Legion poppy fund chair Pat Paterson

Home for the haunted

Cockrell House in Colwood offers sanctuary to military veterans struggling to return to civilian life after war

After serving in the military for 34 years and in the most dangerous conflict zones in the world, Ray Belanger found himself broke, haunted and physically damaged. It wasn’t they way he’d imagined retirement.

About 18 months ago, Belanger moved in with his brother while in the midst of a bitter divorce, and while suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Now he’s living in Cockrell House in Colwood, Canada’s only shelter for homeless and struggling military veterans.

“I went from the top to the bottom in two months,” said Belanger, a retired paratrooper and load master with the Canadian Air Force. “I had no money left, no place to live and I needed rehabilitation for my body and head. They brought me here.”

Belanger found Cockrell House before he wound up homeless, unlike a number of  veterans who retreat to living in the bush or on the street. But similar to most of those who rotate through Cockrell House, Belanger suffers from PTSD from what he witnessed in war zones and cities hit by natural disasters.

“I was deployed three times in seven years to Afghanistan. Sierra Leone, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo – I saw disasters across the world, floods in New Orleans,” Belanger said. “I saw a lot of disturbing things that’s for sure.”

The non-profit, volunteer-run South Mid Vancouver Island Zone Veterans Housing Society created Cockrell House, which opened quietly in 2009 offering five townhouse units that could house up to 11 people.

Russ Ridley, a Colwood developer and owner of the townhouse complex, pays for power, water, gas and maintenance.

The Royal Canadian Legion Foundation and other veterans organizations input about $10,000 per month to lease the building, subsidize rent, and to buy food cards and bus passes for men staying there. The society also financially assists a number of veterans off site.

In the past three years Cockrell House has helped about two dozen veterans get back on their feet, including a number who were homeless. Terri Orser, a founding member of Cockrell House and the “den mother,” organizes donated furniture and helps the veterans settle in at the house.

“This is the first and the only (facility) like this in Canada,” said Orser, a veteran of the 1991 Gulf war and two tours of the former Yugoslavia as a peacekeeper.

“We get a lot of money from the legion foundation. The legion supports us very well, as well as other veteran organizations. Now we are just waiting for permanent funding to come in.”

Despite widespread attention in the media and a high success rate in helping lost veterans, Cockrell House has no permanent, stable funding from senior government, such as Veterans Affairs. Colwood is looking at donating $50,000 from its affordable housing fund, although it’s not clear that could be used for day-to-day operations.

“We get glowing letters of support from every level of government, but there’s never a cheque in the envelope,” said Cockrell House treasurer Angus Stanfield. “We survive on almost 100 per cent donations.”

“There is a lot of reason why this hasn’t failed – all the people involved,” he noted. “And without the Royal Canadian Legion we couldn’t do it. Everything comes back to that.”

Ridley and his brother Robb are in the early stages of planning second Cockrell House, possibly on Goldstream Avenue near Spencer school. Pieces need to fall into place, such as rezoning and sewering the property, but Ridley said a second building would give homeless veterans a smoother transition back into society.

“We call this place the breathing place. It allows these guys to get into programs and schooling,” Ridley said. “But instead of just throwing them out in the world when they graduate from here, there could be a second place to rent a room until they are integrated back into society.”

NDP MLA John Horgan (Juan de Fuca) and NDP MP Randall Garrison (Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca) donated Canadian and B.C. flags last month in a small ceremony that allowed them to tour the facility.

“This is seniors helping seniors and veterans helping veterans,” Horgan said. “And the Ridley family contributes again and again.”

For more information on Cockrell House or to make a contribution, call Dave Munro at 1-250-510-5332.


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