Women, children turned away from shelters in Canada almost 19,000 times a month
When abuse victims try to leave, there's often nowhere to go, CBC investigation finds
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.
One cold night in Montreal last December, Hamidah decided she'd had enough.
Her husband had become enraged while they were talking. He kicked her in the chest, knocking her down, and then punched her in the face several times while she was on the ground.
It wasn't the first time he had hit her. It usually happened when she refused to have sex with him.
"Why are you beating me? Why are you doing this to me?" she recalls saying through her tears.
"And he said, 'You don't listen to me, you should do whatever I want … you should obey me. You don't have any right to say no to me.'"
All the while, the couple's four-year-old son was within earshot.
When it was over, Hamidah, who is 26, was left with a black eye and bruises all over her face.
She told her husband she needed some air. She took her son, went outside and called 911.
The two waited outside their home, in subzero temperatures, for over an hour.
When police arrived, they called five or six women's shelters in Montreal. None had any room for Hamidah and her son.
She asked the police where she could go. An officer told her to keep calling shelters.
Holding her son's hand as the snow fell around them, Hamidah started to cry.
Hundreds turned away
Hamidah is not her real name, and the CBC has agreed to protect her identity out of concern for her safety.
Her situation is not unique.
A CBC News analysis reveals that in November 2019, an average of 620 women and children a day were turned away from domestic violence shelters across Canada. That's nearly 19,000 times a month, if November was typical.
The true number is likely much higher. Shelter workers in several locations told CBC that in fact numbers are lower in November, because women are reluctant to leave their families as the holiday season nears.
CBC's data is also incomplete. CBC reporters heard back from just over half the 527 shelters we identified, meaning this figure does not include the people turned away from about 220 shelters.
In more than 80 per cent of cases, people were turned away because the shelter was full.
Not only is the number of people turned away each day in the hundreds, it is also growing. Statistics Canada figures show the number increased 69 per cent from 539 in 2014 to 911 in 2018, based on data from all of the shelters in the country.
Calling a shelter for help is a big decision, and having to turn away women and children who are in danger has serious consequences, said Lise Martin, executive director of Women's Shelters Canada.
It may mean someone with nowhere else to go is forced to live with their abuser longer.
Hamidah and her son went back home that night. They had nowhere else to go.
She called shelters the next day, too, but there was still no room for them. Some said they would call her if a space opened up, but none ever did.
'It's OK that he beats you'
She called her family in Afghanistan and told them she wanted to separate from her husband, hoping they would offer support.
"They told me no, it's OK that he beats you," she said. They told her she wouldn't be able to make it on her own in Canada, as a woman, without her husband.
"I have no hope from shelters, no hope from my parents, no hope from my husband. I'm alone with all that stress and with my son … I was totally in a dark place."
Hamidah decided she would end her own life.
Happening across Canada
Shelters serving women in Montreal are almost always full, said Manon Monastesse, executive director of the Quebec Federation of Women's Shelters.
Women's shelters in Quebec serve not only those fleeing domestic violence, but also victims of sex trafficking, forced marriage and some homeless women, Monastesse explained. The population is growing, and there have been very few women's shelters built in the past decade.
But the problem is not limited to Quebec.
CBC's analysis found domestic violence shelters are forced to turn women and children away in significant numbers in all of Canada's major cities.
Nationally, the biggest contributing factor is a lack of affordable housing, said Martin, the director of Women's Shelters Canada.
Younger women speaking up
This puts rents out of reach for many of the women who use the shelters and keeps some living with their abusers.
Another factor is greater awareness of intimate partner violence. Both Martin and Monastesse said shelter clients are increasingly younger women who are less willing to put up with abuse and are leaving relationships earlier than was the case in the past.
Even when women are able to get into emergency shelters, their stay is often limited to between one and three months. The lack of affordable housing makes it difficult to find somewhere to go after that and some women return to their abusers.
Michelle, whose last name CBC is not reporting, fled to a transition house in B.C.'s Fraser Valley after months of psychological and sometimes physical abuse.
