In the 14 years Kristene Viljasoo has worked in women’s shelter services in Hamilton, she’s always known them to be at least close to capacity.
Viljasoo, director of women’s services at Good Shepherd Centres, said, in recent years, the emergency shelters have been “consistently full.”
In July, the Good Shepherd’s Martha House was more than full. Workers referred women to hotels, she said.
“We know that women are fleeing in large numbers,” said Viljasoo.
Hamilton’s Vital Signs report, released Tuesday by the Hamilton Community Foundation, waves a red flag at domestic violence in the city.
The number of reported domestic violence cases rose by 70 per cent from 2007 to 2010; 2,189 reported cases to 3,798.
In 2011, the number of reported cases was 6,340 cases with 1,090 related charges. Police changed their method of keeping statistics in 2011, so the report does not make a comparison between 2010 and 2011.
“I don’t believe there is more violence, but there are more women feeling comfortable coming forward,” said Medora Uppal, director of operations YWCA Hamilton.
She credits more public awareness campaigns and changes in the legal system for this change, as does Viljasoo, but there are still many women who don't report cases to police. The Vital Signs report states that less than one-in-four women go to police.
"The majority of women we see... haven't reported anything to police," Viljasoo said.
These statistics are concerning.
"It's always alarming from a public point of view that we're not actually ending [domestic violence]," Uppal said.
In Hamilton, there is not one place or a certain population that domestic violence affects, she said. It's happening everywhere in the city and in different forms.
Viljasoo said the women she sees at Good Shepherd have suffered from physical, verbal or sexual abuse. More often than not, it’s a combination of all three.
Hamilton has four emergency women’s shelters: the Good Shepherd’s Martha House, Interval House of Hamilton, Mission Service’s Inasmuch House and the Native Women’s Centre.
Uppal said, between the four shelters, there are 132 beds. There are also 100 second stage beds for women transitioning out of emergency shelters.
Viljasoo said the issue in Hamilton is not the number of beds in emergency shelters, but it's finding safe, affordable housing after leaving an emergency shelter.
"Even with priority status, the wait [for subsidized housing] is months and months," she said. "This makes it really hard in terms of moving forward."
Uppal said it’s also an issue of sustainable funding for support programs and services. Uppal said a provincial bail safety program was put in place, but funding is at risk. Recently, provincial funding was cut for a start-up program that helps women with first and last month's rent and furniture for their home away from their abusive home.
Uppal said the $7 million it costs to run domestic violence services locally was reduced to $500,000. So, while demand has been increasing, the ability to afford the service has dwindled.
Hamilton's Women's Abuse Working Group that is building a report card to asses local services for domestic violence victims. Viljasoo said it will focus on system responses – how the police, shelters and justice system are doing – and services offered to children, immigrants, same-sex couples and barriers to accessing help.
A report card like this and reports like Vital Signs will keep the conversation about domestic violence going locally.
"The biggest mistake we can make is to stop talking about it," she said. "Talking about it... helps lifting the stigma."