the Fredericton area who are experiencing homelessness. It gives them temporary shelter and access to services and supports that will help them find long-term housing and bring more stability to their lives. For example, it helps them access doctors and specialists, find a job or go back to school.
This is the type of baseline assistance that makes life easier, not just for veterans, but for everyone. The Fredericton Homeless Shelter also received $40,000 in 2021 for its “from crisis to home” project and $75,000 in 2022 for a project called “continuum of care for veterans”. These are the kinds of projects that the government created the well-being fund for; ideas that can change the lives of veterans in Canada.
It is tragic to think that anyone who served our country in uniform could one day end up homeless. On any given day, members of our Canadian Armed Forces can be anywhere in the world, putting their lives on the line for the safety and security of Canadians. They go where they are sent, and they do what they are told to do for our country. By the time their careers are done, some may sail into the sunset, while others land in more choppy, difficult waters.
As a government, we are fully committed to every Canadian who has worn the uniform, whether they have served for decades or were honourably discharged early in their careers. All deserve a safe and affordable home in which to live after they are released, and this government will continue to do everything it can to ensure that all our veterans receive the support they need and have a home to live in.