This executive summary lays out highlights from the report Addressing veteran homelessness in Canada written by Max Bell School Master of Public Policy students Taylor Chase, Alison Clement, Sandrine Desforges and Anmol Gupta as part of the 2023 Policy Lab.
Access the summary and presentation below, and read their full report here.
This report has been prepared for the Office of the Federal Housing Advocate (OFHA) as part of a capstone project for the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. The OFHA has tasked the authors of this report with answering the following question: “What federal policies and programs are needed to ensure meaningful reductions in veteran homelessness and advance the right to adequate housing for all veterans in Canada?” This report is designed to provide policy options that the FHA can directly recommend to all the relevant federal departments.
Among people experiencing homelessness, veterans represent a distinct group of individuals with unique needs and challenges. Veterans are two to three times more likely to experience homelessness compared to the general population and are disproportionately represented among individuals experiencing homelessness. The estimated number of unhoused veterans across Canada varies greatly from 2,400 to over 10,000. While this issue is not unique to Canada, countries like the US have made significantly more progress in reducing the number of veterans experiencing homelessness.
More broadly, the federal government’s approach to housing is evolving. In 2017, Canada adopted the National Housing Strategy (NHS), an $82+ billion ten-year strategy to implement a human rights-based approach that realizes housing as a fundamental human right and recognizes veterans as a key priority group. Now, with the federal government entering the sixth year of its ten-year strategy, Canada is at an inflection point. With a growing national housing affordability crisis and little evidence of meaningful reductions in homelessness, programs under the NHS are increasingly inadequate. To its credit, the federal government has continued to build upon the NHS to fill growing policy gaps, especially for more vulnerable groups. Earlier this year, the federal government released a $79.4 million Veteran Homelessness Program, establishing two funding streams to support civil society and subnational governments to provide rent supplements, deliver social services, and improve research.
Despite this new announcement, the federal government needs to take more action. With fragmented and siloed programs across the country, poor understanding of the scale of the issue, and the incredibly diverse nature of the causes and experiences of veteran homelessness, it is not clear that more money – without clear federal leadership and coordination – will bring about meaningful change. And, 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. As a result, there remains great interest from many stakeholders – including the government’s housing watchdog the Federal Housing Advocate (FHA) – to identify current deficiencies and develop innovative federal policies that can better enshrine the right to adequate housing for Canadian veterans.
The FHA is an independent, nonpartisan watchdog responsible for making policy and program recommendations to different levels of government that advance the right to housing. However, the FHA does not have legislative power to independently create or change housing laws. This report is designed to provide policy options that the FHA can directly recommend to all relevant federal departments.
The FHA adopts a human rights-based approach (HRBA), which focuses on advancing the rights of those who are marginalized, excluded, or discriminated against. Principles of a HRBA include the right to self-determination, the right to participate in decision-making processes, as well as substantive equality, non-discrimination, progressive realization, and accountability. HRBA places people at the center of policy objectives. The recommendations proposed are grounded in these principles.
This report is based on extensive research, which included a comprehensive review of academic and gray literature, a close examination of relevant domestic and international legal obligations, and in- depth interviews with 32 stakeholders between January and June 2023. Stakeholders represented a wide range of expertise, including government entities, Crown corporations, national Indigenous organizations, human rights experts, and veteran and homelessness-serving organizations. The findings from this research are used to inform the comprehensive policy recommendations to follow. Several of the policy recommendations were “tested” with stakeholders in secondary interviews to assess for relevancy and feasibility.
- There remains a lack of federal departmental leadership on the issue: No single federal department or agency is tasked with upholding the right to housing for veterans; instead, several federal players are involved, including Infrastructure Canada, Veteran Affairs Canada (VAC), the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), without clear government responsibility. With various civil society programs and jurisdictional challenges on housing across the country, there is a need for federal leadership to support and coordinate a national approach to veteran homelessness.
- There are significant discrepancies in the reported numbers and identities of veterans experiencing homelessness: Estimates of the number of unhoused veterans vary greatly from government and civil society stakeholders, ranging from 2,400 to over 10,000. The nature of veteran homelessness makes it particularly challenging to quantify, as many veterans experience ‘hidden homelessness’, such as couch-surfing or living in vehicles. Many veterans seldom interact with services, such as shelters and food banks, which serve as the most common data collection sites. While the government has created and implemented the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System (HIFIS) for local communities to collect real-time information on their unhoused populations, the data collected is inadequate to meaningfully understand the scope of homelessness among veterans.
- Former CAF members who do not meet Canada's definition of a veteran are exposed to additional risks of experiencing homelessness: Not all former CAF members can equally access the benefits and services provided by VAC. This is partly attributed to VAC’s definition of a veteran, which excludes those who have been forced to interrupt military training before completion due to illness or injury or who have been discharged non-honourably. Historically, some individuals have even been dishonourably discharged from the forces for reasons considered illegitimate today. For example, during the ‘LGBT Purge’, thousands of federal employees were fired because of their sexual orientation. Individuals who do not meet the definition may be more likely to find themselves in precarious situations after release from the military, yet their exclusion from the definition directly inhibits their ability to benefit from many VAC services.
