Thank you for the opportunity to be here today.
I'm Fiona Cunningham. I am the mental health counsellor for Iris Kirby House in St. John's and O’Shaughnessy House in Carbonear, Newfoundland and Labrador. Our organization provides support and shelter from domestic violence for the Avalon region of Newfoundland and Labrador, servicing a population of over 260,000.
Our shelters have 32 and 15 beds, respectively. Additionally, we have 13 second-stage housing units. Last year, we collectively housed over 350 women and children, and answered almost 900 distress calls. Additional services include supporting ex-residents. We answered about 1,400 phone calls last year providing recreational and therapeutic groups for women and children, and providing system navigation housing support.
We work from a trauma-informed, empowerment-based approach, incorporating harm reduction and an individualized approach to each woman's and each family's needs.
From the front-line staff, who are responsible for the daily health and safety of the residents in the building, to all supportive and administrative personnel, we are a hard-working organization. But no matter how hard we work, there are gaps in the system: services we need that don't currently exist, and women and children who fall between the cracks. It is important to note that the gaps in the system don't necessarily exist within the shelter system, but at the intersection between agencies and services.
What do some of those gaps look like for us?
First, there is no women-only homelessness shelter in our area. Trauma-informed practice allows us to understand that women with extensive histories of gender-based violence sometimes cannot live in a mixed-gender shelter. The women we interact with may not be coming directly from gender-based violence, but their histories are richly narrated, and their present-day struggles are a direct result of gender-based violence. They have nowhere to go, nor do they fit within our service parameters. We need a continuum of services to support homelessness as it intersects with domestic violence.
Second, we experience long wait times for mental health and addiction services. These can be upward of six months just for an intake assessment, before service can even begin. Women who struggle with communal living for a variety of reasons, often mental health or chaotic drug or alcohol use, cannot access shelter services, nor can they access timely addictions and mental health support.
Third, there's a lack of transportation to and from services. Women may not have the ability to navigate a public transportation system due to trauma, mental health restrictions or mental acuity, or the area where they need to go may not even be accessible by public transportation. It is not enough for a service to exist; it must also be accessible.
Fourth, our current shelter system is a reactive, acute model, much like the revolving door of our acute mental health care hospital system. Clients often need an approach that is outside the current funding guidelines, which creates limitations on the support and healing we can provide.
Fifth, our legal system can fail to provide safety to women who wish to return home or even live safely in their community, which can create unnecessarily long and restrictive stays in our shelter. Denial of emergency protection orders because a woman is in a shelter aligns the system with the abuse and can begin the cascade of reasons why a woman feels unsafe and distrusting within a legal system that re-traumatizes her.
Sixth, another gap is the need to prove poverty in order to access legal representation. There's a group of women who fall above the legal aid cut-off but are unable to pay for legal representation as well as meet their basic needs. This can create a gross disparity between the woman who has survived domestic violence and the abuser. In effect, it creates another modality in which the abuser can continue, and even increase, the violence.
Finally, a woman with employment can have her job threatened due to the need to take time off for medical, police, and legal appointments, and the time it takes to move from home to shelter to a new home. Much of Newfoundland and Labrador is rural, and there are no shelters to be accessed locally, meaning that a woman may have to choose between safety and employment.
Some solutions to the above gaps include the ability to provide flexible, individualized approaches to working with women and families. In the year that I have been employed as the mental health counsellor at the shelter, I don't think two days have looked the same. Front-line workers need the space to be creative in their interventions. Systemic constraints not only revictimize clients on a daily basis but create vicarious trauma in workers as they stand in helplessness with their clients, unable to have their basic needs met. When funding is provided in a rigid framework, women who need services quickly fall outside the box.
We need to provide training and a focus on trauma-informed practices, not just within the shelter system but as a requirement of training for police, lawyers, judges and all support personnel working within the systems to reduce re-traumatization and to begin to create a system that believes and supports women's stories.
We need more access to drop-in, short-term, single-session mental health and addiction support services, specifically those that are trauma-informed and women-centred.
We need to view access to legal representation from a rights-based approach and provide each person interacting with the legal system timely and adequate representation.
We need a shelter system that includes appropriate care to trans and non-binary individuals. A system needs to understand gender as a continuum rather than a duality.
We need to differentiate between women who experience sexual exploitation and those who participate in consensual sex work. Under the shelter system, we need to simultaneously and effectively respond to both groups, which can have vastly divergent needs.
Also, we need a national domestic violence lead policy so that women can both retain their employment and deal with the time-consuming tasks that are thrust upon them as a result of surviving domestic violence.
I wish to thank the committee for taking the time to hear my voice, but I do not have lived experience of domestic violence. It is my wish to elevate the voices of the women around me who do, as I speak from a place of privilege. Therefore, I would encourage the committee to speak directly to those affected by interpersonal gender-based violence, to truly hear stories that are infused with colour and meaning and need. When we take the time to honour each and every woman who has lived and is living the horror of domestic violence, we will find with their strength and resilience that we will seek and find solutions. In listening to them with open hearts and minds, we will be able to stop gender-based violence.