As Remembrance Day nears, the phrase “Lest We Forget” will be repeated across Canada as a reminder that men and women have sacrificed to defend our country – sometimes with their lives.
Angus Stanfield, the chairman of Cockrell House in Victoria, asks we extend that sentiment to those who, having more recently served their country, are now struggling to rejoin society.
Cockrell House is operated by the Veterans Housing Society to provide shelter, food and support services to ex-members of the Canadian Armed Forces who are homeless or “underhoused.”
There could be as many as 5,000 homeless veterans in Canada,and the rate of homelessness for vets is about twice the rate for non-veterans, according to a recent federal study.
To address the problem, Cockrell House provides temporary housing to eight veterans at a time, while offering support to several others who live outside the facility.
The organization helps establish contacts with Department of National Defence support workers for their clients as well as accessing benefits.
Once clients are stabilized they move to other accommodations.
“We’ve helped more than 100 vets since we were established in 2009, and part of the challenge has been to create awareness of the problem and even an acknowledgment that the problem exists,” Stanfield said.
“The year we started (2009) there was an MP who stood up in the House of Commons and said that there were only about 15 homeless vets in Canada. I spoke out at that time, and explained we had already identified 35, just on Vancouver Island.”
Part of the problem was the government was relying on its annual point in time counts, a system that attempts to count the homeless population and gather information about it.
“These are people living off the grid – people who have found they can’t deal well with the regular world. They wouldn’t go to a shelter or participate in a government survey, and so they’re forgotten,” Stanfield said.
“Don’t forget that they’ve served as well. And they deserve our gratitude and support.”
It’s an observation mirrored by Rick Nicholson, the manager of Cockrell House.
He recounted his own story and how, after 25 years in the army, with deployments to places like Egypt and Germany, he returned to civilian life and found it hard to adjust.
“My marriage went south and I ended up climbing down some pretty dark holes before I got things back together,” Nicholson said.
“A lot of the guys I’ve seen come through here have the same sort of experience but have a lot of trouble climbing out of those holes.”
He believes that the military has improved in recent years in recognizing the need to better prepare their men and women for life after the military.
“They used to train them for everything except release [from the military)]. Guys would come out and not know anything about things like insurance, for example. Some hadn’t been in a grocery store more than a dozen times in their lives. They had missed their kids growing up and didn’t know much about their interests. Simple things, but they add up.”
That situation, said Nicholson, shouldn’t be confused with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I don’t really use the term PTSD that much. These people have just found that they can’t manage without some help to get back to life, whether it’s caused by trauma or the end of their marriage or alcohol or any number of things. They need help and what we do here works.”
Nicholson said it would be ideal if there were a dozen more facilities like Cockrell House in Greater Victoria.
“That would be ideal, of course, but for now we do what we can. All I know is that it works and that we can’t just forget about these people.”