VETS Canada Caring vets help homeless comrades
By Jill Kruse
It isn’t news that many Canadian cities harbour troubled men and women who’ve found themselves homeless because of illness or personal and financial distress. However, you may be surprised to learn that some of our forgotten heroes walk among them.
When one of our Canadian Decorated veterans discovered this he created Veterans Emergency Transition Services Canada (V.E.T.S. Canada) in response. Jim Lowther CD of Halifax says his organization takes its services “to” homeless veterans.
“There haven't been any formal studies to determine the number of veterans who are on the streets but if you consider that we have found 25 in the Halifax area with a population of just over 400,000, how many would there be in Toronto or Vancouver?” asks Lowther. “There are many valuable organizations available to help veterans; the only drawback is that the veteran has to go to them. We go in search of the veteran and that is why, I think, there is a need for our organization. Often veterans are aware of the help that is available but they are too proud to go ask for it. So we take that obstacle out of the equation by bringing the help to them.”
Back in 2005, Lowther was medically released from the military due to a shoulder injury from a fall while on duty. He spent the next five years seeking medical relief from the pain. Finally five years later his third surgery gave him some relief and he was able to refocus his energy on something else. While volunteering one day at a local church supper for the less fortunate, Lowther ran into a fellow he had once sailed with in the military.
“I assumed that he was there volunteering as well so when he told me he was there to eat, I was dumbfounded,” explains Lowther. “He had been ‘couch surfing’, with no fixed address for a few years. He then proceeded to point out four other veterans in the room who were in similar situations. Needless to say, I was stunned!”
When Lowther realized his fellow soldiers were in need of support he and his wife started doing some research into what was available to help homeless vets. Cockrell House in BC offers a relatively new home for homeless vets that helps get them back on their feet.
Lowther decided that was what he wanted to do. V.E.T.S. Canada was essentially forced off the ground he says as a result of two things: media attention and the discovery of three more at risk veterans. Through word of mouth and before he had time to register it as a non-profit, a local CBC Radio reporter heard about V.E.T.S. and asked for an interview.
“At the same time we were about to participate in the CKDU Annual Homelessness Marathon,” he adds. “We wanted to attend the Marathon so that we could become more familiar with the homeless and at risk community. Little did we know that we would meet three more veterans in need in the first 15 minutes. So now we had the media making people aware of who we were and three men who needed help. It became sort of a "now or never" situation so, ready or not, we chose now.”
In the past two years Lowther and his volunteers across Canada have managed to assist 25 veterans either by helping them move off the street or by supporting them emotionally with a chat and a cup of coffee until they’re ready.
“We generally make contact with veterans in two ways,” says Lowther. “Either we go out and find them or they are referred to us by others who are aware of our organization. We spend time canvassing the more depressed areas and spending time at shelters, which is how we find the majority of veterans. In some cases they will contact us because they've been told about us by staff at the shelters or soup kitchens. We work very closely with a medical doctor and a psychologist (both veterans themselves) who have referred a few of their patients to us.
“We find veterans in all sorts of conditions from sleeping under the bridge, staying at shelters or couch surfing. One of our veterans actually owns his own mobile home but it is in such disrepair that it is barely inhabitable.”
There are many veterans’ organizations that exist to help veterans who are in need or at risk. There is OSSIS, the IPSC and the Legion to name a few who are there to help if the veteran comes to them seeking help. What makes V.E.T.S. different, Lowther explains, is that they go to the veteran.
“We are basically ground support for veterans, meaning we actively go out in search of them,” he says. “I have done everything from just having coffee with a veteran to sitting with a veteran in the ER for 36 hours to ensure he was treated and not turned away, as is often the case. Some veterans are not ready to leave the streets so for those guys we just maintain contact, offer them Tim Horton's cards, grocery store cards or warm clothing, all the while gently encouraging them to come off the streets.”
For veterans who are ready to come in from the cold, V.E.T.S. helps them find suitable accommodations. They may start out by putting them up temporarily at the YMCA or a local rescue mission until they can make more long-term arrangements.
