In December 2016, Robert Praet had just arrived in Ottawa and was living in the Salvation Army shelter when a staff member learned that he was a Canadian Forces veteran.
Praet had moved to this city after being priced out of his apartment in Calgary; he had few possessions since he had lost most of them during the 2013 Calgary flood. After hearing his story, a Salvation Army intake worker contacted a local charity, VETS Canada.
“There’s no way you should be here,” Praet was told when he met a team of volunteers from VETS Canada, an organization dedicated to providing emergency support to homeless veterans.
The organization placed him in a local hotel and helped him find an affordable apartment. Praet, who served overseas with the Corps of Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers before a 1967 training accident led to his medical discharge, joined VETS Canada as soon as he was settled in Ottawa.
“I’m just paying it forward,” he said in an interview Saturday. “They helped me when I needed it, so now I’m trying to reach out to others.”
Praet, 76, was among two dozen VETS Canada volunteers who scoured Ottawa’s downtown streets Saturday for homeless veterans as part of the second annual “In Her Boots” campaign.
The campaign — volunteers in 15 Canadian cities took to the streets to search for vets in crisis — is designed to draw attention to the issue of homelessness among female veterans.
Emilie Faucher, a spokeswoman for the Ottawa chapter of VETS Canada, said the event is meant to “shine a light on the struggle of female veterans.” Data collected by the organization shows that 16 per cent of its contacts involve female veterans, which was up from six per cent the previous year.
“To us, it was a significant number,” she said. “So it was decided that we should do something to create a dialogue about female veterans.”
A March 2015 study by the federal government found that there were 2,250 former Canadian Forces soldiers using homeless shelters on a regular basis. Many of the veterans cited alcoholism, drug addiction and mental heath issues for their predicament.
Faucher said the study did not address the plight of female veterans.
“A lot of female veterans have been disclosing that they’ve been the victim of military sexual trauma or some kind of family violence,” she said. “So that’s something very specific to women veterans that we need to address.”
VETS Canada connects former soldiers with the emergency help they need, whether’s it’s stable housing, addiction counselling, or mental health or trauma services, and ensures they’re receiving all available financial support from Veterans Affairs Canada.
In Ottawa, VETS Canada volunteers patrol downtown streets once a month to search for former soldiers in crisis.
Mike Ross, 54, a 35-year military veteran, has been volunteering with VETS Canada since he left the Canadian Forces two years ago.
“I thought it would be a good way to help my own transition from full-time military service while still being involved with the military,” said Ross, an aerospace engineer and project manager.
“I like that we’ve been able to help people that the system wasn’t capturing: We’ve been able to connect with people who didn’t know help was available to them, or how to access it. It has been a good feeling.”