- Many unhoused veterans are reluctant to self-identify as veterans, hindering the delivery of existing benefits and services: Negative experiences during time spent in the armed forces, distrust of government, embarrassment or pride, and the perception of not qualifying as a “real” veteran because of a lack of foreign deployment can all contribute to an individual’s reluctance to self-identify. This is a significant barrier in preventing former CAF members from accessing benefits and services.
- Services do not meet the needs of women and gender-diverse veterans experiencing homelessness: Women account for 16.2 percent of the total veteran population; however, they represent 30 percent of veterans experiencing homelessness. The experience of homelessness also looks different for women and gender-diverse individuals: instead of living on the streets and/or accessing shelters, these individuals are more likely to be couch surfing or in transactional relationships – such as staying with someone in exchange for sex. Available services, from VAC benefits to homeless shelters, are typically designed to meet the needs of single males and not women and gender-diverse individuals.
- Some individuals entering the armed forces have preexisting risk factors for homelessness: Those who enlist in the all-volunteer force appear to be at a higher risk for homelessness, due to a social selection effect whereby individuals with particular risk factors for homelessness – including economic insecurity, weak family unity, and limited education – are disproportionately recruited into the volunteer forces.
- CAF and VAC inadequately support veterans in their transition to civilian life: Despite efforts by CAF and VAC to support veterans after their release from service, many challenges persist during veterans' military-to-civilian transition that can exacerbate the risk of experiencing homelessness. Challenges include feeling abandoned by the armed forces after discharge and the loss of sense of purpose and community, leaving the military without transferable skills, poor financial literacy, and delays in transferring health coverage to the civilian public system. Many veterans also experience barriers to accessing VAC benefits because of complicated bureaucratic processes, long backlogs, and delays in reimbursements. Finally, veterans face challenges receiving proper care because many service providers lack military cultural competency.
- Veterans-serving organizations (VSOs) face challenges financing the development of veterans housing projects: Several civil society organizations across Canada specialize in building housing projects designed to meet veterans' unique needs. These projects create communities for veterans that often provide units of a manageable size, on site social supports, and job training. However, these organizations increasingly face challenges securing land to build projects and financial support for operations. Despite programs under the NHS to allocate federally divested lands and funds to support development and operation costs, VSOs find it difficult to compete with larger private developers to secure NHS grants and low-interest loans.
Together, these findings demonstrate the need to holistically address veteran homelessness from three angles: supporting those with preexisting risk factors during their military service, preventing those leaving the armed forces from falling into homelessness, and creating programs that can provide access to housing for all veterans experiencing homelessness. The findings also emphasize the need for policies and programs to consider the diversity of experiences and needs of veterans experiencing homelessness and raise caution about building programs based on generalizations.
The policy recommendations are divided into two sections: foundational and core recommendations. Foundational recommendations identify policies that will shape the government’s approach to, and understanding of, the issue of veteran homelessness. Core recommendations aim to create programs that address the acute needs of unhoused veterans, build capacity to realize the right to housing, and adopt a preventative approach for future veterans.
Foundational policy recommendations
Objective 1: Veterans Affairs Canada to take primary leadership on veteran homelessness. While addressing veteran homelessness will require a whole-of-government approach, there needs to be a clear governmental lead accountable for enshrining the right to housing for veterans. Given the distinct needs of veterans experiencing homelessness, VAC is best positioned to implement policies and programs specifically designed to end chronic veteran homelessness. This objective includes three recommendations that advance the principles of accountability and participation and are estimated to cost $2 million.
Recommendation 1.1 is for the Minister of Veterans Affairs to introduce legislation amending the Department of Veterans Affairs Act to explicitly include the responsibility of housing security for veterans. This legislative change will allow the department to implement housing policies for their beneficiaries with clear mandate authority and without question of overreach.
Recommendation 1.2 is for VAC to adopt a preventive approach to service delivery, registering all 337,993 unregistered veterans as members of VAC so that they can easily access benefits should they encounter an acute crisis or precarious housing situation. Registration of all veterans will also allow VAC to foster a sense of community, regularly assess the needs of the entire population, and tailor services accordingly.
Recommendation 1.3 is for VAC to create an advisory council on veterans’ housing security that includes civil society partners and individuals with lived experience. This council can be modeled on existing VAC advisory councils on issues of families, mental health, and transition.
Objective 2: Achieve a shared and accurate understanding of homelessness among veterans in Canada. The issue of veteran homelessness is marked by a concerning lack of understanding among stakeholders regarding its true scope. This objective includes four recommendations focused on data collection and understanding risk factors related to homelessness. These recommendations advance the principles of non-discrimination, accountability, and prevention, and are estimated to cost $4.1 million in the first year of implementation, followed by $1 million per year.
Recommendation 2.1 is for Infrastructure Canada to onboard VSOs onto Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) to better capture data on veterans experiencing homelessness. Recognizing that unhoused veterans are more likely to interact with VSOs than traditional service points, such as food banks and shelters, the federal government should work with the 105 identified VSOs to implement HMIS and serve as points of data collection.
