'Where do you turn to?': Sask. project aims to help gender diverse people access women's shelters

A pilot project is underway in Saskatchewan to to help staff at transition houses better support transgender and gender diverse clients.

Trans women have higher per capita rates of violence than any other demographic: expert

The Safer Transitions Project was funded by a grant from the Canadian Women's Foundation. Laura Budd works with transition houses in rural Saskatchewan communities to tackle some of the challenges transgender and gender diverse people face when seeking help at a women's shelter. (Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press)

Laura Budd knows the cruel sting of not being allowed somewhere because of who she is.

"That loss of hope of future, that loss of sense of belonging is very difficult to take," said Budd, who is the Education Coordinator with Moose Jaw Pride. 

Now Budd is drawing on her experiences as a transgender woman to help others avoid the same difficulties. 

I think very quickly they come to understand  trans  women are women and that's the bottom line.- Jo-Anne Dusel , PATHS executive director 

Moose Jaw Pride has partnered with the Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services of Saskatchewan (PATHS) — whose member agencies run shelters and support centres — for the Safer Transitions Project, which was funded by grant money. 

Budd was brought on as project coordinator and is aiming to improve the experiences of transgender and gender diverse people seeking solace in women's emergency and transition shelters.

Because of the Safer Transitions Project, Laura Budd has been invited to be a plenary presenter at the Women's Shelters Canada National Conference in Ottawa this June. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

A shelter or crisis centre might be the only safe option for those fleeing violence in a small community, Budd said, adding most transgender women are already living in isolation.

"There's the stigma, and then on top of that you've been assaulted by your partner. Where do you turn to?" Budd said. 

"The transition home is that place we have developed to be there for people. We need to ensure that it's there for all women seeking shelter."

Currently, she is working with the staff at shelters in Moose Jaw, Yorkton, Swift Current and two in Regina. 

Rural staff have less exposure to gender diversity

Budd is familiarizing staff with gender diversity, so they can better welcome and refer clients who are trying to escape abuse.

"There's a lot of questions and we're working with the staff at these transition houses to help them find answers." 

"If you've never met a trans woman, it's easy to have a lot of preconceptions about what that person might be like," said Jo-Anne Dusel, executive director of PATHS.

Dusel said staff in a rural setting have often had less exposure and experience serving a gender diverse population, especially because gender diverse people would often head to urban centres where they could have more supports. 

There was also a time in Saskatchewan when transgender women would be turned away from transition houses, she added. 

"We started to do some soul-searching," she said, noting it was the member agencies who identified the need for more training and policy. 

​"We know that trans women actually experience higher per capita rates of violence than any other demographic out there."

Jo-Anne Dusel said policies have changed to come in line with the times, adding 'we may not be living in a binary world in the way that we previously had imagined.' (Neil Cochrane/CBC)

"When Laura comes and speaks to a group of people, I think very quickly they come to understand trans women are women and that's the bottom line," she said. 

Dusel said the work with front-line staff will also extend into referral and partner agencies. Clients staying at the transition houses will also receive some education.

Sask. leading the nation

Dusel said the Safer Transitions Project is leading the nation when it comes to shelters being proactive in developing policy for gender diverse clients. 

Women's Shelters Canada is holding a national meeting in Regina this summer to bring together experts and shelter staff. The goal is to provide resources to other agencies working to welcome gender diverse clients at their transition houses. 

"There's little islands of work and projects happening across Canada here and there, but definitely the Safer Transitions project is one of the front-runners," said Heather Stewart, who is the Knowledge Exchange Coordinator at Women's Shelters Canada.

She said it's important that shelters develop policy and seek education to be more responsive to gender diversity within women's shelters. 

"We're seeing more and more transgender women seeking help from women's shelters," she said, adding the number is likely to increase "as younger generations have more tools and language to identify their sexual and gender orientation."