Sgt. Bill Webb (ret’d) is pictured with Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns, left, and his service dog, Jessie. Photo supplied

Sgt. Bill Webb (ret’d) is pictured with Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns, left, and his service dog, Jessie. Photo supplied

Vancouver Island retired sergeant advocates for homeless veterans

Operation Leave The Streets Behind an effort to help the about 2,000 vets who are on the street

A Royal Canadian Legion program — Operation Leave The Streets Behind — assists homeless veterans across the country. A veteran is identified as any person serving or who has served in the Canadian Forces or the RCMP.

Over the past year, Sgt. Bill Webb (ret’d) and other members of the Courtenay Legion have identified 14 homeless veterans in the Comox Valley. Some are vulnerable seniors, others are Gulf War and Afghan War veterans.

“Most we managed to get housed, but there’s still about half a dozen without a home,” said Webb, service officer at the Courtenay Legion. “There’s nothing here, so they’re competing against everybody for housing, even though the federal government has identified veterans at the top of the list (for housing), with Aboriginal and a few other groups.”

North Island-Powell River MP Rachel Blaney said there’s an estimated 2,000 homeless veterans across Canada.

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“This is something that needs to be addressed, especially when you think about those numbers,” said Blaney, the NDP’s seniors’ critic. “That’s a manageable number. People who served our country should not be homeless.”

Webb suggests Veterans Affairs Canada is “way off” with its estimate, “based on what we have locally.” But he credits VAC for being a big help in terms of providing case managers, and getting people registered.

In February, 2019, Webb was one of many people who testified in Ottawa before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs (VA).

“We’reinthemidstofputtingtogetherahomelessstudy,specificallyforveterans,becauseveteransaren’tidentifiedproperly,”hesaid.

At a homeless shelter, for instance, if a worker asks a visitor if he or she is a veteran, Webb said 90 per cent will say no because they’re embarrassed, or they assume they don’t qualify because they didn’t serve long enough or didn’t tour. They are more likely to answer if asked: “Have you served in the Canadian Forces or the RCMP?”

Webb notes the Alberta-based Homes for Heroes Foundation grew out of a response to growing numbers of military veterans struggling with civilian life. He also notes the success of Cockrell House in Victoria, which provides transitional housing and services to help ex-military integrate back into society.

“Our hope is to build something up this way, to start providing targeted, specific housing for veterans,” Webb said. “I think it’s important that we start to do something locally.”

“The goal is to create a Cockrell House-style project in mid-Island,” Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns added. “The fact that there’s nothing north of the Malahat is absolutely embarrassing for the federal government, because they’re responsible for housing when it comes to veterans and Indigenous people, yet they don’t invest in it.”

Operation Leave The Streets Behind started out of Ontario Command. The program’s mission is to reach out to homeless veterans and those at-risk of homelessness, and provide them with immediate financial assistance and support. It also connects them with the social and community services to establish a long-term solution to meet their needs.

If you know someone who served in the Canadian Armed Forces or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who is homeless or at risk of homelessness, call 1-866-522-7708. For more information, go to the Veterans Services website.

To speak with a Veterans Affairs Canada mental health professional, call 1-800-268-7708.

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