Women's shelters across Quebec are grappling with a lack of funding and forced to turn away clients — making it especially difficult for organizations that serve Indigenous and immigrant populations, according to a new study.
"We were almost always full and we had to turn away over 120 women last year because we didn't have the beds to be able to help them," said Sarah Rosenhek, the executive director for Auberge Shalom, a shelter in Montreal. "It's obviously very challenging."
The report from the Iris Institute released Thursday says that the majority of shelters operate at about 94 per cent capacity.
Based on the latest figures from 2014, there are 135 shelters across the province, with a total of 1,926 available spots for women with nowhere else to go.
But many shelters are struggling to meet the diverse needs of some of Quebec's most vulnerable women due to a chronic lack of funding.
"We do have to turn women away." - Nakuset, Executive Director of Native Women's Shelter
"It's not an understatement to say that we're in a crisis in terms of the funding situation for women's shelters in Quebec," said Rosenhek.
While organizations scramble to provide housing and resources to women in need, the study states shelters sometimes have no other choice but to turn vulnerable clients away or put them on a waiting list.
"We do have to turn women away," said Nakuset, the executive director for the Native Women's Shelter in Montreal. "We have a waiting list and we have different communities that want to send women here to use our services."
Immigrants face more hurdles
The report from the Iris Institute says the situation is especially acute in shelters that cater to Indigenous and immigrant women because they require extra services as they face additional barriers such as language, discrimination and oppression.
In Quebec, the proportion of women who are immigrants in shelters has increased from 2007, when it was about 13 percent, to 21 per cent in 2014.
Urban centres like Montreal also tend to have higher proportions of immigrants in women's shelters. Rosenhek said they make up about 35 per cent of Auberge Shalom's clientele.
"Women especially from diverse populations, immigrant women, are facing big-time challenges when it comes to setting up their life, finding second-stage housing, finding adequate psychological support," said Rosenhek.
The study also suggests immigrants with precarious immigration status in women's shelters may also be the victims of human trafficking or forced marriages.
"When you're coming from an abusive relationship, unfortunately sponsorship is something that's very often by a partner held over a woman's head and it can have devastating effects when she's starting her life anew," said Rosenhek.
Shelters face specific needs for Indigenous women
Indigenous women tend to turn to shelters in urban centres away from their own communities, often to escape situations of violence, according to the report.
They also face the added barriers of discrimination and racism when it comes to looking for stable employment and housing.
"Every community is different but some communities have a lack of services," said Nakuset. "So they may not have a family care worker or an addictions worker or a holistic health worker or an outreach worker and we have all of these services here."
These kinds of services are essential for Mkel, a regular client of the Native Women's Shelter. She says it's her lifeline— one that provides here with an array of resources she couldn't find otherwise.
"There should be more places like this," said Mkel.
Mkel, whose real name is not being used in order to protect her identity, said the shelter advocated to make sure her youngest child wasn't taken into youth protection like her other children.
"Without this place, I would have lost my daughter," she said.
The Quebec government says it is committed to helping vulnerable women, as it provided an increase in funding for women's shelters in 2016 and announced another $80 million in funding for social services over the next five years.
However, many organizations are left with little choice but to fundraise and apply for grants in order to pay for additional costs not covered under existing health and social services funding.
Auberge Shalom relies heavily on the generosity of volunteers, but still requires more financial aid.
"We're at a point now where our operational costs, 60 per cent are covered by the government funding that we receive and that means we have to fundraise for the rest," said Rosenhek.