Veterans’ House ready to open on site of former Rockcliffe Base

By Wes Smiderle

The Veterans’ House: Andy Carswell Building, located on the lands of the former Canadian Forces Base Rockcliffe, is expected to begin admitting residents in February. Photo: supplied by Multifaith Housing Initiative
The Veterans’ House: Andy Carswell Building, located on the lands of the former Canadian Forces Base Rockcliffe, is expected to begin admitting residents in February. Photo: supplied by Multifaith Housing Initiative

Despite a delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada’s first support residence for homeless veterans is scheduled to open this February.

The Veterans’ House: Andy Carswell Building is located north-east of Manor Park on the site of the former Canadian Forces Base Rockcliffe and will house and provide social support for up to 40 homeless veterans. Once the building opens, initial admittance will be staggered gradually due to pandemic precautions.

The residence is the fifth housing project designed by the Multifaith Housing Initiative (MHI), but the first dedicated exclusively to homeless veterans. Besides offering living quarters, the three-storey building will house onsite social supports including mental health and addiction counselling, peer support, an indoor gym, gardens, a barbecue area, and even a dog park for training service dogs.

MHI is a housing charity founded by a coalition of faith groups that include The Church of St. Columba and McKay United Church.

Suzanne Le, executive director of the MHI, admits COVID-19 has had a “dire” impact on construction of Veterans’ House, particularly the fundraising.

The residence was originally intended to open in November 2020. The spring-2020 lockdown cost time in construction while also smothering MHI’s donor base.

Veterans’ House costs about $11.5 million with about $6.5 million coming from the federal government and $743,000 from the City of Ottawa through waived development charges, property taxes and other fees. The MHI had committed to raise $5 million through fundraising. However, by mid-2020, companies that were healthy at the beginning of the year had retreated into survival mode. “We had to pivot and re-focus our energies,” says Suzanne.

Instead of seeking out corporations that could offer large donations, they broadened their base by launching a social-media campaign, the “#WeSaluteYourService Challenge for Veterans’ House” challenge. Donors are encouraged to honour a person or group’s military service on social media and pass the challenge along.

By the end of 2020, MHI was about $1.5 million short of its goal.

Virtual ‘tulipathon’

Norma McCord, a parishioner of McKay United, says she’s been a part of MHI “almost from the beginning.” The 78-year-old has participated in the MHI’s ‘tulipathons’ (annual fundraising walkathons) since almost the first.

Normally held at Dow’s Lake, the 2020 pandemic compelled organizers to transform the May event into a virtual ‘tulipathon’ of “solo strolls” and “household hikes.” Yet, they were still able to raise almost $69,000 ‒ well beyond the goal of $50,000.
“Remarkably, the most funds they’ve ever raised was during COVID-19,” says Norma. “I guess people were more focused staying at home.”

She helped the church raise a group total of over $2,500 toward Veterans’ House. After helping raise funds for other MHI shelters, Norma says one of the main reasons she wanted to help Veterans’ House was because of its focus on helping homeless veterans transition back into civilian life.

“The intent for this veterans’ build is that when they get set [living independently], someone else can get sheltered.”

‘Housing first’

Construction of Veterans’ House was delayed by two months because of the 2020 spring lockdown. Photo: supplied by Multifaith Housing Initiative

Veterans’House has been planned and designed following the philosophy of ‘housing first.’ Under ‘transitional housing,’ residents are moved in with a fixed deadline for leaving. With housing first, keeping the resident sheltered is the first priority. There’s no requirement to leave within a fixed timeframe. All supports for the resident are available in-house but they choose to move out when they’re ready.

“There are intrinsic things to encourage them to move out,” notes Suzanne. The units are all bachelor-sized. Roommates are not permitted and rent is “geared” to income. “There’s no financial incentive to stay put if they’re making money.”

The plan is that most will move out after a few years. “Some will be there the rest of their lives, and that’s okay.”

The ‘front edge’

According to MHI, about 10 per cent of Canada’s homeless are veterans. Soldiers Helping Soldiers, an Ottawa volunteer group, has pegged the number of homeless veterans in the capital at about 380. That number is expected to grow.
“Right now we’re seeing the front edge of Afghanistan [veterans],” says Suzanne. “Normally it takes 10 years after the time they come back. They burn through families, burn through relationships, and burn through careers . . . by the time they end up at street level, where we see them, that’s 10 years.”

Research into why veterans become homeless is in its early stages; difficulties transitioning into civilian life compounded by traumatic experiences while in service are almost certainly factors.

According to MHI, veterans tend to be as much as 10 years older than the rest of the population. They also tend to be better educated, yet, alarmingly, they are also twice as likely to fall victim to crime.

Many veterans have pre-existing mental health issues that can be exacerbated by difficult or traumatic experiences in service.
Suzanne notes that women veterans (who will also be eligible to be residents at Veterans’ House) are estimated to be only 5 percent of homeless veterans. “We need to see what’s going on there that is right and apply it to the male segment.”

She suggests more needs to be done to find the “cracks” in the system. For example, making therapeutic support more readily available for active service members who experience something potentially traumatic might help “stem the flow.”

“We need more safety nets at every level,” she says.

Although appreciative of government support, Suzanne hopes the focus on COVID-19 doesn’t cause focus on the issue to flounder. She would also like to see shelters similar to Veterans’ House “in every major Canadian city.” “We’re expecting the situation to get worse, not better, in the next few years.