Women’s shelters blend so unobtrusively into the streetscape that most people don’t know they’re there.
There are 13 in Toronto, for example. Some are Victorian mansions, others are former rooming houses, sanatoriums and suburban homes. Only a handful of women know their location. They guard the information closely to protect residents from vengeful partners, stalkers and predators.
But this secrecy creates a dilemma. They can’t give a clear picture of the work they do. They can’t use powerful images to lobby policy-makers. They can’t tell compelling stories in their fundraising appeals.
This month, the Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters and Transition Houses opened its door a crack. It released the first national survey of emergency shelters in Canada. Seventy per cent of its 350 members participated.
On Nov. 25, 2013, each shelter completed an identical questionnaire detailing how many women and children they were serving that day, how they helped clients rebuild their lives and what message survivors of abuse had for Canadians. Shelter workers were also asked to identify their three greatest challenges.
The numbers were eye-opening and disturbing. On an ordinary autumn day 14,178 women and 2,490 children were living in emergency shelters across Canada. (This understates the total because 108 of the shelters in the network didn’t report and 243 women’s refuges are not affiliated with the umbrella group.)
Surprisingly, only 20 per cent of shelters were in large cities. The vast majority were in small towns and rural areas.
One grim statistic stood out. On the day of the survey, Canadian shelters turned away 286 women and 205 children. There simply wasn’t room. (Ontario’s auditor general Bonnie Lysyk found emergency shelters turned away 15,000 women — 56 per cent of those who sought help — in her 2013 annual report.)
Most shelter users — traumatized wives and girlfriends, trapped prostitutes and isolated immigrants — can’t afford housing. They don’t know how to navigate the social service system.
“Some women stay in violent and dangerous living situations to avoid becoming homeless,” the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses told the provincial finance committee in its 2014 pre-budget submission.
Others can’t earn enough to support their children, don’t know how to get welfare, are held in thrall by their addictions, ethnic or religious convictions, disabilities or mental health issues, added Susan Young, director of the association.
The survey did not ask abused women for sensitive information. But a profile of shelter users can be drawn from the special services they offer. Seventy-one per cent are accessible to women with reduced mobility, 51 per cent provide help to women dealing with substance abuse and 43 per cent provide support to women with mental health challenges.
“Shelter workers across the country recognize that service alone will not put an end to violence against women,” said Lise Martin, executive director of the national network. “Greater public engagement needs to happen in all sectors of society and at all levels of government.
Public awareness has improved since 1982 when the House of Commons broke into guffaws and crude jokes when MP Margaret Mitchell, a former social worker and community activist in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, told MPs that one in 10 husbands in Canada beat their wives. Her call for a parliamentary committee into spousal abuse was laughed off the floor.
In her 2013 inaugural speech as health minister, Rona Ambrose identified family violence as one of her key priorities. “Not only does it threaten our physical and mental health, it also puts a huge strain on day-to-day personal and business activities, on the communities in which we live and on our health care system,” she told the Canadian Medical Association.
But she never followed up with a concrete plan or resources. Ontario has a plethora of plans, but has not increased shelter funding since 2008.
In the survey, 70 per cent of shelters cited lack of funding as their biggest challenge, 62 per cent highlighted gaps in services for marginalized women and 62 per cent identified lack of affordable housing.
The message from their clients was poignant. “Please don’t give up on me,” one survivor pleaded. “This is the best and safest place to live ever,” a nine-year-old child told interviewers.
They are the lucky ones. The unlucky ones are still cowering in their apartments, fending off blows, waiting for a vacancy.
Carol Goar is a news services columnist.