Women fleeing violence forced to seek refuge outside Ottawa

Women fleeing dangerous domestic situations in Ottawa are being forced to seek refuge in communities outside the city, far from their jobs, schools, doctors and support networks, according to advocates.

311 referring women to shelters in Winchester, Carleton Place, Pembroke, Ont.

Deborah Thomson, executive director of Naomi’s Family Resource Centre in Winchester, Ont., says 40 per cent of the shelter's clients are now coming from Ottawa. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Women fleeing dangerous domestic situations in Ottawa are being forced to seek refuge in communities outside the city, far from their jobs, schools, doctors and support networks, according to advocates.

Shelters in Winchester, Carleton Place and Pembroke, Ont., are among the facilities taking in women from Ottawa.

Nearly every week, Deborah Thomson says she welcomes new clients from Ottawa to Naomi's Family Resource Centre, a nine-bed Violence Against Women (VAW) shelter in Winchester, about 50 kilometres south of the capital's downtown.

"About 40 per cent of our files since April are coming from the Ottawa area as overflow, because the shelters in Ottawa are just full," Thomson said. "I don't want to see anybody and their family on the street, especially during the cold months."

But sending women and children in distress to an isolated rural community with few supports and no public transit isn't ideal, she said.

Winchester is about 50 kilometres from downtown Ottawa. For women without their own means of transportation, it can be difficult to the rural community's shelter. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

'It's not their culture'

Women often end up at Naomi's after calling the City of Ottawa's 311 and finding out there are no spaces at any of the five facilities in the city. Some of the women are new to Canada and don't speak English, and still need to access mental health services in Ottawa.

Thomson worries the 311 operator directing them to Winchester isn't always clear about exactly where they're heading.

"So the women who are in a traumatic situation then come here and then become upset at times.... It's not their culture," Thomson said. "It's the isolation. There's no legal representation around here."

Just getting to Winchester can be an issue if the woman seeking shelter doesn't have access to a vehicle, she said.

A taxi ride to Naomi's from Ottawa costs about $100, and when 311 sends them, it's the shelter that has to pay.

"It's very problematic. We have very limited dollars, and transportation costs for us are in the thousands," Thomson said.

But in a statement to CBC on Friday, Shelley VanBuskirk, the City of Ottawa's director of housing, said anyone requiring placement at a VAW shelter outside the city can have their transportation paid through the city.

"The City will reach out to Naomi's Family Resource Centre to advise that this support is still available," VanBuskirk said. 

Chronic bed shortage

Like all VAW shelters, Naomi's is funded by Ontario's Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, but the facility itself is owned by the county of Stormont Dundas and Glengarry. Local support and donations help keep the programs running, and keep food in the fridge.

When Ottawa residents arrive, Thomson said there's no reimbursement from any level of government.

"It's one of the things that I'm looking at investigating more. It's because we're tenuous, because we're outside the city limits and we're not in the same county. Sometimes there's an understanding, sometimes there's not," Thomson said.

A woman sits in a shelter room at Nelson House as executive director, Keri Lewis checks in. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

Because of a chronic shortage of beds in Ottawa, about 700 women have been turned away from the city's five VAW shelters just since April.

Meanwhile, shelter staff in Ottawa said there are 30 to 40 shelter beds lying empty on any given night because the agencies don't have enough staff and resources.

Lengthy stays

Brief stays in Winchester can help some women who just need to take a breath, according to Thomson, but more often than not, these out-of-town clients are staying for months.

"The average stay is anywhere between three and four months. We have had people stay seven and eight months."

Thomson said one woman who recently stayed at Naomi's with her seven children had to get up before dawn to make it back to the city for work and school.

"It's problematic," said Keri Lewis, executive director of Ottawa's Nelson House. "There's one bus in and out [of Winchester] each day. So it's not ideal for folks from our city being placed outside of town for long periods of time."

In a statement, Hannah Anderson, director of communications for Jill Dunlop, the associate minister of children and women's issues, said when a shelter is full, the province requires agencies to find women a bed at another "appropriate service provider who has the space."

"While an agency may be located in a specific geographic area they may serve women from outside that area if they have the capacity," Anderson said.