Veterans housing and mental health advocates in Ottawa are hoping to have shovels in the ground within a year on a $9-million housing initiative that would provide permanent shelter for homeless veterans in the city.
Acting on statistics that have indicated as many of 35 to 55 veterans are sleeping on the streets of Ottawa each night, in addition to a unique military initiative that has identified almost 100 homeless vets in each of the past few years, Multifaith Housing Initiative (MHI) is applying to the CMHC Affordable Housing Innovation Fund for a $6-million grant and a $2-million loan to fund construction of a 40-unit rental building to be known as Veterans House.
MHI executive director Suzanne Le said the number of former soldiers needing shelter is bound to increase in the next few years because the cycle tends to reach a crisis point for some soldiers seven years or so after they return from overseas service. Canada's combat role in Afghanistan ended in 2011.
"It takes seven to 10 years from when their boots hit the ground back in Canada for them to burn through their family relationships, burn through friendships and end up on the street," said Le.
Project overviews put together by MHI sometimes refer to veterans "living rough" on the streets. It was originally planned to erect a building with 16 units but research from such sources as the Alliance to End Homelessness in Canada survey and reports from Ottawa's Soldiers Helping Soldiers found the need is greater.
Soldiers Helping Soldiers is a program where active service members go out into the community looking for veterans in need. Le said when a veteran who has fallen through the cracks sees an active soldier in uniform, they straighten up and remember their old military discipline. That's how the volunteers have identified 275 homeless ex-soldiers in the past three years.
Le said the homeless soldiers are victims of either mental illness, PTSD or addictions, with the last two conditions usually going hand in hand among former service members.
Among organizations on board in support of Veterans House through donations or pledges of services are True Patriot Love, Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare, the Royal Canadian Legion Ontario Command's Homeless Veterans Initiative, Veterans Affairs Canada and Veterans Emergency Transition Services Canada. Soldiers Helping Soldiers will continue in community liaison while Helmets to Hardhats, a program supported by Canada's Building Trades Unions, has donated $25,000 and will offer trades training support.
A donation of land at a site at the former Rockcliffe Airbase is being sought through the federal government's Surplus Federal Real Property for Homelessness Initiative. Le said if capital funding is not allocated by the federal government in the next few months, alternative sources will be sought.
MHI, a multi-faith charitable organization with several other similar housing projects in its portfolio, will be the owner and co-ordinator of services once the project is complete. The architect for the project is CSV and Centretown Affordable Housing Development Corporation will act as the lead developer. Le said there has been no decision yet on building contractors.
A charrette held last fall identified site planning, care and programming needs.
"There will be big efforts to ensure adequate community living space, because we know these people fight in units and they will recover in units," said Le.
She said she has consulted with operators of successful similar projects in Toronto and Victoria, B.C. and heard that one advantage of having a military ethos among the tenants is that community-building is easier.
"The last time they would have been in the military was the last time they would have been proud of who they were," said Le.
The housing is intended to be permanent, as opposed to transitional, meaning tenants can stay as long as they want, until they no longer feel they need support, said Le.
Plans are to build the structure as a passive house, which Le said would cost $1 million more but savings in energy and other efficiencies would be recouped within a few years.
The hope is to have funding in place soon, take six or eight months to get permits, start building next summer and finish in a year.
"I would like to see it open in the summer of 2019 so we are not looking down the barrel of another winter," said Le.