Few parents can imagine living for years without knowing whether their child is dead or alive. But that is the experience of many families of veterans, whose loved ones often end up living on the streets of Canadian cities after struggling to transition out of the military. Suzanne Le, the executive director of Ottawa’s Multifaith Housing Initiative (MHI), recalls meeting a mother whose son disappeared after serving in Afghanistan. The mother had arrived from Newfoundland, having heard through word of mouth that her son might be living in a tent behind the Parliament buildings. “She was shaken,” said Le. “She was anxious as to whether or not she was going to find him.”
Le took the opportunity to ask the mother what Veterans’ House, an intentional community for veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless that will open in January, would mean to her. She recalls the woman’s response: “What would it mean to know where your child was — that they have a roof over their head, that they have food in their stomach, that they are taken care of, that they are safe, to be able to pick up the phone and call them? It would mean the world is what that would mean.”
This Remembrance Day, Le is urging Canadians to think not only of the dead who have made significant sacrifices, but also the living who are still sacrificing despite having completed their military service. “We have the tomb of the unknown soldier,” she says, “but what about the known soldier who is sleeping in a tent behind the Parliament buildings?”
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Veterans comprise 4.4 percent of the homeless population in communities across Canada, according to data from 2018. In Canada’s capital city alone, one 2018 city count found 65 veterans sleeping rough, and of those, 35 percent were Indigenous. With its latest project, Veterans’ House, MHI is hoping to change that. The 40-unit supportive housing residence will be built on Ottawa’s former Rockcliffe air base, a gesture meant to commemorate those who have served and now, Le says, deserve service themselves. In addition to individual suites for independent living, it will offer a series of shared communal spaces that aim to provide for the unique needs of veterans: a shared kitchen, a gym, a dog park for therapy dogs, and meditative and food gardens, in addition to offices for medical assistance and support services, including mental health and addictions support.
Veterans’ House consulted with many partners during the design phase, including the Royal Canadian Legion, Veterans Affairs Canada and Soldiers Helping Soldiers, among others. “When they’re released from the military,” says Jeff Evely, the Ottawa chapter lead for Soldiers Helping Soldiers, “not only do [veterans] lose their careers, but they lose that community and support.”
In total, the project will cost $11.5 million to build, with $2 million remaining to be raised. Of that remaining amount, The United Church of Canada’s Eastern Ontario Outaouais Regional Council has committed to raise $150,000. The United Church has a long history of supporting MHI, and is one of about 80 different faith groups that works with the collaborative organization, which builds, owns and operates intentional communities for individuals and families in the Ottawa area. To help meet its fundraising target for Veterans’ House, the regional council coordinated the United We Stand campaign, which includes downloadable worship material and community event toolkits for congregational use.
Rev. Dianne Cardin, a retired minister who attends Barrhaven United in Ottawa, is an ardent supporter of both Veterans’ House and the campaign. There are several veterans in her family. “I admire them so much,” she says. “And then to think that there are so many vets in Ottawa living on the streets. It’s disgraceful. When Veterans’ House was envisioned, I was all in.”
Cardin urges United Church congregations to become members of MHI if they aren’t already. Membership is $100 a year, she says. Her contribution to Veterans’ House is also personal. Cardin, with other members of her community, is helping to ensure that every veteran who moves into the new residence is gifted with a house-warming present: a quilt, shawl, or afghan.
In issuing a call to Canadians to help resolve the homeless crisis among veterans, Le holds up the United Church as an example: “We need to act. And that is what United churches are doing. They are acting. They’ve embraced their duty of care.”
A solution to the crisis is vital to helping not only veterans but also their families. The Newfoundlander mother fortunately found her son the next day — he was living in a tent behind the Parliament buildings — and had the chance to hug him again. However, Le is not sure if the son is alive any longer. About six months later, she was at a soldiers’ drop-in centre when detectives came in because a body had been found in the Ottawa River. The clothing gave her reason to believe that it may have been the son, and police were preparing to contact the mother for a DNA sample. “I don’t know the outcome of that, but you go from tragedy to hope to tragedy again,” says Le.
Veterans’ House offers is the possibility of hope prevailing over tragedy. It’s a model that MHI would like to eventually take across the country, in a bid to make homelessness among Canadian veterans a thing of the past.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the cost to build Veterans’ House as $11 million, when it is $11.5 million. This version has been corrected.
Julie McGonegal is a writer in Barrie, Ont.
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