Shelter shortage leaves women at risk, Ottawa advocates say before march to end gender-based violence

Residents and advocates participate in a march to mark the United Nations campaign to end gender-based violence in Ottawa on Nov. 25, 2017, also the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Melanie Willis / Photo courtesy of Grandmothers Advocacy Network

Ahead of a march in Ottawa on Saturday to mark the United Nations campaign to end gender-based violence, local advocates and service providers are trying to draw attention to what they say is a serious lack of shelter space available to women and children fleeing violence in the national capital.

Carrolyn Johnston, executive director of the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women, says the seven shelters in the city that house women who have been subject to abuse and violence are “always” at full capacity. Between Nov. 8 and Nov. 20, four of those shelters and one counselling agency tracked requests from 42 single women and 36 families but none of the shelters had a room to spare, she said.

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On top of that, Ottawa is now facing an affordable housing crisis, Johnston argued, and the tight rental market is suffocating movement in the shelter system and possibly putting more women’s lives at risk.

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“Even if women can get into a shelter, there’s nowhere for them to go after so they can’t leave the shelter, which creates a bottleneck, which means other women can’t get into those spaces,” Johnston said in an interview with Global News earlier this week.

“I must make it clear that one of the real risks in not having shelter space for women to access if they are fleeing abuse is that they stay in an abusive home, a violent home, a dangerous home – with their children potentially – because they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Johnston heads one of several organizations in Ottawa that have partnered for the second year in a row to organize a march to mark the United Nations “UNiTE” campaign to end violence against women.

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The march, organized by the Ottawa-based Grandmothers Advocacy Network, will begin at the Women’s Monument in Minto Park on Saturday afternoon and conclude at the Human Rights Monument beside Ottawa City Hall.

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Shelley VanBuskirk, manager of housing services at the city of Ottawa, said there’s no question there are “capacity challenges” in the national capital’s emergency shelters. While designated violence against women shelters are funded by the province, VanBuskirk said the city does handle overflow from those shelters.

In those situations, she says the city explores all possible options to house the individuals in need. If there’s no room in any of the family shelters, staff will see if any relatives or friends can take in the woman or family. Placing them in a hotel or motel is the last resort, VanBuskirk said in a phone interview, insisting the city “doesn’t leave anybody in an unsafe situation.”

“That’s not what we do,” she said. “We really, very much try to facilitate the right type of placement for that person and we’re continuing to try and create new capacity here in Ottawa.”

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Johnston said OCTEVAW is particularly concerned that the city’s recent decision to shutter the Forward Family Shelter in Mechanicsville – one of two municipal emergency family shelters (the city contracts with partners for additional shelter space) – will put “additional stress on the whole system.”

In a memo announcing the closure, the city stated the shelter has “reached the end of its lifecycle” and no longer meets municipal and provincial accessibility standards. The memo noted the 18-room shelter had been operating at full capacity for more than 30 years.

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Asked whether the city intends to replace those emergency spaces, VanBuskirk said a new, soon-to-be announced transitional housing program for families will replace the capacity offered by the Forward Family Shelter. That program will also have “wraparound” supports, like immigration and settlement services and children’s programming, she said.

However, because transitional housing is typically designed to “bridge the gap” between emergency shelter and permanent housing, advocates like Johnston are worried transitional units aren’t a direct replacement for the lost emergency spaces.

VanBuskirk said Thursday the Forward Family Shelter and its services will keep running until the city has found permanent housing arrangements for all the families.

#MeToo has had ‘profound impact,’ Johnston says

While she says there is still “a lot of shame and stigma” attached to gender-based violence, Johnston says she thinks the #MeToo movement has had a “profound impact” on the attention given to the issue and the number of people sharing their stories.

“I think because a lot of it is done on social media, that’s creating a different space for survivors and for women to talk about it,” she said. “Certainly the sexual assault support centres across the province and in the city of Ottawa have seen a spike to the number of call to their crisis lines and the number of people who are trying to access their services, so I do think it has had a great impact.”

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A Statistics Canada report released in early November on police-reported sexual assaults in Canada before and after the explosion of the #MeToo movement also showed there was a coinciding increase in the number of incidents reported to authorities last year.

“Among criminal incidents founded by police, there were more police-reported sexual assaults in 2017 than in any year since 1998,” the report noted.

Still, Johnston underscored that data doesn’t capture all the incidents that are never reported to police. She said 70 per cent of spousal violence, for example, goes unreported.

“Violence against women and gender-based violence is prevalent everywhere,” she said. “It’s happening every day and it impacts far more of our family members, our colleagues, our friends than I think most of society is aware.”

Immigrants rarely report gender-based abuse and violence, face more challenges, director says

Determining the scale of gender-based violence in the immigrant community is even tougher because newcomer women are more hesitant and less likely to report violence to police, according to the executive director of Immigrant Women Services Ottawa.

“There’s a stigma attached to it, there’s safety issues attached to it and a lot of them may have had negative experiences with the police in their countries of origin,” Mercy Lawluvi says.

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“Immigrant women are experiencing violence and they’re not reporting it so the statistics are not there to support what is actually going on.”

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On top of that, any challenges that women fleeing violence face, such as finding safe shelter in an emergency, are even more “dire” for immigrant women, Lawluvi insists.

“Newcomer, immigrant women … do not have the social supports here yet to say: ‘OK, I’ll go and stay with a friend because it’s not safe at home,'” Lawluvi said. “She doesn’t have that, so she’s forced to stay in the abusive (home). It’s a real problem.”

Immigrant women fleeing violence also struggle with language barriers and a lack of information about resources in the city they can access, according to Lawluvi.

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GRAN asked Lawluvi to be a guest speaker at the march on Saturday to speak to the experience of newcomers and immigrants who are victims of gender-based violence. Lawluvi said she plans to highlight was has been achieved in the combatting the issue and what still needs to be done.

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“We are never too tired of sending out that message,” she said.

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