Nearly three quarters of Canadian women and children who sought emergency shelter from violence this winter were turned away because there’s no room, according to a new survey of transition houses and emergency women’s shelters.
The survey, conducted by the Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters and Transition Houses, asked shelters across Canada to pick a single day within a roughly two-week period in February and March 2016 and report on who visited them and what happened. A total of 234 shelters participated and their results were combined to provide an approximate snapshot of a single day in Canadian shelters.
Altogether, 234 women and 182 children sought shelter on a single day. Seventy-three per cent of them were turned away due to lack of capacity.
Some of them were sent to other women’s shelters that did have room. Others had to be accommodated in homeless shelters. Some didn’t have anywhere to go and were instead offered counselling or other resources, according to Lise Martin, executive director of the Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters and Transition Houses.
Women don’t leave their homes and seek out a shelter lightly, she said.
“Often it’s because she feels that there’s a real threat to her life or her children and she feels she just can’t take it anymore.”
So not having a space available is “extremely challenging.” If they have to, shelter workers will figure something out, like throwing down cots or other such ad hoc arrangements.
“If the situation is extremely dire, they will not be turned away. They’ll use their couches, there’s always cots, things like that,” she said. “If a woman really fears that her life is in danger, they won’t send her back to the abuser, but the situation is very challenging. And the reality is you can’t have someone sleeping on the couch for six weeks.”
Shelters are feeling the crunch because the need is high and the number of spaces available is low, said Martin.
“In the majority of provinces there has not been a new shelter built in the last 10 years.”
$89.9 million in new funding from the federal government over the next two years to build and refurbish shelter spaces, announced in the 2016 budget, will help, but she’d like a more holistic plan.
That could include education to help prevent abuse in the first place and funding for “second-stage” shelters – subsidized housing spaces that also offer counselling and other services.
More affordable housing spaces would help too, as fewer women would need to spend time in a shelter if they feel they need to leave their old homes – they could move straight into a new apartment.
“We’re not going to have the impact that’s required to make a change unless there are important investments, financial investments on this issue,” she said.
She also worries that having so many women turned away could discourage people from seeking help.
“We have to be careful about the messages that we send out to women because we don’t want women to say, ‘Well why would I even bother? I’m going to be turned away or they’re always full anyway.’”
Shelter workers work hard to find women somewhere to live, and can offer counselling and other services in times of crisis, she said. However, “There needs to be more resources put into this.”