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Advocate Pitches Three Ways to Help Homeless Vets

Tom Beaver reflects on new findings that 2,250 fellow veterans regularly use shelters.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 7 Jan 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

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If Canada wants to decrease its number of homeless veterans, a good start would be to stop handing lump-sum payments to young men fresh out of the army, says a veterans' advocate.

On Tuesday, the Canadian Press revealed the results of an internal March 2015 study from Employment and Social Development Canada that found 2,250 veterans use homeless shelters on a regular basis. The news agency obtained the information through the access to information process.

The study found that Canada's former soldiers are prone to "episodic homelessness," and that the average age of homeless veterans is 52, compared with 37 in the general population.

There are some holes in the data, the study noted, including figures around the number of veterans who do not use shelters.

The Tyee contacted the Liberal government about the study and was told an official would respond Thursday.

Meanwhile, Tom Beaver, founder of the Coalition of Canadian Veterans said there are a number of actions the government can take straight away to reduce the number of homeless veterans of all ages.

He added that he suspects the number of homeless vets is higher than the study suggests, because many former soldiers choose to live in camps in the wilderness rather than on the streets.

Do away with lump sums

On the top of Beaver's list is doing away with lump sum payments for disabilities, a policy brought in by the Harper government in 2006.

Beaver said the payments seem to average around $150,000, and that younger vets newly out of the service may not be ready to handle that much cash at once, especially if coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"[While serving in the military] their meals were all done for them, they had a roof over their head, and then with the snap of a finger there's nothing more," he said. "They have a hand full of cash, and away they go."

Before the 2006 policy change, disabled vets would receive their disability pensions in regular instalments over time.

Beaver said he didn't hear much about homeless veterans until the lump sum payments started.

But when vets are facing serious issues like PTSD or permanent injuries related to their service, he said it's more likely they will spend money fast in an effort to cope.

That may sound condescending, but Beaver said it's a reality in the military, where many young people are forced to make a quick transition from a lifestyle where you "do what you're told" to one where you have to make your own decisions.

Rethink disability pensions

Beaver also believes that veterans' disability pensions should be shielded from divorce settlements.

When a veteran splits with their spouse, it's understandable that other pensions, such as CPP, or other income is shared, he said.

But Beaver believes an exception should be made for disability pensions, because it's much harder for a veteran with a disability to make ends meet.

He said he's seen many cases where veterans are forced to share the pensions intended to help them with disabilities with former partners.

In some cases, he's heard of vets having to part with as much as 80 per cent of their disability pensions.

"To this day, I don't see how a military veteran loses his military disability pension to a spouse on a divorce," Beaver said. "That's happened in a number of cases… disability pensions are there for a reason."

Let vets lend a hand

According to Beaver, upon release from the military veterans are given a days-long class on how to reintegrate into civilian life.

The class includes topics such as how to apply for health coverage, but doesn't help veterans in other ways like showing them how to use their service skills to find employment, he said.

Beaver said that even as a veteran and advocate for former soldiers, he and his group are not allowed access to the personnel to help them get a better idea of what they'll face after leaving the military.

He said there are likely a number of homeless vets out there who don't even know they qualify for pensions or disability support.

Making it worse is the amount of red tape that vets must complete in order to get their pensions or other payments from the military.

That should be cut down, he said.

"We've already gone through it," Beaver said of his fellow vets who'd like to help other vets. "Where better to learn than from the guys who have already been out and gone through the system?"  [Tyee]

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