Sask. shelters turn away people fleeing domestic violence more than 600 times per month
Shelter workers reassure victims that they can find a safe place
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.
Women and children fleeing domestic abuse were turned away from shelters more than 600 times in one month in Saskatchewan, according to a CBC News investigation.
CBC News contacted all 24 shelters in Saskatchewan, including 18 short-stay crisis shelters, which often cap at 30 days, and asked for numbers from November 2019. Similar efforts across Canada found women and children are turned away almost 19,000 times a month.
Sask. shelters say the 600 turnaways in November are representative of most months and that the number may actually be much higher, but many shelters only document cases of women and don't count their children.
Shelter managers say they often have to keep women and children beyond the usual time limit if they can't find a safe, affordable place to go. The province's six long-term second stage shelters, with a total of 60 apartment-style units, house abused women and children up to two years. They're all full, or in the process of filling a vacancy from their wait-list.
The systemic bottleneck means others are turned away.
Crystal Giesbrecht said a wait-list doesn't mean much to someone who called "when it was a safe time to get out."
"You're ready to leave today — not next Thursday, not two Thursdays from now," Giesbrecht, the director of research for the Provincial Association of Transition Houses in Saskatchewan (PATHS), said.
"I think there's a lot of people that just slip through the cracks because the services can't be there when they need it."
University of Regina student Kerry Benjoe said it took her years — and a serious injury — to finally leave her abusive husband, but she couldn't get into a Regina shelter right away.
Benjoe was put on a wait-list and couch-surfed until a spot opened up for her and her daughter.
"There was always this fear that he might find me," Benjoe said. She said she was lucky because her ex followed the peace bond and didn't come after her.
But Benjoe admits while she was waiting, she was nervous about resisting the pull to go back, since she had tried to leave before.
"He always wore me down."
Working around the system
Kelly Banga, a co-ordinator with the domestic violence unit at Family Service Regina, isn't surprised by the turn-away numbers.
Her unit calls every shelter in Regina five days per week to search for vacancies, make referrals and cross-reference names on their wait-lists.
In Regina, shelters are "regularly" at capacity, but Banga said that doesn't mean people should stay with an abuser.
"If you've been turned away from a shelter, give us a call and we will try and help you find a place to be safe," she said.
"There is hope, and they can call for help."
Banga said they try to help people navigate the system and link them with other shelters in or out of the city.
Because we try as hard as we can to try to find [people fleeing violence] a safe place to stay.- Karen Sanderson
They also can help with hotel co-ordination or coming up with a safety plan for those who choose to return home while they wait.
"Sometimes we check in with them daily, in a safe way, until shelter space opens up," Banga said.
The province funds 16 family violence outreach programs for a total of $1.8 million. Banga said a big concern (beyond funding) is people might give up if they don't know there are safe options out there if emergency domestic violence shelters are full.
Karen Sanderson, executive director of Piwapan Women's Centre in the northern town of La Ronge, said shelter staff will send women fleeing domestic violence south, with their children, to another crisis shelter in Prince Albert or Melfort until one of Piwapan's eight bedrooms in La Ronge open up. Sanderson relies on help from Victims Services, outreach workers and band councils to sort out transportation.
"We don't use the term 'turn away.' We use the word 'waiting-list' and 'referrals,'" Sanderson said. "Because we try as hard as we can to try to find [people fleeing violence] a safe place to stay."
Many shelters are limited by their physical structures and family size.
While there are 432 licensed short-stay and emergency beds in the province, there are only 168 short-stay bedrooms. That means a shelter with 21 beds spread between six bedrooms may be considered at capacity with six women and kids, even if some beds are left unused. One family may take up two bedrooms, depending on the number of children and beds-per-room.
The remote and rural communities face greater challenges than the cities, especially when it comes to transportation. Giesbrecht said the problem grew after the government shuttered the inter-provincial bus service.
There were no domestic violence shelters north of La Ronge until November 2019, when one opened in Black Lake.
The town of Kindersley and the cities of Weyburn and Estevan — both of which have populations of more than 10,000 — are considered "shelter deserts," meaning they are located more than 100 kilometres from the nearest domestic violence shelter.
When asked if the province needs more crisis shelters Tina Beaudry-Mellor, Saskatchewan's minister responsible for the status of women, said yes.
"I really hate that question because it means that we're, that it's not changing," she said. "I'd like to see us close shelters because they're not needed."
Beaudry-Mellor said the government has "an eye" on the province's shelter deserts and is working with Estevan in particular about increasing resources.
She would not commit to helping open shelters in these communities, but said, "I think you're going to see movement on a number of fronts from us."
In the past 13 years, the province created eight new crisis "bedrooms," seven of which are at a new shelter in Melfort, and two second-stage shelters located in La Ronge and Melfort with a total of eight units (where each unit houses one family.)
People seeking spaces in shelters often have complex needs.
Some are dealing with addictions or mental health issues. Others are homeless or were victims of human trafficking.
Some are turned away from an emergency shelter because they don't fit the shelter criteria.
Banga said the domestic violence unit can help shelters redirect and connect people with other services.
"When people experience trauma, there's multiple layers of trauma that people have gone through," Banga said. "It's just about connecting with them where they're at and walking with them and finding out what it is that they need and how we can help them."
For some shelter staff in the province, there are also growing concerns with gang affiliation and what that means for safety.
Giesbrecht said changing the physical structures of the shelters, having more staff on hand and increasing training for staff would allow shelters to deal with these complex needs. These changes would require more money.
According to PATHS, women's shelters have not received more than a 1.5 per cent funding increase in the last decade. Executive director Jo-Anne Dusel said this leads to burnout among staff trying to do their best.
"It just means that the women and children seeking services are not getting the best possible care and services, as would be the case if they actually could afford to keep staff and not have this constant turnover."
When asked if the shelters would receive an increase this year, Beaudry-Mellor said "stay tuned."
If you need help and are in immediate danger, call 911. To find assistance in your area, visit sheltersafe.ca or http://endingviolencecanada.org/getting-help. In Saskatchewan,www.pathssk.org has listings of available services across the province.