Lethbridge is located in southern Alberta. We are a city with a population of just under 100,000. We are neighbours to the largest reserve in Canada, and per capita have one of the highest populations of immigrants and new Canadians.
The YWCA Lethbridge and District has been providing supports and services to southern Alberta for nearly 70 years. We specialize in domestic and sexual violence, housing and homelessness, crisis prevention and intervention, leadership and empowerment, and advocacy and awareness.
I would like to share some numbers: 6,490, 519, and 2,094. These numbers are from our YWCA Harbour House women's emergency shelter. Our outreach services provided support to 6,490 people in our last fiscal year; 519 is how many women and children we were able to provide safe beds for in our shelter; and 2,094 is how many women and children we did not have safe beds for.
The need in our area is great, and we do not have the resources we require to meet the needs in our community. We currently do not have transitional housing in our area, which is a significant gap. We are only subsidized by the government to run our shelter and require nearly $50 per day, per bed of donations in order to provide these services.
Statistics, although important, are just numbers. We are working with humans. Numbers and statistics dehumanize the individuals with whom we are working. We are talking about lives; we are talking about human beings. We need to remember that we are working with and supporting people, not numbers.
Imagine having to run for your life in the middle of the night to escape being beaten to death. For many, escaping is the time when they would be most at risk of losing their life. You show up at the front door of a shelter with nothing but the clothes on your back. You then have to share your story with complete strangers, and tell them about the horrors you have experienced, all the while blaming yourself for much of the abuse you have endured. You are then told that the shelter is full. Now what? You will likely return to your abuser, not because you want to but because if you had any other option you would have tried it before coming to a shelter.
Or maybe there was a bed available. You get shown to your room. It is a crowded room with six beds. You are now sharing your space with five complete strangers. You are safe, possibly for the first time in your life. Now you can take a minute to breathe, but not more than a minute, because you have only 21 days to completely reinvent yourself, overcome the trauma you have experienced, find somewhere to live, clothes for the next day, and so much more. By the way, you've been beaten, belittled, and made to feel that you have no value. You have no money, no friends; you feel like you are nothing and you have nothing. Now, go. I know I certainly wouldn't be able to do it, and I have resources and have not been subjected to extreme terror, trauma and violence.
I am sure you have heard the phrase, “Give a person a fish and they will eat for a day; teach them how to fish and they will eat for a lifetime.” That is what we need to do. We need to teach them and provide the time, support and resources for these human beings to restart.
The first thing we need is more shelter spaces, and along with that we need to ensure that there is supported transitional housing available for all shelters. We need to start at the beginning and teach, rebuild, and empower. The national housing strategy is a great start. It is investing in capital with the aim to build more affordable housing, but if you simply build more places to live and do not adequately support the individuals, there will not be success. There will be more empty, damaged houses.
We need to create homes. We need to walk alongside these individuals to provide them with the supports they need to succeed. When you moved into your first home, did you know when to take the garbage out? Did you know how to change the furnace filter? Were you gifted with the knowledge of how to cook a healthy meal? Did you have more than $30 left at the end of the month to feed your family?
Many of the individuals who are homeless or at risk of being homeless are living in survival mode. How do we expect them to understand all that it takes to live in and maintain a home when we don't provide them with the tools to do so? When someone is fleeing violence, their control has been taken from them, their ability to make decisions removed. They have been terrorized, and yet, we expect success in a short period of time.
What is required is programming that focuses on steps or stages: a step to heal from the bruises; a step to realize what just happened and to grieve what you have lost; a step to discover what the cycle of violence is and how it affects you and your children; a step to figure out what's next.
We need to provide safety and ongoing support. Just like children, they reach milestones and have to grow and develop. We don't expect them to do things before they are developmentally ready. When you have experienced trauma associated with violence, you are not developmentally ready to do the work required to start over again. We are forgetting the building blocks. Abuse is not an event; it is a process, just as it is a process to recover from the place that violence has taken a person. We need to teach them to crawl, to stand, and then to walk on their own.
The solution is that we need to invest in people. We need to make sure that shelters are provided with the necessary resources to provide that initial shelter, but also have the opportunity to transition them along their journey on a timeline that works for them. This isn't about deciding how long it takes. It's about empowering them to know they are capable and they are worthy. It's about starting over. This may seem very simple, but sometimes that's what we need to go back to. Just like when a child starts school, they don't start in grade 9 or 12. They start at grade 1 and build on the skills they learn at each step of the way.
What is needed? Support. But in order to be able to offer the support, what we need to do is invest.
Invest in the staff. By investing in the staff, we are able to effectively train staff, reduce turnover, provide reasonable wages, and support them through the vicarious trauma that occurs. They can't unhear a story. They live this life with their clients.
Invest in shelters. Shelters should not be rooms with multiple beds. Personal space and boundaries are one thing abusers take away from victims, and then we put them in a shared space. We need to invest in the physical space of shelters. They are not holding cells. They are places where an individual has an opportunity to regroup. We need to be strategic in the design of shelters.
Invest in people. We need to support individuals through programs that teach, understand, and empower. We need holistic programming that develops skills, from basic living skills to employment training.
Invest in supported transitional housing. Transitional housing should be available wherever a shelter is available. This is a crucial step in fleeing violence. This is where the growth and empowerment can happen. This is where they learn and grow.
Invest in the organization. Organizations know the work. They are invested in the people they serve. We need less filtering of the funds through multiple agencies. The organizations know how to most effectively meet the needs of the people they serve.
Again, this may appear as a simplistic view, but the solution is simple; it is support. Through support, we help people who have been broken to heal. By investing in people up front, we reduce the long-term costs. If we teach them to fish, they will eat for a lifetime.