Banner putting names to female homelessness

Prostitution, rape, violence, murder and suicide are just a few of the things that women endure as a result of homelessness. Yet more than 1,600 are turned away from shelters every year.

That’s why the YWCA has organized a campaign to draw attention to the issue — one that measures 30 feet in length.

As part of the lead-up to the Second National Forum on Security of Housing and Safe Communities for Women, a banner has been brought to Hamilton, one that will make 30 stops before landing in — London, Ont.

The purpose is to gather signatures from women with lived experiences of homelessness.

“Women’s homelessness is severely overlooked because it’s almost impossible to track,” said Alex Johnstone, development coordinator of the YWCA.

Women do not appear to be victimized by homelessness because they are not as visible on the streets, Johnstone said. They couch-surf between friends’ houses because the streets are too risky.

According to reports by the Social Planning and Research Council, it is estimated at least 3,000 women are part of this “hidden homeless” contingent.

“It’s a sad truth, but women and children are the fastest-growing group of homeless in Canada,” Johnstone said.

One of the biggest issues is that homeless women are afraid to ask for help, Johnstone said, noting that, on average women suffer through 36 threatening experiences before reaching out for help.

Lorraine Chapman, of Good Shepherd Women’s Services, said that when they finally do have the courage to come for help, there is a shortage of shelter options.

In February alone, Mary’s Place, a daily drop-in program for women in need of shelter, had to turn away 217 people.

“We even added 12 new beds and we still have people sleeping on our couches every night,” Chapman said.

There are only 124 beds available for homeless women in Hamilton (187 are for men). In 2013, overflow beds were used 791 times.

Most shelters can only help women for four to six weeks. After that, they have to refer them elsewhere to assist new women.

The YWCA offers what is called “transitional living.” This enables women to stay as long as 11 months. Staff members assist these women in education, employment and intensive goal-planning. The hope is that after their training, these women will have a chance at a vibrant future.

“We really hope that transitional living has the potential to break the cycle of poverty so that these women can live independently,” Johnstone said.

The banner will be used as a backdrop of the main stage at the forum to be held from May 12 to 14. The forum’s goal is to connect homeless women with a network of professionals who can address the social, economic and practical issues affecting women at risk.

Chapman said the publicity helps, but the real need is for more affordable and safe housing as well as a national housing policy.

Special to The Hamilton Spectator