Fateema Sayani tours Veterans’ House: The Andy Carswell Building as part of a series on new and upcoming projects that combine residential units with specialized resources.
People come to Veterans’ House in one of three ways, according to Bill Beaton, a resident and former weapons technician with the Royal Canadian Air Force.
“Some have PTSD, some have addictions, and others have what I call a ‘life happening.’ I fall under that category,” he says. “I had a bad case of pneumonia, was hospitalized, and ended up with chronic pain. With a very limited income, I ended up homeless.”
Beaton found help in Soldiers Helping Soldiers, an organization that connects homeless veterans with support services.
“They took me under their wing, got me a place, and got me involved in this project,” he says of Veterans’ House. Also known as the Andy Carswell Building, after the decorated Second World War pilot who died this past August, the 40-unit facility on the former Rockcliffe air base opened to residents in February 2021. Now, in addition to hosting movie nights and learning guitar, Beaton champions the need for similar buildings across the country.
“Let’s be honest, no one wants to be known as the face of homelessness,” he says. “You don’t want your friends or family to know, but somebody has to do it, so I volunteered.”
As it stands, there are very few affordable units in the country for homeless veterans. An initiative called Canadian Legacy Project has built 35 tiny homes for veterans in Calgary and Edmonton, with plans for more in Kingston, Ont., and Winnipeg. It’s a good start, but government figures estimate there are between 3,000 and 5,000 homeless veterans in Canada.
Their needs can be complex. Beaton speaks of a resident who returned from Afghanistan after their colleague, who had been leaning out of a tank to observe, was blown apart. “When you see stuff like that, it affects you, and some are trying to cope through booze or drugs. When they’re on the street, you can’t get at them. Here, at least we have a shot to get them some help.
“In the military, you’re always looking out for each other. But on civilian street, nobody’s got your back. Here, it’s different, it’s about the unit. That’s the idea behind this place,” Beaton says.
Suzanne Le, executive director of the Multifaith Housing Initiative — the organization responsible for Veterans’ House and four other properties around Ottawa — describes that transition as going from a culture of the “we” to the “me,” where the collective emphasis drops.
The communal spaces were designed by CSV Architects to facilitate interaction, which helps them adapt to community life. There is a TV area to watch the game, a space for ping-pong, and a large kitchen for residents to cook together. A piano was brought in last month. Outside, the dog run allows residents’ pets some space to roam, while the contemplative garden allows someone experiencing a troubling memory to wander in a peaceful space.