Recommendation 2.2 is for Infrastructure Canada to use HMIS to collect additional data that helps identify veterans’ risk factors, including rank, release date, and discharge status. Additionally, it is recommended that HMIS allow VSOs, especially those that temporarily or permanently house veterans, to input information about the type and duration of housing for veterans when they interact and stay at their facilities. This type of information will allow the government to understand which veterans are being housed, into what types of housing, and for how long.
Recommendation 2.3 is for the CAF to collect data on preexisting risk factors for homelessness when individuals enter the armed forces. While US literature suggests that many individuals entering the volunteer force have preexisting risk factors, it remains unknown what risk factors are predominant in the Canadian population. Understanding this can help the CAF build programs to better support individuals during their service and reduce their risk of falling into homelessness post-release.
Recommendation 2.4 is for the Veterans Ombuds to investigate the limitations of VAC’s definition of a veteran. Individuals excluded from this definition, such as those who have not completed basic training or have been non-honourably discharged, appear at higher risk of falling into homelessness. The Veterans Ombuds should conduct a systemic review to determine the impacts of this limited definition on homelessness.
Core policy recommendations
Objective 3: Build pathways for veterans to access immediate housing supports. Veterans who fall into homelessness need quick and reliable pathways to secure housing. This objective is supported by two recommendations that establish pathways for veterans to obtain housing certificates and emergency funds. Together, these recommendations advance the principle of self-determination and are grounded in the need for people-centered and tailored solutions that support marginalized populations. It is estimated these recommendations will cost $153.7 million.
Recommendation 3.1 is for VAC to establish a Veteran Housing Certificate Program (VHCP) that provides individualized housing solutions for each veteran. New housing specialists will be brought into VAC to facilitate relationships with local VSOs and housing providers to secure housing options for veterans in need of emergency housing. This program also includes direct cash payments for those veterans who reside in remote and rural regions where a housing specialist is not available.
Recommendation 3.2 is for VAC to disperse the Veterans Emergency Fund to VSOs for faster distribution into the hands of veterans. Recognizing that most veterans are not currently registered with VAC, and that many who experience homelessness find VSOs more approachable, it is recommended that VSOs be provided the capability of disbursing VAC’s emergency funds directly to those that they interact with on the ground. It is suggested that VAC begin implementation of this recommendation with a pilot program involving the 105 identified homelessness organizations serving veterans.
Objective 4: Increase and support veteran-specific housing supply. To support a long-term approach to veteran homelessness, Canada needs to develop a sustainable supply of housing that meets the needs of veterans. The timely and affordable availability of land is critical to the development of veteran housing projects. The two following recommendations advance Canada’s international obligations to progressively realize the right to housing. It is estimated these recommendations will cost $113 million.
Recommendation 4.1 is for Canada Lands Corporation (CLC) to develop a veteran-specific stream of the Federal Lands Initiative (FLI) to designate divested federal lands to VSOs with capabilities to build veteran-designated homes. In particular, the stream, through the creation of community benefit agreements, would dedicate former Department of National Defence (DND) and CAF land to provide benefits to veterans, including for the purposes of housing. The veteran stream would also require the CLC to conduct a needs assessment of veterans on other divested federal land parcels in its portfolio. The proposal also recommends CLC divide large parcels of land into sizes that VSOs can manage and provide designated technical assistance to VSOs so that they can successfully navigate and complete the land grant application process.
Recommendation 4.2 is for CMHC to develop veteran-specific streams of existing NHS funds such that a proportion of finances are directed to VSOs. It is proposed that the government create veteran streams within the National Housing Co-Investment Fund (NHCF) to support VSOs raising construction capital, and the Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI) to support VSOs who are “shovel ready” or capable of repurposing existing infrastructure.
Objective 5: Improve supports for veterans during transition from military to civilian life. Some veterans are ill-equipped to successfully transition back to civilian life once they are released from the military, increasing their risk for homelessness. While CAF and VAC have been working towards improving transition supports, existing programs remain disjointed. This objective includes two recommendations to improve support for veterans during their transition and to increase military competency of service providers. These recommendations follow a person-centered approach and advance principles of prevention, self-determination, and participation. They are estimated to cost $59 million per year.
Recommendation 5.1 is for CAF and VAC to consolidate and enhance existing transition programs to target risk factors for homelessness. The revamped transition program will require increased collaboration between the departments, improved transition curricula, and regular check-ins following release.
Recommendation 5.2 is for VAC to partner with VSOs to scale up existing training programs to increase the military cultural competency of service providers. It is proposed that such training be subsidized by VAC and included in continuing education required by federal and provincial professional associations.
The recommendations in this report are designed to serve the OFHA in their advocacy work with government departments. Additionally, these findings and recommendations can serve as a springboard for a National Housing Council Review Panel on veteran homelessness. The Review Panel is an accountability mechanism led by the FHA that invites active participation from diverse stakeholders, including individuals with lived experience, to explore and recommend solutions. Simultaneously, this report aims to contribute to the knowledge and evidence base that can be used by stakeholders as well as government and parliamentary entities, such as the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, in their efforts towards preventing and ending veteran homelessness.