Windsor·CBC Investigates

Women rely on 'luck of the draw' when seeking shelter from domestic violence

Windsor's main shelter for women experiencing domestic violence has turned away 443 women and 336 children since May 2016. It blames stagnant government funding, at a time of increasing demand and a shortage of affordable housing in the community.

Hiatus House has turned away women and children 717 times since 2016

When people arrive at the front door of Hiatus House, Windsor's main shelter for women fleeing domestic violence, they press this buzzer before being let in. (Amy Dodge/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. 

Twenty five years ago, Debra Fowler called Hiatus House, desperate to flee an abusive relationship. Now, she's the one answering the phone, and Fowler says it's "pretty devastating" that she must turn women away "almost daily."

"At the moment she reaches out is that moment of fear, anxiety, panic, and she says, 'I finally want help. Finally, I'm ready to come,' and I have to say, 'Sorry. We're full.'

It's a message staff at Hiatus House had to repeat to 443 women over the past four years. Those women were also seeking shelter for 336 children. Some of these numbers represent people being denied shelter multiple times.

It wasn't always this way. Hiatus House, Windsor's main shelter for victims of domestic violence, only started doing it in 2016. Up until then, executive director Thom Rolfe said, "we were able to admit every woman possible."

What happens to women who are turned away?

Fowler decides whether women qualify for one of six emergency beds at Hiatus House by taking each caller through a risk assessment. They are asked specific questions about whether their partner owns weapons or has threatened to kill them.

If the caller doesn't meet the criteria, and all other beds are taken, Fowler advises them of other services Hiatus House offers to support them, and other places in the community that may be able to offer them a bed, such as The Welcome Centre and the Downtown Mission. Before hanging up, she helps them identify a safety plan, if they're staying put. Finally, she urges them to call again the next day.

"It is a heartbreaking experience for them, and for us as well."

It is a heartbreaking experience for them, and for us as well.- Debra Fowler, Hiatus House


Fowler said she is often left wondering whether she made the right decision, and staff offer support to one another. 

"It's an awful experience to have to turn women away, especially having lived in the shelter. I really have that connection to that desperate feeling in the one moment I reach out," Fowler said. "We do as staff need to support each other and debrief sometimes because we hang up the phone and we're just so upset."

Debra Fowler does crisis counselling at Hiatus House in Windsor. (Peter Duck/CBC)

Fowler said Hiatus House never calls a woman back if an opening comes up, because that would put her at risk if she is still with the abusive partner.

"They're going to be, 'Who is that? Who are you talking to? What did you say?' That might escalate the abuse," Fowler explained. "That allows for a gap, that a woman could have been calling for a week, stops calling, a new person calls tomorrow, and the new person is going to get that spot, because for safety, we cannot go back and call them."

"We don't have a wait list, and we can't go backwards, and that's why it's a luck of the draw, and that's why we say to women, 'You need to call every day,'" Fowler said.

Why is this happening?

Rolfe said part of the reason is that there is less stigma now for women to step forward, because of the "Me Too" movement. "People are more willing to ask for help. We're actually seeing what the real need is."

While the need is growing, the supply of beds at Hiatus House is shrinking. In the spring of 2019, it reduced number of beds from 48, to 42. At the time it made the move, it was already operating at 104 per cent capacity.

Rolfe said there needs to be a reinvestment in the shelter system by the Ontario government, to respond to the demand. 

"We can't do anything about that without more money. The funding has been frozen for years," Rolfe said.

Fowler said a shortage of affordable housing in Windsor is another aggravating factor. It means women are not able to find a new apartment to leave on their own terms, and women are slower to leave the shelter because they can't find a new place.

"Women will often return to their partners, even if they don't want to, because they have no housing options," Fowler said. "The housing crisis in Windsor impacts these women. They have nowhere else to go and they will sometimes return, just to have a roof over their head."

A solution in Leamington?

Hiatus House has been making plans to build a second shelter in Leamington since 2016. It had a needs assessment approved by the provincial government in 2017, and bought land in 2018. 

Rolfe is putting the finishing touches on a business plan, a necessary step in securing ongoing funding to operate the facility. He said construction will not start on the 45-bed shelter until that comes through.

Currently about 16 per cent of the women served at the Windsor location come from Essex County. Rolfe said the Leamington shelter will better serve that part of the region, and take pressure off Windsor.

The plans also call for four specialized beds for women with addictions issues. Women using drugs are asked to leave the Windsor shelter, because there are children present.

Tom Rolfe is the executive director of Hiatus House, a shelter for women seeking refuge from domestic violence in Windsor. (Peter Duck/CBC)

If and when the Leamington shelter opens, it will effectively double the number of beds Hiatus House can offer in the region, and Rolfe hopes to end the practice of turning people away. "We think that will solve it," Rolfe said.

Other options for help

There is only one other shelter, especially for victims of domestic violence in Windsor-Essex. It's called Nisa Homes, but it's only for Muslim women. It has 10 beds, and it also turns women away regularly.

The Welcome Centre is a shelter for women and their children, but its focus is homelessness. 

"If someone lands at our doorstep and the reason for homelessness is related specifically to current domestic violence, the first call would be, 'Did you try Hiatus House?'" explained executive director Lady Laforet. 

"Sometimes people aren't aware, or they say, 'Yes, I've tried. They're at capacity,' or it could be, 'I just moved to this community to flee domestic violence,' but because there is a distance now between them, the risk is deemed lower."

Welcome Centre has its own capacity issues. In the month of November 2019, it turned away more people than any of the domestic violence shelters in Windsor, Chatham, Sarnia and Walpole Island.

'The hardest thing'

Fowler said women who are denied a shelter spot are interpreting an underlying message every time this happens. "'My situation isn't dangerous enough or my situation isn't important enough.'" 

Up to six beds are kept empty at Hiatus House, but are only used for women deemed to be in the most danger, based on a risk assessment. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

When Fowler needed help in 1995, she got it right away, and spent three-and-a-half weeks staying at Hiatus House. "If I would have phoned and been told I couldn't come, I probably - and without exaggeration - would have been murdered."

It's been the hardest thing we've had to do. Our staff didn't get into this work to say no to people.- Thom Rolfe, Executive Director, Hiatus House

Rolfe has worked at Hiatus House since 1981, and plans to retire this spring, and said this has been one of the biggest challenges of his career.

"It is the hardest topic I deal with," Rolfe said, tearing up. "It's the hardest thing our staff do. It's been the hardest thing we've had to do. Our staff didn't get into this work to say no to people."

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