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The local volunteers helping homeless veterans

For the past two years, Thorold Legion members Ken Smalko and Jeannie Soper have been working hard to get homeless veterans off the streets

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: A version of this article was originally published by ThoroldToday on March 30.

Last week, the Thorold Legion hosted a meeting at their Ormond St. headquarters, to provide information — on their efforts to get homeless veterans off the streets — to the various emergency services in the Region.

‘Operation: Leave the Streets Behind’ is a program run by the Royal Canadian Legion that wants to ensure that every veteran who is homeless or near homeless finds the help they need.

Among the assistance provided is housing, medical attention, food, utility payments, as well as addiction recovery programs.

Thorold Legion executive members Ken Smalko and Jeannie Soper, have been spearheading the program at Thorold Legion Branch 17 for the last two years.

“Every single veteran that we’ve dealt with is different,” says Smalko, in an interview with ThoroldToday. “We run into different hurdles for every single person. It’s rather unique.”

During the information meeting, several speakers shared their knowledge and experience with representatives of the Thorold Fire Department, Emergency Services, and Niagara Regional Police Services.

“This has been a learning experience for everyone involved over the last two years but we are succeeding one homeless veteran at a time,” said the Legion’s Vice-President of Ontario Command, Diane Condon, in a speech.

One of the speakers at the event was Jeremy Burns, a Toronto police officer, who helped designed the Military Veteran Wellness Program (MVWP), which he is now trying to bring to Niagara.

The goal of the MVWP is to provide resources to police officers so they can better identify struggling veterans and refer them to the right services. 

“In Toronto we’ve done 34 referrals,” Burns told the gathered crowd. “34 veterans that we were able to offer assistance that they otherwise wouldn’t know was available. We also designed a training program that’s available online for free. Officers are now going to be trained in de-escalation techniques used specifically for dealing with veterans.”

District B Commander Jack Gemmell used his time at the podium to highlight struggles specific to the Region.

“Our main problem here in the Niagara Region is finding housing,” he said. “Somebody who had five years in the military and is living on ODSP is pulling in somewhere around $1000 to $1200, and rents in the Niagara Region run $1800 to $1900. That’s one place where we need a lot of help down here. We can help them get set up but we have to be able to find the housing that is sustainable for them.”

According to Smalko, the information night is important because it’s been sometimes difficult to coordinate efforts within the Region.

“The Region didn’t seem to realize that every dollar that we spent on our veterans is a dollar they can spend on somebody else,” he says.

Smalko and Soper have only been running the program at Branch 17 for two short years, but they've already been able to help 15 veterans.

When a homeless veteran is identified and they've given their consent to pass on their information, an intake form is filled out and sent to Assistant Executive Director of Ontario Command Juanita Kemp. She'll process the application, check their records, and then the Legion will reach out to the person in need.

Smalko says that volunteering his time to helping homeless veterans is very important to him.

“I’m a paramedic and I think this sort of helps me,” he says. “I’ve been doing it for so long, there’s got to be some level of PTSD.”

By helping others, Smalko feels like he can help himself.

Both Smalko and Soper say they are motivated to keep the program going because they directly see the positive effects it can have.

Soper recalls an encounter with a veteran who was camped out in a rat-infested apartment in Niagara Falls. 

Through ‘Operation: Leave the Streets Behind,’ the Legion was able to find him a new home and the necessary medical attention.

“I’m very happy to say that he’s doing very well now,” Soper says. “I’ve seen a change in him. He looks happy, he looks healthy and he’s thankful for all that we’ve done for him.”

To learn more about 'Operation: Leave the Streets Behind' go to the Royal Canadian Legion's website

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Bernard Lansbergen

About the Author: Bernard Lansbergen

Bernard was born and raised in Belgium but moved to Canada in 2012 and has lived in Niagara since 2020. Bernard loves telling people’s stories and wants to get to know those that make Thorold into the great place it is
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