Ottawa

Eastern Ontario shelters turning away 2 of every 3 fleeing abuse

A CBC investigation has revealed that on any given day in Canada, 620 women and children fleeing domestic violence are turned away from the very shelters that are supposed to provide them a safe place to stay.

Across Canada, hundreds of women and children denied safe place to stay every day

A staff member checks in on a woman staying at Ottawa's Nelson House. (Julie Ireton/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.


A CBC investigation has revealed that on any given day in Canada, 620 women and children fleeing domestic violence are turned away from the very shelters that are supposed to provide them a safe place to stay.

A look at data from organizations that shelter women and their families fleeing violence in eastern Ontario shows nearly twice as many were turned away last year than were served.

CBC contacted all the provincially funded shelters in eastern Ontario from Hawkesbury to Pembroke to Peterborough, and the cities and towns in between. Of 22 shelters contacted, 17 responded.

We've been hearing stories from centres, from crisis workers across the city of women sleeping in cars, women sleeping on the streets, women having to return home to abusive partners and then being assaulted.- Keri Lewis, Interval House

Data from those agencies shows emergency housing was provided to a combined total of 2,280 women and children in 2018-19. But the same agencies turned away a combined total of 4,416 women and children over the same 12-month period. 

"They're trying to leave an unsafe situation, but there's absolutely nowhere for them to go," said Keri Lewis, executive director of Interval House in Ottawa.

"We've been hearing stories from centres, from crisis workers across the city of women sleeping in cars, women sleeping on the streets, women having to return home to abusive partners and then being assaulted."

Keri Lewis, executive director of Ottawa's Interval House, said the shortage of shelter beds is driving some women back to abusive partners. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

One Ottawa organization reported it had to turn away 800 women last year. Another agency said it had to decline 700 requests for emergency shelter because the facility was full.

The agencies note that some families may have been turned away from more than one shelter, and therefore may be counted more than once. Some of those fleeing dangerous situations were able to find emergency housing at neighbouring organizations where beds were available.

All the agencies in the region say they're dealing with an affordable housing crisis in their communities.

This is largely seen as one of the reasons the shelters run over capacity. Once a woman has left her home it can take several months to find appropriate accommodations for her and her children.

Penny Chatson, residential services manager for Women's Resources in Lindsay, Ont., said a lack of affordable housing is contributing to shelter bed shortages across Ontario. (John Lesavage/CBC)

"Housing is one of the biggest issues for women to be able to move from the shelter into a safe space," said Penny Chatson, residential services manager for Women's Resources in Lindsay, Ont. "When I started 18 months ago, women could stay for a few months at the most and get housing, and that's not a reality anymore."

The agencies serve clients as young as 16, but many say they're seeing more older women seeking help.

All the shelter managers that CBC contacted said they're also seeing more issues involving mental health and addictions than in the past. While they see women of all ages and all walks of life, they say there's a need for more immigrant and refugee services.

In eastern Ontario, many of the shelter managers know one another and share info and resources. That can sometimes mean sending women who are in danger hundreds of kilometres to another facility if necessary.

Beyond providing a safe place to stay, many of these organizations also provide crisis lines, counselling, workshops, help with housing, and financial and security advice.


If you need help and are in immediate danger, call 911. To find assistance in your area, visit sheltersafe.ca or endingviolencecanada.org.

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the new CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On. You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca

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