But she had just 30 days to find another place to live and couldn't find anything she could afford. Faced with what she was told would be a two-year wait for subsidized housing, she returned to her former partner, who said he had changed.
Within months, the abuse started again and quickly escalated. Michelle began to fear for her safety. She called several women's shelters, but they were all full.
"I have to survive again until I can … find a way into a transition house," she recalled thinking. "What am I supposed to do? I was really scared."
Last month, Michelle called a shelter just when a spot opened up and was told she had hours to take the available bed. She is now desperately searching for a permanent place to call home.
'I have nothing'
On a cold December morning not long before Christmas, Hamidah woke up without hope.
She fed her son breakfast and dressed him. She asked her husband to take him to daycare.
When they were gone, Hamidah wrote a note, explaining she was ending her life "because no one understands me. I have no hope."
She sent her husband a text message telling him she was about to commit suicide and asking him to take care of their son.
And then the world went dark.
Traumatic for shelter staff
Workers on the front lines who must tell women in need there is no room at the shelter say the experience is traumatic.
Chandra Evanson, who works at Dixon House in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, said staff turn away about half the requests for shelter they receive because there is no space. Sometimes this means refusing several people per day.
"To say no to somebody who I know has children who may be returning to an unsafe situation is just extremely upsetting for me," she said. "I don't even know how to put it into words to know that a mom is struggling to protect her children and may not be able to do that."
Evanson refers them elsewhere, but knows other shelters in Vancouver's Lower Mainland are often at or near capacity as well.
National plan needed
What's needed, Martin said, is a nationally co-ordinated plan to ensure women and children in danger have a safe place to go.
The federal government has the funds through the national housing strategy to build more shelters, she explained, but it's provincial governments that are responsible for staffing and running them.
Provinces also fund programs such as counselling that are needed by abuse survivors, and crucially, subsidized housing.
The federal minister responsible for women and gender equality, Maryam Monsef, said in an interview with CBC News that the government has started work on a co-ordinated national plan to address gender-based and intimate partner violence, but she would not commit to a timeline.
Part of that is support for subsidized housing through the national housing strategy, Monsef said, adding that she has heard the call from women's advocacy groups to use some of that money to specifically help women and children fleeing domestic violence.
'I am safe'
Hamidah could hear her husband speaking, but wasn't able to move or talk.
Paramedics arrived and placed an oxygen mask over her mouth. They took her to the hospital.
"I told the doctor that I'm in a relationship that didn't work for me and I want to go in a place where I cannot see my husband … if I go back to home, I will do the same thing, I will … end my life."
A social worker met with Hamidah while she was in hospital and arranged a place in a shelter.
When Hamidah was discharged, the hospital called a taxi. But in the 10 minutes it took the taxi to get there, Hamidah's husband and son arrived.
Her son was delighted to see her, yelling and smiling and hugging his mother. Hamidah couldn't bear to leave him.
So she went home with her husband.
But in her hand was a tiny piece of paper, which she hid as soon as she got home: the address of the shelter.
Two days later, she went to a convenience store late at night, while her husband was at work. She called the shelter and asked if they still had a place for her. They did.
The shelter called a taxi, and Hamidah left with her son.
When she woke up in the morning, in a safe place with her son by her side, Hamidah said she felt something in her had changed.
"I have no stress. I am safe, I have hope, and my husband is not here."
"It's paradise for me."
The two will be able to stay in the shelter until a subsidized apartment opens up.
In the meantime, Hamidah works as a cook and hopes to finish high school.
Sharing her story with others at the shelter and hearing their stories gave Hamidah courage to go forward, she said.
"We are strong and we are going to be strong."
Watch: The long journey to safety for women in the north
If you need help and are in immediate danger, call 911. To find assistance in your area click here.
To read all the stories in CBC's Stopping Domestic Violence series, visit cbc.ca/stoppingdomesticviolence
With files from Erica Johnson, Enza Uda and Julie Ireton