CALGARY — Dirk Lemcke spent 8 1/2 years in a combat regiment with the United States military before he became a truck driver and a painter.
He never expected to be homeless.
Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and a number of chronic health problems, Lemcke found himself out of work and spent four months on the streets of Calgary.
"I've always been out to help people and being in the situation of having to receive help is a new thing for me. It's hard," says Lemcke.
"I just want to pay my rent, eat and be a human being, to live in a decent place and not just some slum basement.
"I just want to have a normal life."
Lemcke, who is in his late 50s, now has a home.
He's a resident in a southeast Calgary community of 15 self-contained tiny homes for military veterans.
Each 37-square-metre unit — about the size of a small motorhome — comes with a kitchen and bathroom. There's a TV on a wall and a murphy bed to pull down at night.
Each one is named after a Canadian soldier who died in service.
They're run by The Mustard Seed street ministry, which partnered with Homes for Heroes, a group that supports military veterans returning to civilian life. The homes rent for $640 a month and vets can stay for about two years.
The community opened in November and about a dozen of the homes are occupied so far.
A second tiny-homes village for vets is to open in Edmonton later this year.
Lemcke, who was born in California and grew up in Montreal, has been learning how to carve soapstone. Sitting in his new home, he proudly shows off two bears he has been working on with a hammer and chisel.
He says he hopes to get a part-time job and move into his own apartment. His tiny home would then go to another veteran in need.
Don McLeod, a retired warrant officer with Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, is the tiny-home community's veteran peer support worker.
Residents have access to counselling and McLeod helps them work their way to getting financial support from the government. Some have addiction and mental-health issues, McLeod says, but most just need direction.
"These people are not touchy feely. I'm not going to give them a big hug and tell them everything's going to be fine. I'm going to say, 'You've got yourself into this mess. How are we going to make things better?'"
Ian MacIvor spent two years as a reservist with the Calgary Highlanders. He points proudly to a field jacket and a cap from his days in the service that hang on the wall of his tiny home.
He says he was unable to work after he was diagnosed with a brain tumour two years ago.
"Once you eat through your life savings, you've got nothing left to fall back on. I was on the street for six months. Horrible. I almost died after three assaults."
He says he appreciates being able to sleep without having one eye open.
"This is amazing," MacIvor says. "This is perfect — a roof over my head and some place I can sleep having nothing to worry about except making rent."
Federal Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay recently toured the community and said it's important that no veteran be without a home.
He said there are an estimated 3,000 homeless veterans across the country. Many don't want to be helped, but it's essential to provide support for those that do.
"This is what veterans deserve. A little down on their luck, most likely did go through situations that would horrify most people, and all of a sudden they end up on the street. And today they're here.
"Tomorrow hopefully they'll be in another home."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2020
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Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press