In February 2021, the City of London, ON, made history as the first community in Canada to functionally end veteran homelessness as part of the Built for Zero Canada campaign. By sharing how they achieved this, the City hopes it won’t be the last.

Mayor Ed Holder believes a community is measured by how well it takes care of those who are less able to care for themselves. “Frankly, no one should be homeless, but Canadian veterans strike a particular chord because of their contribution in this country,” he says. “Some suffer from issues directly linked to their service, whether it’s PTSD, or mental health issues that could lead to addictions. It became clear to me there were some real challenges in our city, and we set out to find a solution.”

As categorized by the Built for Zero Canada (BFZ-C), “functional zero” is when the number of veterans experiencing homelessness is less than or equal to the number of veterans a community has proven it can house in a month. While this number will not remain static as veterans move in and out of the area, the system now in place will work in perpetuity to find accommodation for veterans experiencing homelessness in the community.

Fundamental to the City’s success was data sourcing and a collaboration between local agencies, the City’s business community, and veterans’ organizations. This work was made possible when the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and kickstarted in 2016 with collaboration between organizations including The Royal Canadian Legion, London Cares Homeless Response Services, Local Emergency Shelter, London Police Service, and the Department of National Defense Occupational Stress Injury Social Services, and Lawson Research Institute who work together on the Veteran Advisory Committee.

One of the initial challenges in directing service towards veterans in need was identifying them. This is where Veterans Affairs Canada came in, creating a By-Name List, a comprehensive real-time list of all people experiencing homelessness in a community. “From there, we could identify where the need is and then deal with it.”

“Veteran homelessness in Canada demands an urgent and immediate response,” says Tim Richter, President & CEO, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. The good news is that communities like London are showing that ending it can be done. Veteran homelessness is a readily solvable problem— Canada has strong veteran networks, solid expertise in communities and now, a proven model to follow.”

Mayor Holder says the local business community enthusiastically took on the challenge alongside the city. Through the London Cares Homeless Response Services Housing Selection, private-market landlords and property groups interested in making apartments available to individuals experiencing homelessness are supported. “Major independent developers, all from London, and who are the best builders in the country are asking ‘What can we do to help? It’s our turn to give back,’ says Mayor Holder.

Functionally ending veteran homelessness in London is a great step to address the City’s overarching homelessness crisis. “If we can do that for our veterans, we can do that for other at-risk communities in London, which is why I have made it my objective over the next five years to move toward functional homelessness—zero on all fronts,” says Mayor Holder. “Because this program highlights that there are other groups that need equal attention.”

Having reached functional zero, the City of London has its sights set on absolute zero. “Having an address is the first step towards accessing services or gaining employment,” continues Mayor Holder. “You can have a bank account if you have an address, for instance. There’re so many things that go into having a home.”

Mayor Holder recognizes the importance of the economic drivers it takes to make London so strong. London has the second fastest growing economy in Canada before COVID, and in the last seven months has had more continuous employment growth than any other city in the country. “That’s a testament to the confidence I believe that business has in our community,” he says. “I’ve always said that no municipality can do this alone without great support from senior levels of government and community and that is something the City of London has.”

Setting an example for the rest of the country, Mayor Holder says the City of London has shown that addressing veteran homelessness can be done. “I love this city. I love this city because it has passion and compassion.”