Imagine representing your country in a foreign war zone and witnessing devastation first hand, before coming home wounded from a physical injury or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
That is a stark reality for some veterans and the heart of the Royal Canadian Legion’s Cockrell House: transitional, safe housing with health and social services for homeless ex-military personnel who require assistance integrating back into society.
The British Columbia/Yukon Foundation project that started on Vancouver Island is now making its way to Trail for its second phase of housing. Up to four spots will be available in a furnished duplex in the city by the end of summer.
“A lot of these people have PTSD. They’ve gotten out of the military and have had a break down in their lives,” said Glenn Hodge, First Vice President for BC/Yukon Command. “Some have gotten into abuse of alcohol or drugs, and basically a lot of them live off the grid.”
Even if someone is entitled to a pension or other assistance, at times battling PTSD can limit their ability to file required paperwork to receive financial support. Cockrell House recognizes this and lets tenants live for free until they get a steady flow of income and allows them to stay as long as they need to find stability to create a life independently.
“Having a home to begin with really is the key,” according to Lyle Crispin, a Rossland resident and veteran who has PTSD, a disorder that can develop after a terrifying ordeal that involved physical harm or threat of physical harm.
“When you look at how people (with PTSD) deal with actually achieving housing and things like that it becomes extremely complex,” he said.“These people are not functioning at the level that works in this society, and they are not provided opportunities to understand that in a lot of ways and when they do have those opportunities, they feel like they’re mooching or being told they’re not entitled.”
The retired sergeant said he’s no expert but understands how the disorder can take a toll on an individual. He’s on his own wellness journey and said a strong support system and fitness regime has helped him find control in his life. But he can see how someone with the disorder can find themselves behind the eight ball, broke and eventually homeless.
Veteran and Cockrell House resident Luke Carmichael, 69, found a place to sleep in the woods for eight years before moving into the project house on the island. Prior to finding stable housing, he said his whole life revolved around getting food and finding warmth.
“I lived in a tent in summer and winter,” he was noted on the Cockrell House website. “I kept warm sitting by the fire. I had to hitchhike (30 kilometres) into Sooke, B.C., to get groceries, put them in my backpack and hitchhike back.”
Much like Carmichael’s story suggests the difficulty will be finding individuals who have fallen off the grid. Hodge estimates there are probably up to a dozen veterans needing housing and support in the Trail area and looks forward to making connections as the project picks up.
“We know that there is a need here within the community,” he said, pointing to the response from the Coins for Change event, an annual awareness and fundraising campaign to end homelessness in Greater Trail.
“But with confidentiality issues, the military won’t tell us who’s out there, and the health department can’t tell us who’s in their system and to find somebody who is physically homeless is the hardest part.”
Currently, there are 14 veterans involved in the project on the island. The home not only provides a free or low-cost shelter but individual support through a coordinator, who helps connect tenants to resources like counselling, employment or education.
Hodge stands behind the Veterans Transition Program, a group-based program developed at UBC (University of British Columbia) by psychologists and medical experts to help men and women returning from military service transition to productive civilian life.
Through BCIT’s (the British Columbia Institute of Technology) Legion Military Skills Conversion Program, he adds, ex-military can accelerate and advance their civilian careers by challenging credentials in trades acquired through the forces.
“An electrician in the military can’t come out and be an electrician for Teck or one of the local contractors because he doesn’t have a Red Seal,” explained Hodge. “But, meanwhile, he may have been an electrician for 30 years, so they give them that qualification.”
Crispin works as a peer volunteer with Operation Stress Injury Social Support (OSSIS), a partnership program between the Department of National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada (Interior B.C. OSSIS peer support coordinator Diane Welburn can be reached at 250-460-1469).
It is difficult to take on this role, but he finds satisfaction in working with veterans and considers it part of his healing. He has also found support through Soldier On, a Canadian Armed Forces program supporting military members to overcome their mental or physical illness or injury through sport and other activities.
Cockrell House has been on Hodge’s radar for about a decade, but the goal of expanding the model to Trail began about two years ago. Since then, there has been much discussion on finding suitable housing close to amenities like transportation.
The project dubbed “new beginnings for homeless veterans” was developed by the South Mid-Vancouver Island Zone Veterans Housing Society and is named after Lionel Jack Cockrell. The Second World War tank commander and former Royal Canadian Legion Zone Commander was a long-time Legion service officer and mentor to many.
Cockrell House is funded through donations to the British Columbia/Yukon Foundation. Donors can give online at legionbcyukon.ca, by mail (101 17618 58 Ave., Surrey, B.C. V3S 1L3) or by texting “LEGION” to 20222 on a mobile device to make a $5 donation. To inquire about the Trail chapter of the project, contact Hodge at 250-364-2533 or email him at email@example.com