Lack of affordable housing in Yukon prevents women from fleeing domestic violence

Yukon shelters say the lack of affordable housing in the territory is putting women at risk of staying in dangerous homes.

Women less willing to leave a dangerous situation if it means giving up stable housing

In 2018, 264 women in the Yukon were victims of police-reported domestic violence. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

This story is part of Stopping Domestic Violence, a CBC News series looking at the crisis of intimate partner violence in Canada and what can be done to end it.   

For some people, Yukon's lack of affordable housing can be an inconvenience.

For others, it could mean the difference between life and death.

Women are more hesitant to leave a situation if they are worried about being able to secure stable housing again, explained Jen Gibbs, executive director of the Dawson City Women's Shelter. 

"I have heard from some women in the community that that was a barrier to them leaving. Folks have chosen not to come into shelter." 

Rosemary Rowlands, executive director of Help and Hope for Families, the women's shelter in Watson Lake, said the decision is even harder if children are involved. 

We're really, really conscious of wanting women to not go back into an unsafe or precarious living situation.- Jen Gibbs, executive director of Dawson City Women's Shelter

"That is a really big factor for women staying in violent relationships here," said Rowlands.

The housing problem is not limited to any one community. 

Kristina Craig, executive director of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, said there's not just a shortage of affordable housing in the territory, but a shortage of housing options, especially for families and people needing additional support. 

"People who are marginalized, and certainly women who are experiencing violence, really, really are struggling. It's a big issue across the territory," said Craig.

Women's shelters in Yukon principally serve women fleeing domestic violence, but also help women experiencing homelessness.

There are women's shelters in Whitehorse, Dawson City, and Watson Lake, according to Yukon government's website. Women's Shelters Canada also lists Ross River Safe House on its website.

A file photo of Yukon's first housing-first facility in Whitehorse. Advocates say there is a shortage of affordable housing of all types in the territory. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

According to a 2018 Statistics Canada report, almost a third of all police-reported violence in Canada happens between intimate partners, meaning people who are or were married, common law or dating. Almost 80 per cent of those victims are women.

In Yukon, 264 women were victims of police-reported domestic violence in 2018. Per capita, that's more than three times the national rate. There were also eight intimate partner homicides in the North in 2018, according to Statistics Canada's Homicide Survey.

30-day max stay policy 'horribly insufficient'

Women who end up at domestic violence emergency shelters technically have just one month to move into a longer-stay shelter or other housing.

Yukon's women's shelters have a maximum stay policy of about 30 days, but they don't enforce it. 

"That is horribly insufficient," said Gibbs from the Dawson City Women's Shelter, about the 30-day policy. Gibbs noted the Dawson shelter allows women and their children to stay until they're in a position to move on. She said there are complex reasons why a woman might not be ready to leave after 30 days — a lack of housing being one of them. 

"We're really, really conscious of wanting women to not go back into an unsafe or precarious living situation," said Gibbs. 

Barb McInerney, executive director of the Women's Transition Home, says it's gotten much harder for women to find housing in the last decade or so. (Submitted by Barbara McInerney)

Women fleeing domestic violence in rural Yukon and even the Northwest Territories sometimes travel to Whitehorse to seek out support services, but its housing options are just as lacklustre. 

"When I first started in 2000, a woman could come in and ... in 30 days easily find a home. That is no longer the case," said Barbara McInerney, executive director of the Women's Transition Home, which includes Kaushee's Place and Betty's Haven. 

"We're giving extensive extensions and seeing women stay for sometimes two to three months and they're working every single day to find housing." 

There are two second-stage shelters in Yukon — in Whitehorse and Watson Lake — which are meant for longer stays of up to 18 months. But McInerney said even that isn't always long enough.

"We've had to soften [the maximum stay policy] for the same reason," she said.

Rowlands from Help and Hope for Families' said the average length of stay at the second-stage shelter in Watson Lake is two years or more.

"The issues in the rural communities are very, very different. There isn't another shelter or other options for somebody to go and stay," Rowlands said.

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