Over-capacity women's crisis shelter forced to house families in office spaces

Interval House Hamilton says that they are experiencing a high number of women seeking their services, to the point where they are over capacity and having to house women in their office spaces, or relocate them to shelters in other cities.

Executive director of Interval House says beds, supplies, and staff are short

Two women stand in a large, empty board room.
Executive director of Interval House Hamilton, Sue Taylor, right, said that they frequently have to house women and children in offices, counselling areas and boardrooms, like the one this photo was taken in. With her is Interval House Hamilton's resource development coordinator, Amy Comtois. (Cara Nickerson/CBC)

Interval House Hamilton, a shelter for women and children escaping domestic violence, has resorted to using office space, empty counselling rooms and board rooms, to deal with ongoing capacity issues. 

The facility has a 22-bed capacity, but is currently housing 31 women and children, according to its executive director. 

"Even pre-pandemic, the system as a whole was strained," said Sue Taylor. 

"It's one thing to be a little bit over in numbers, like one or two beds over ... The number is substantial, when you think of the impact that has on our resources."

Taylor said Interval House Hamilton has struggled with being over capacity because they have limited staff, beds, and budget for food and toiletries. 

She said other violence against women (VAW) shelters across the city, like Inasmuch House and the Native Women's Centre, are experiencing the same capacity issues. 

Lack of affordable housing

Taylor said women and children are staying at the shelter for longer periods of time than in previous years, because they are not able to access affordable housing. 

"Women don't have an affordable option, so the length of stay in the shelter is becoming much longer," she said. "Sometimes we see women here six, seven, eight months…" 

"Then unfortunately decisions have to be made around them accessing a private market unit, knowing that they can't afford to pay the rent."

The exterior of a women's shelter.
Interval House Hamilton has 20 beds and currently is housing 31 people. Executive director Sue Taylor said that the length of time families are staying at Interval House are getting longer, with some families staying as long as eight months. (Cara Nickerson/CBC)

VAW shelters are funded provincially. CBC Hamilton reached out to the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, but have yet to receive a response.

Rob Mastroianni is the manager of the City of Hamilton's emergency shelter services. He said that VAW shelters are not the responsibility of the city, but because of the strain on the system, his department has been offering support. 

"Hamilton is the only municipality that provides overflow support to the VAW system," Mastroianni said, and added that while provincial funding should fully cover families using VAW services in Hamilton, the city has been unable to get more provincial support. 

Mastroianni said that emergency shelter services offer beds in the city's family shelters and by giving families access to hotel rooms, but said, "our system isn't equipped to provide the necessary support to meet the unique needs of families facing domestic violence."

Interval House Hamilton is a secure facility that can offer women and children escaping domestic violence real, physical security from the situations they are leaving. 

Taylor said women leaving domestic violence situations are most vulnerable right after leaving, and that the rates of domestic violence in Canada are much higher than most people realize. 

"A woman is killed as a result of family violence, or intimate partner violence, in Canada every six days, on average," she said. "A woman or girl is murdered in Canada — one in every two and a half days right now, just as a sole result of being a woman or girl."

"COVID has absolutely exacerbated that."

'Can I flip my entire life upside down?'

"We are overextended because there's no other VAW shelters around Hamilton that have beds we can transfer a woman to," Taylor said. 

Taylor said as a final resort, the shelter will transfer women and children to other VAW shelters outside of Hamilton, sometimes even going as far as Barrie and Peterborough. 

The distance can be a difficult reality to seeking help, said Taylor. 

"Now the decision [for women] is not just about accessing a safe shelter, it's 'Can I flip my entire life upside down?'" Taylor said. 

She said the prospect of giving up everything to relocate — like a job, friends and family, or uprooting children — can sometimes lead women to stay in abusive situations. 

A call for community support

Taylor said Interval House Hamilton is seeking any support from the community they can get. 

"Any monetary donations we receive will go directly to feeding the massive amount of people we have here right now," Taylor said. 

Interval House Hamilton is participating in the Love You fundraiser by Shoppers Drug Mart, which will give proceeds to support the shelter feeding and housing the women and children. 

Taylor said that the shelter also needs financial support to convert some of the building's wellness rooms and offices into real bedrooms, where their occupants can easily access washrooms, have privacy and real beds. 

"It is not a long term solution," she said. "A long term solution is going to come in when we see a strong investment in the prevention of gender based violence." 

"Shelters only react, we need to invest in the prevention." 


Cara Nickerson is a journalist with the CBC's Ontario local news stations, primarily CBC Hamilton. She previously worked with Hamilton Community News. Cara has a special interest in stories that focus on social issues and community. Cara can be reached at cara.nickerson@cbc.ca.

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