Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today from a front-line worker and survivor's perspective.
Each day when VAW shelters across the country are forced to turn away women and children due to capacity issues, those women and children fall into the homelessness stream and shelter systems. Unfortunately, the severe underfunding of the homelessness shelter systems and their functioning from a Housing First model not adapted to working with victims of violence means these women and children never receive the counselling and services they are entitled to and would benefit from.
I would contend that this inability to obtain assistance specific to domestic violence perpetuates the cycle of violence, as there is a lack of intervention and counselling to address the abuse that has taken place. We fool ourselves into believing that women we turn away to the homeless shelters are receiving services when this is often not the case.
For example, they may not meet the eligibility requirements for admission to a homeless shelter. These differ greatly from community to community. Even if they do secure a space within the homeless shelter systems, these were not constructed to be secure facilities meant to protect women from danger.
When systems fail, often women are the ones who end up owning the blame. I have watched first-hand as women who try to access services are denied due to capacity then spend several weeks bouncing around from place to place, utilizing friends and family as an interim measure. Attempts to access services at a later date may find a woman being told that her situation is no longer an immediate issue of domestic violence but a housing issue.
The other reality is that VAW shelters providing limited stays push women out of the VAW system and into the homelessness stream if they cannot achieve their goal of securing safe, affordable housing in the allotted time. Homeless women have often advised that their homelessness is cause for them to be in abusive relationships, making the decision to select one abuser to live with rather than the many abusers they will face if forced into a position of absolute homelessness and into the streets.
We can no longer pretend there is not a correlation, a definitive overlap between the VAW and homelessness sectors. To do so is to be irresponsible and deny all women the right to adequate services. The funding provisions to the homelessness sector help to create this unnatural divide for fear that the funding could be affected. There should not be a distinction in women so as to treat homeless women as second-class citizens within the shelter systems.
If you need to have a visual of the difference in the level of service, the community of Windsor, Ontario, invites you to witness the distinction between VAW and homelessness for women. Last fiscal year, 146 women and 188 children were turned away from Hiatus House, and this number only continues to rise.
I think it is important for you to know the impacts on workers each day when we pick up the crisis line and do not have a bed to offer women. I want you to know the pain in our throats each time there is a news story of a woman who has been assaulted or lost her life as we wait to find out her name and check our systems to see if it happens to be the one we turned away.
I want you to know the hardship on women and their children when they are unable to find affordable, safe housing within our community through no fault of their own, simply due to the lack of its existence, and they are pressed with the decision to transition to the homeless shelter, return home to the abuse, or settle for substandard housing options.
I want you to know the impacts on the shelter when we bleed our biggest resource, the people we train and have as co-workers that we lose to other employment opportunities due to the non-competitive rate at which shelter workers on the front lines are paid.
When shelter workers are forced into the position of constantly assessing for risk using the high-risk category as the determinant for shelter services by asking questions such as “Have you been physically assaulted? Do you have injuries? Has he choked you, threatened to kill you, abused the children or pets? Does he have weapons, prior charges? Were police involved?” to assign the limited available bed space, we continue to perpetuate society's understanding that abuse is only really abuse if it's physical.
My work has changed over the years. There was a time that I would say to a woman that she did not have to wait until the abuse became physical. Now I try to strategize as to which woman's situation is the most severe to entitle her to one of the last beds available.
We can talk all we want about preventive measures and education initiatives that teach women the red flags of abusive relationships so that they are aware early on if they are at risk. However, if they are not able to get the help, then it feels rather pointless.
The solutions are not simple, and there is no one fix that will solve this issue. Women need to see a way out. They need to have support, financial resources, access to child care, counselling, and ultimately safe, affordable housing in which to re-establish effectively. A woman needs to have a sense of optimism that things will get better if she leaves, that she need not fear that by leaving she will lose everything—her children, her job, credibility, and any semblance of normalcy.
Shelters are able to provide a lot of what is needed, but they cannot provide everything. There need to be adequate shelter beds available to meet the demand. The issue is that shelters need to have operational dollars to function. It's not so simple as just building the structure; it's how you keep it staffed and running.
Shelters are being placed in the position of having to make decisions that compromise the services they are able to deliver. For example, Hiatus House had to cut the number of child and youth workers from five to one and a half so that midnights would no longer be single-staffed, as it was becoming a safety issue with the shelter constantly running at over 100% capacity.
Making these kinds of sacrifices has consequences. I watch as the one full-time worker and one part-time worker stretch themselves thin to meet the needs of an average of 20 to 25 children daily, and to help moms as they try to help their children adjust, find new ways of parenting, regain the parental role in chaotic times, or just provide them with a few moments of alone time or time to complete the tasks they desperately need to attend to. It's really an impossible feat.
I wonder how we teach women about healthy expectations when we ourselves function in an unhealthy environment based on the sheer levels of stress, overwork, and endlessly tapped-out resources, yet I feel guilty complaining about the circumstances of workers, as I know we are not the most important people in this: it is the women and children who are most important. However, I am reminded that they are impacted by everything we do. We are capable of so much better, if we were only equipped to be able to do so.
There is no set standard of services provided by shelters. We all struggle along to do the best we can, based on the circumstances of whatever location we happen to be in across this vast country, but there is no consistency, and women and their children should no be at the mercy of the government of the day. Shouldn't all women across the country be entitled to the same number of days of leave if they suffer from domestic violence or sexual assault? I should think so. We all know that the only way to make this happen would be for the federal government to take the leadership on this issue. Please consider implementing a national action plan that would address these gaps.
You need to strengthen what is offered by shelters. One of the greatest ways to create a connection of shelters is to put support in place for the provincial shelter associations, so that all shelters can be members and use these as hubs of expertise, training, and best practices. However, as long as shelter associations depend on membership fees for their existence, they will not be a strong collective, because the smallest and most remote shelters cannot possibly afford to belong. Please consider new funding formulas for provincial associations to do the work they do as leaders.
Most importantly, meaningful survivor inclusion is essential—putting survivors back in the forefront of the movement—so that credibility is restored, stigma is reduced, and nothing is created for us without us. Create, support and fund survivor work involvement and initiatives.