“Some veterans we have helped are not homeless but at serious risk of becoming homeless or living in substandard conditions. For those veterans we have helped with repairs to their homes or provided grocery store cards. We try to get all of our veterans to Veterans Affairs right from the beginning to see what benefits they may be entitled to.”
Lowther is very clear that his organization has no political agenda nor is he interested in playing the blame game.
“I don't know why the military or the government isn't doing more for our veterans, only they know the answer to that. We consider V.E.T.S. an apolitical organization so we don't get involved in finger pointing or laying blame. We just take advantage of the help that is currently available. We do, however, continue to hope that more assistance or programs become available in the near future.”
And despite the limited support there are success stories which bring hope to Lowther and his volunteers. They have one veteran they were able to get into his own apartment almost immediately. He was already in receipt of a small Veterans Affairs disability pension so his case moved a little more quickly.
“He has had a few struggles, both emotionally and with addictions but he is doing well and is working on securing employment,” says Lowther. “We have another veteran who is staying in temporary housing but we have put him in contact with Veterans Affairs and we are working on getting him in to the Vocational Rehabilitation Program. One of our veterans was able to reconnect with his family and moved back to his home town where he recently got married.”
V.E.T.S. Canada is managed by a board of directors who are also the principals who run the organization. Lowther and his vice-president, Roland Lawless, do the majority of the ground support and correspondence with Veterans Affairs and other agencies.
“Then we have a few volunteers, other veterans, who help us out on the street, on occasion, but to be honest, it's work that is mentally draining and not for everyone,” he adds. “One of our volunteers is a veteran we helped who gives back by helping us out on a regular basis. That's what we hope to see on a more frequent basis, veterans who have transitioned to a point where they are able to, in turn, help other veterans.”
The organization also has a few volunteers who help out with some fundraising including staff from the Soldiers Memorial Hospital and a lady who is still serving and has developed relationships with several local recycling depots and arranged for them to support V.E.T.S. occasionally.
“Social media networks have been very helpful in recruiting volunteers across the country,” says Lowther. “We recently had a situation where one of our Facebook followers posted that her son had encountered a homeless veteran on the streets of Winnipeg and she was wondering if we had any representatives in the area. We didn't at the time but through our network of followers we were able to find someone, a serving military member, who was willing to go in search of this gentleman. The veteran was not immediately located but the experience provided us with new contacts. It seems that when people see first hand that there really are homeless veterans out there, they are moved to do something to help.”
And like many non-profit agencies in Canada, V.E.T.S. Canada depends on donations to support their work. Lowther applied to the Canada Revenue Agency for charitable status back in May but was told recently it could be another eight months before they are approved.
“The lack of charitable status is a great hindrance to the flow of donations,” he says. “We have several individuals and businesses who have asked us to advise them when we have our status as they will donate generously at that time. Staff at the Soldiers Memorial Hospital have been wonderful, they've held bake sales and are saving their recyclables for us. They have raised about $1100 to date. And recently we’ve been asking people to donate Canadian Tire money so we can purchase supplies for our veterans and that has been helpful. In the meantime, as we wait for our charitable status, we continue to struggle financially, often paying out of pocket.”
As an organization working independently of government assistance, Lowther says he is hopeful that once his fellow Canadians understand the plight of these homeless heroes they will be moved to help or donate. He says help is always welcome.
“I think it is our duty as Canadians to help the men and women who fought to protect us so that we may enjoy many of the freedoms that we do today. These men and women stood up for Canadians, no questions asked. I think we should now return the favour.”
To find out more about how you can support V.E.T.S. Canada visit their website:
Jill Kruse is the widow of one of our Fallen Heroes, Sgt. Greg Kruse, mother of three and a multimedia journalist.
Top graphic: V.E.T.S Canada logo.
Second graphic: Jim sitting with one of the homeless veterans in Halifax having a coffee and a chat.