No place safe to go: Calls for more long-term women's shelters in Canada
A national shortage of safe, apartment-style shelters puts women at risk of more violence and homelessness
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.
If an abused woman is lucky enough to find a spot in an emergency crisis shelter in Canada, her stay there is limited and so are her prospects for finding a safe, affordable place to live when her time is up.
Dozens of abuse victims and shelter workers who spoke to CBC News say it's unrealistic and dangerous to expect abused women who have been beaten up and broken down to be able to live safely and independently in the community after a short stay in a crisis shelter, often restricted to 30 days.
They're calling for more second-stage shelters in Canada — secure, subsidized apartments in buildings with both security and social workers where women and children can typically stay six months to two years. Women are protected by security doors, video surveillance and bulletproof windows while they receive counselling for complex issues, including trauma, addiction and poverty, and get support to become independent.
Without them, many women are at risk of becoming homeless, returning to an abusive relationship, or suffering another violent attack, said Jan Reimer, executive director of the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters.
"It's when a woman leaves that relationship that she's really at the greatest risk of being killed," Reimer said.
The number of second-stage shelters has "got to skyrocket," she added.
Women and children being turned away
CBC News found that women and children in need are being turned away from domestic violence shelters tens of thousands of times a month. The majority of those are short-term crisis shelters with stay restrictions ranging from 21 days to three months, but shelter managers say the lack of safe, affordable housing for women leaving the shelter forces them to keep clients longer and turn others away.
Women's Shelters Canada is calling for the number of second-stage shelters to triple nationally, with more access in rural, remote, northern and Indigenous communities.
The national group says having more second-stage shelters would relieve pressure from crisis shelters.
- To read all the stories in CBC's Stopping Domestic Violence series, visit cbc.ca/stoppingdomesticviolence
CBC News contacted 65 second-stage shelters, nearly half of the 140 domestic violence shelters that offer second stage units in Canada, and nearly all were full.
About 1,900 requests for help were turned away by those shelters in just the month of November 2019.
Demand is likely even greater, since referrals generally come from first stage crisis shelters and many don't refer clients to second-stage shelters unless there's an upcoming vacancy.
CBC analysis reveals vast areas of the country are shelter deserts, meaning there is no nearby supportive housing for women leaving crisis shelters. For example, there aren't any second-stage shelters on-reserve and only four apartment units in the north to serve Saskatchewan's 70 First Nations. Nearly three quarters of Nova Scotia residents live more than 100 kilometres from a second stage shelter. Nunavut doesn't have one.
'I might have been on the streets'
Sarah Welsh, 38, a stay-at-home mother of three, says she might have become homeless or gone back to her abusive husband after reaching the 30-day stay limit at an emergency shelter in Regina if she hadn't found a spot in a second-stage shelter in 2016.
"When I left, I had a suitcase, a big garbage bag full of clothes, $300 and no actual job," Welsh said. "I might have been on the streets, or I don't know where I would be."
She says she didn't realize, at first, how badly she had been "beaten down" and psychologically traumatized in her marriage.
Her husband of 14 years used to monitor her every move on a GPS tracker on her cellphone.
"He would track me. If I ever turned it off, I would be in trouble," Welsh said.
It was only after she moved into Sofia House in Regina, a 10-unit second-stage shelter with security cameras and weekly counselling, that she finally felt like she could breathe and figure out her next step.
"Trauma takes a long time to recover from," said Tmira Marchment, executive director of Sofia House. "A second-stage shelter offers that safety and security, and then it also offers the ability to heal."
Provinces pledge priority access to affordable housing
Some provinces — including Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia — have introduced social housing policies that give women fleeing violence priority access to affordable housing units.
In some regions, domestic violence survivors can also choose a portable subsidy that moves with them to the rental housing of their choice, rather than being tied to a specific unit in a social housing complex.
While domestic violence workers applaud those developments, they say it doesn't give abused women and children the "wraparound services" they need to become independent and leave a violent relationship for good.
Abuse victims often cope with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, as well as poverty. Support staff in second-stage shelters help them navigate daunting and complicated systems, including child welfare, court, social assistance, immigration, housing and employment.
They also support children who have witnessed or experienced violence.
That's a life-changing, and even life-saving, distinction between low-rent housing and a second-stage shelter, Marchment said.
She would expand Sofia House's services in Regina, but the nonprofit organization relies on private donations and grants to survive.
Many of Canada's existing second-stage shelters have told CBC News that they would expand and open up more apartments if they had stable, long-term funding to pay for staff and programs.
It's a funding shortfall that is particularly frustrating for them at the moment, since Ottawa is offering up money in its $55-billion national housing strategy to all regions, except Quebec, to buy or build shelter spaces.
"The federal government is back in the business of housing," Canada's Minister for Women and Gender Equality Maryam Monsef said in an interview with CBC News.
But, in a jurisdictional gap, shelter organizations across Canada say they can't tap into the federal dollars because the provincial and territorial funding they would need to actually run the shelters is inconsistent or nonexistent.
Two provinces — Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador — don't give second-stage shelters any operational funding. In other places, it's piecemeal from year to year.
"The status quo isn't acceptable," Saskatchewan NDP deputy leader Nicole Sarauer said in a press release this week. "Women in Saskatchewan urgently need the province to invest in operating funding for second-stage shelters."
Quebec's second-stage shelters celebrated a funding breakthrough in 2018 when the provincial government gave a five-year commitment of roughly $27,000 per unit, which works out to about 80 per cent of operational costs.
Alberta's scored a similar victory in 2015, securing $34,000 per unit and two staff positions per shelter.
"It's made such a difference. [Prior to that] shelter managers would wake up with anxiety attacks, not knowing how they would meet payroll," said Jan Reimer. "Once you've got that security of funding you can really have your programming blossom."
But the funding is limited to existing shelters, and hasn't led to any significant increase in shelter units.
In Quebec, the construction of 98 new units has been put on hold because the province can't commit to funding operational costs beyond the five-year mark.
"We still have to fight. We have no choice," Gaëlle Fedida, head of Quebec's association of second-stage shelters, said.
"We are really, really fed up with femicide."
Peace and independence
After two years in second-stage housing, Sarah Welsh was ready to live on her own. She moved into a three-bedroom townhouse, with room for her three kids and a cat.
Welsh sips tea from a cup that's emblazoned with the phrase "You got this!" and reflects on her darkest hours when she would curl up in a ball and cry.
"You look back and say 'Wow, I can't believe that's where I was, or who I was,'" Welsh said.
Today, she has found more than a job and a home. She has self-confidence and a sense of peace.
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To read all the stories in CBC's Stopping Domestic Violence series, visit cbc.ca/stoppingdomesticviolence
with files from Tara Carman