I do appreciate this opportunity to participate in this current study of shelters and transition houses serving women and children affected by violence and intimate partner violence. The Tearmann Society for Abused Women, commonly known as Tearmann House, is a 15-bed shelter providing services similar to our sister shelters across the province, as described by my colleague Jennifer Gagnon of Harbour House.
I would like to note that Tearmann House and Harbour House are members of the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia, which includes seven transition houses, one outreach organization and two healing centres, covering 12 locations throughout Nova Scotia. I will be speaking to the front-line work as it pertains to violence against women and the scope of the study.
Speaking for Tearmann House—and I believe this is common to shelters in Nova Scotia—our occupancy is at near full to full capacity on a consistent basis. Since January of this year, 78 women and 44 children resided at Tearmann, with an occupancy rate of 70%. If a woman is in need of shelter and we are at full capacity, we will offer our living room for the night and work with the woman for options the following morning. Shelters that are at full occupancy often call other shelters closest to them to see if beds are available, and if so, women and their children may agree to transfer to another shelter for a temporary stay. I am aware that in urban areas and some rural areas across the country there are simply not enough beds or shelters to meet the needs of women seeking safety, particularly in our indigenous communities in the north, as Lyda Fuller clearly described in her presentation.
Shelters, whether at full capacity or not, are often single-staffed and are experiencing an increase in the needs of women who are presenting with complex trauma, mental health issues and/or addictions. In our community, the changes to mental health services, for example the closure of a short-stay unit, have resulted in an increase of referrals from the hospital. Transference of trauma treatment from the health care system to community-based organizations, with no additional resources, has created a widening gap for women experiencing trauma and a need for suicide intervention and mental health supports.
Women are triaged, assessed and discharged with a referral to shelters. Shelter staff offer a trauma-informed approach, and meet all women where they are. It is a disservice to women, when they arrive at a shelter and after spending some time with us, to realize we do not have the clinical capacity to provide appropriate treatment or support for the complex trauma they are experiencing. The ability to, at the very least, double staff to contribute to the physical and mental well-being of women and children, in addition to funding for clinical therapists, would contribute effectively to address immediate trauma needs and reduce the long-term impacts of trauma.
The effect of violence on children is manifesting as well, with the presentation of aggression and violent behaviours, and it requires full-time trauma-informed supports. The safety and needs of all children residing in a shelter are the key to healing, but it is an extremely stressful time for both mom and child during their stay. Our child and youth counsellors offer in-house and outreach programs and services to support this. Last year, we had an overwhelming increase of 40% in our child and youth outreach programs, and as resources were stretched, we tried our best to meet the needs of children and youth in the shelter and respond to the needs in the community.
Tearmann was fortunate to receive two years of funding to support a casual child and youth counsellor through our annual letter campaign. We also received funding from the Pictou Mutual Community Foundation, which supports self-esteem programs for girls in rural schools. Additionally, we received funding from the Pictou County United Way to support a house coordinator's position. These options are not always available in every community, and while we are meeting the needs in the short term and temporarily, the temporary and part-time positions are difficult to fill and do not support the hiring and retention of trained staff.
Women and their families can stay at Tearmann House for up to six weeks. Often, depending on available and affordable housing options or other circumstances, they may request an extension. On average, 70% of women departing from Tearmann will be accessing income assistance. The cost of renting an apartment is often $80 to $100 more than the rent budgeted by income assistance, resulting in women having to take their excess rent out of their personal allowance amounts.
Women with children may be entitled to the supplement offered through Housing Nova Scotia, and while this offers women the opportunity to rent decent housing, the supplement is not transferable, meaning that a woman who is being stalked by an abusive partner and needs to relocate will lose her supplement.
We are fortunate to be partnering with the local housing authority and the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, with funding through the homelessness partnering strategy, to manage six second-stage housing units at Brenda Place, which are at full occupancy. Women can reside in these units for up to a year and have access to ongoing programs and support. We know that the most dangerous time for a woman is when she leaves her abusive partner. It is crucial that first-, second- and third-stage options be available and fully funded for women and their families fleeing family and intimate partner violence.
Transition house workers work with women applying for emergency protection orders, peace bonds, family court hearings, and case conferencing with child welfare agencies. Women designated “high risk” based on the Jacquelyn Campbell risk assessment or the ODARA, through the police or RCMP, are requesting support with case conferencing, ensuring their voices are heard and their choices respected as they navigate through processes meant to protect them.
The pressure on women to protect themselves and their children, to leave abusive partners while knowing that their personal safety is more at risk as they do so, to relocate their families, to reside in a shelter or choose to stay in a relationship to manage risk is a burden no woman should have to endure. We all need to work together to address gender-based violence and eliminate violence against women.
My recommendations are that the federal government support provinces and territories with core funding specifically for transition houses and support services for women and their families; include the voices of women's lived experience in this study; and support “A Blueprint for Canada’s National Action Plan on Violence Against Women and Girls”, presented by Lise Martin of Women's Shelters Canada.