'Heartbreaking': Yukon women's shelters not set up to house intoxicated women fleeing violence

Advocates say Yukon needs a new approach to helping women fleeing domestic violence. Women's shelters in the territory are not set up to house women using drugs or alcohol. That's despite a report stating that more than half of women experiencing domestic violence struggle with substance abuse.

Shelters lack infrastructure and staff to safely house women using drugs or alcohol

A file photo of an anonymous woman. Advocates say women's shelters in Yukon are not set up to house women using drugs or alcohol. (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.   

Advocates say Yukon needs a new approach when it comes to helping women fleeing domestic violence. 

Women's shelters in the territory are not set up to house women using drugs or alcohol. That's despite a 2015 report by the Yukon Status of Women Council (YSWC) which states more than half of women experiencing domestic violence struggle with substance abuse.

"We know that women who are using substances, in effect, are excluded from access to the women's shelters. And that's not the fault of the women's shelters," said Aja Mason, director of YSWC. 

Aja Mason, the co-ordinator of the case review project for the Yukon Status of Women Council, says Yukon needs a wet shelter. (Dave Croft/CBC)

"What ends up happening for those women is they are left without safe housing. And it perpetuates their vulnerability." 

Mason said Yukon's women's shelters lack appropriate health-care staff and infrastructure, like a separate wet shelter that would be necessary to lower entry barriers.

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

'Heartbreaking' to turn women away

McInerney says when women are turned away, staff help them find alternate accommodations. (Submitted by Barbara McInerney)

Barbara McInerney, with the Women's Transition Home in Whitehorse, said more jurisdictions are offering wet shelters for women.

She said Yukon's lack of one is a "huge gap" in services. She said staff work hard to reduce barriers, but sometimes they have to turn women away for safety reasons. 

"It's heartbreaking for the staff.  But the alternative, to have intoxicated people around kids, is not an option for us," she explained. 

McInerney said when women are turned away, staff help them find alternate accommodations. That could include staying at the house of a friend or family member, going to the detox centre, or the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter.

The emergency shelter is low barrier, meaning there is no sobriety requirement, but it's co-ed.

Mason said it's not a safe alternative. 

Shelters grapple with where to send women

"That place is really dangerous for women," she said. "The needs of women fleeing domestic violence are so much different than just basic shelter." 

Outside of Whitehorse, there are even fewer options for women turned away from shelters. 

Staff at the shelters in Watson Lake and Dawson City said they don't follow a zero-tolerance policy, but instead make decisions case-by-case based on a number of factors, including whether or not there are children staying at the shelter. 

The Dawson women's shelter says sending women to the hospital is an alternative, if they can't safely accept them into the shelter. (CBC)

"We work really, really, really hard to reduce barriers in terms of access to our services and to our space," said Jen Gibbs, executive director of the Dawson City Women's Shelter.

She said when they can't take a woman in for safety reasons, the community hospital is one of their few options. 

"They are usually able to offer a bed if somebody just needs a safe place to stay for the night." 

Gibbs said the RCMP are a last resort if someone is at serious risk of harming themselves or someone else.

"That's not ideal for a whole range of reasons but that is another option."

The YSWC said women groups have discussed the need for a wet shelter with the Yukon government. 

Yukon's Department of Health and Social Services said shelters have been established by individual communities in response to community need. 

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