Providing Timely and Effective Support to Homeless Veterans
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Response to the Office of the Veterans Ombudsman (OVO) on adapting or expanding the policies of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) to provide more timely and effective support to homeless Veterans.
VAC agrees with the Ombudsman that the issue of homelessness among Veterans is an important one. As part of its ongoing study of the issue, VAC continues to review its programs and services to ensure they are being fully utilized for the benefit of all Veterans, including those Veterans who are either homeless or “at risk” (i.e., precariously housed and at risk of homelessness). VAC staff have been visiting homeless shelters and other community facilities that support homeless people (e.g. soup kitchens and food banks) to raise awareness and to provide information both to staff and to Veterans. In addition, VAC is exploring how it can partner with government departments and non-governmental agencies to prevent, reduce, or mitigate homelessness among Veterans. VAC appreciates the opportunity to continue its collaboration with the OVO in addressing this issue.
VAC has many programs, benefits, and services that, while not designed specifically for homeless and at-risk Veterans and their families, can benefit them. Some of these, notably the Rehabilitation Program and Case Management, can be effective in equipping homeless Veterans and family members to address problems that contribute to homelessness. However, the application processes for VAC programs do take time. For example, once documentation is in place and an application submitted, processing an application for the Rehabilitation Program currently takes up to 34 days. Lack of documentation (along with lack of a permanent address or telephone access) can cause further delays, jeopardizing the completion of the application itself or the application process. For Veterans in crisis, VAC can expedite the application process, both by helping Veterans complete the application quickly and by fast-tracking the assessment of the application. In this way, the normal delivery time can be reduced significantly, so Veterans with urgent needs get quicker access to programs.
VAC does have some programs that offer immediate aid to Veterans in crisis, including homeless and at-risk Veterans.
- Case Management, available to all Veterans, offers comprehensive assistance and case planning, which can include shepherding Veterans in crisis through the process of applying for relevant VAC programs, directing Veterans to appropriate community supports, and helping to supply immediate, critical needs.
- Emergency funds are designed to supply emergency needs and are drawn from a variety of sources, such as the Assistance Fund, the Canadian Forces Personnel Assistance Fund, VAC-administered trust funds, and various funds made available through the Royal Canadian Legion and other organizations.
- The Veterans Assistance Service, or “crisis line,” offers consultation and referrals 24 hours a day to assist any Veteran or family member in need.
Could a broader policy interpretation on eligibility of a ‘rehabilitation need’ provide Veterans Affairs Canada field staff with the necessary tools [to] meet homeless Veterans’ needs?
Homelessness is often a symptom of complex problems, especially mental health issues and addictions; finding a durable solution to any instance of homelessness means addressing the conditions that underlie it. For some homeless and at-risk Veterans, VAC’s Rehabilitation Program may provide appropriate assistance. The Rehabilitation Program is designed to help Veterans overcome barriers created by service-related health conditions and injuries (“rehabilitation needs”) as they make the transition to civilian life. For the individual Veteran, rehabilitation is offered as part of a rehabilitation case plan, which is developed by VAC staff to address a particular client’s range of needs.
VAC has considerable flexibility in determining that a Veteran has a “service-related rehabilitation need.” Of special note are the “Guiding Statements on the Prevalence of Health Problems in Military Populations” (Veterans Programs Policy Manual, Vol. 5, 3.1.2., 3.4.4), which recognize the “high prevalence in the CF military population” of certain health problems, including some musculoskeletal conditions, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, operational stress-related anxiety disorders, and other conditions. The Guiding Statements direct that, “in the absence of evidence to the contrary, VAC may consider that these health problems have resulted primarily from service in the Canadian Forces.” For those Veterans, including homeless Veterans, whose health-related barriers to re-establishment fall within their scope, the application of the Guiding Statements markedly reduces the burden of documentation and improves access to the Rehabilitation Program.
In general, however, the Rehabilitation Program (like many other NVC programs) is not designed as a mechanism for responding to crises. Crisis intervention, which often requires emergency financial assistance, is often most successful over the long term when supported by Case Management. Rather than focus solely on eligibility for particular programs, Case Management offers a holistic assessment of need that includes all of the factors relevant to an individual’s health (i.e., social, economic, and environmental factors, as well as personal characteristics and behaviours). Case Managers work to help clients attain their best possible level of independence, resilience, and well-being. Where required, the Case Manager can intervene (with client permission) to expedite processes, remove administrative barriers, and do everything possible, including offering a human touch, to assist Veterans and family members in crisis.
Could Veterans Affairs Canada conduct research to determine the various aspects of homelessness for Canadian Veterans?
As the OVO’s Discussion Paper points out, there is no Canadian research about homeless Veterans and their families; no reliable data exist about how many Veterans are homeless, why they are homeless, the extent to which military service might contribute to their homelessness, how they experience homelessness, and how their experience might differ from that of other homeless people. Researchers from various countries recognize that homelessness in general is difficult to quantify, owing to the transient and hidden situations of many homeless people. Nevertheless, as the Ombudsman points out, it is clear from anecdotal accounts and from observation that there are some homeless Veterans in Canada.
VAC agrees with the Ombudsman about the importance of further research on the scope and nature of homelessness among Veterans and Veterans’ families. Such research would help VAC and other organizations better understand the issue and help ensure that VAC has appropriate responses in place.
Currently, VAC District Office staff visit homeless shelters and food banks regularly to connect with homeless Veterans and offer assistance, while also gathering information about how many Veterans are homeless or “at risk” and what their situations are. To complement this field research, VAC is also considering other research possibilities, such as
- developing a pilot project in a major centre;
- partnering with other government departments (including Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, Statistics Canada, Service Canada, and Corrections Services Canada) to engage with homeless and at-risk Veterans and to gather information about them;
- partnering with non-governmental organizations, such as universities and community homelessness action groups, to develop joint research projects on homelessness among Veterans.
VAC is acting on a number of fronts to improve knowledge of the issue of homelessness among Veterans and to increase its capacity to respond quickly and effectively in concert with other community agencies. The need for a quick-response program that can give financial support to bridge homeless Veterans to longer-term support is being considered.
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