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Researchers from McGill warn that the federal government does not have a clear picture of the homeless veterans problem because it is not adequately tracking veterans and their housing status.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Canada urgently needs to increase the housing supply for veterans and provide better transitional support as they enter civilian life to reduce the risk of homelessness amid a growing housing crisis across the country, according to a report authored by researchers at McGill University.

The report, prepared by four master’s students from the university’s Max Bell School of Public Policy for Canada’s Federal Housing Advocate, says there is a lack of leadership when it comes to veteran housing, which is split between several federal departments with no central co-ordination. They also warn that the federal government does not have a clear picture of the problem because it is not adequately tracking veterans and their housing status.

Veterans are two to three times more likely to experience homelessness and are disproportionately represented among the homeless population, the report says. Estimates of the number of veterans experiencing homelessness range from 2,400 to more than 10,000.

“The federal government needs to take more action,” the report says. “With the growing housing crisis across Canada, more veterans will disproportionately fall into homelessness should the federal government not take a more proactive and human rights-based approach to this issue.”

The authors make 13 recommendations for Canada’s Federal Housing Advocate Marie-Josée Houle to bring forward to the federal government in order to improve housing and supports for veterans after they leave service with the Canadian Armed Forces. Ms. Houle chose to partner with McGill to gain a deeper understanding about the issue of veteran homelessness and come up with recommendations to advance to the federal government.

The first recommendation calls for Veterans Affairs Canada to take leadership of addressing the issue, including registering about 338,000 veterans who currently aren’t accounted for by the department so they can easily access benefits and housing supports.

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Many veterans experience “hidden homelessness” and couch surf or live in vehicles rather than accessing services such as shelters and food banks, which the researchers said makes it difficult to get an accurate count.

Other recommendations include collecting data on pre-existing risk factors for homelessness to improve supports for members, establishing a housing certificate program that would pair veterans in need of emergency housing with local agencies, and creating an advisory council to better co-ordinate response efforts and consider lived experience of veterans.

The report projects all of the recommendations would cost upward of $300-million a year.

One of the authors, Alison Clement, said that identifying how many veterans need support, whether they are registered or not, is necessary to ensure there are adequate supports and housing supply.

She said there needs to be immediate aid for armed forces members as they transition out of service so they know how to access programs and services when they need it, even if it is many years after they’ve served.

“It has to start with the basics and that’s connecting to all veterans, that’s increasing communication and it’s really taking a preventative approach,” she said.

Veterans Affairs Canada sent a statement that outlined existing federal programs to help veterans secure housing.

Earlier this year, the federal government announced a $79.1-million program to support homeless veterans by providing rent supplements to help pay for housing as well as wrap-around services, including counselling and treatment for substance use. The funding will also go toward research and improved data collection and increasing the capacity of groups to deliver services.

The government offers a veterans emergency fund that provides financial aid to veterans and their families who are facing an unforeseen emergency to cover essentials such as rent and medical expenses.

Veteran-serving organizations have called the program a step in the right direction, but said there also needs to be a rapid increase in housing supply.

Alan Mulawyshyn, a Canadian Armed Forces veteran and deputy executive director of Veterans’ House Canada, said the federal government needs to increase the rental housing supply. Veterans’ House Canada opened a supportive housing site in Ottawa specifically for veterans in 2021, which provides housing to 40 people as well as wrap-around supports for mental health and addictions.

The federal housing provided money to help finance the project and Mr. Mulawyshyn said the organization is looking to continue to build these developments to meet the need across Canada.

“The key to solving housing is houses,” he said. “If there’s no inventory to rent, no affordable housing, having a rent supplement is irrelevant.”

The McGill report recommends the government spend $113-million a year to designate federal lands for veteran-specific housing projects in an effort to address the lack of housing supply. The proposal recommends that Canada Lands Corporation divide large parcels of land into sizes that veteran-support agencies can manage and build housing units specifically designed for veterans.

Ms. Houle, appointed as the housing advocate in February, 2022, is an independent watchdog tasked with promoting and protecting the right to housing in Canada. But her office doesn’t have legislative power to implement and enforce the recommendations.

Ms. Houle’s office will review the recommendations from the McGill report and plans to follow up with the federal government.

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