Good afternoon, everyone.
Welcome to the 120th meeting of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women.
This meeting is in public.
Today we will resume our study on the system of shelters and transition houses servicing women and children affected by violence against women and intimate partner violence.
For this, I am pleased to welcome, via video conference, Cynthia Drebot, executive director at North End Women's Centre.
From the South Shore Transition House Association, Harbour House, we have Jennifer Gagnon, executive director.
From the Tearmann Society for Abused Women, we have Donna Smith, executive director.
From the Victoria Faulkner Women's Centre, we have Samantha Lacourse, coordinator, A Safe Place.
Thank you all for being here.
I will now turn the floor over to you, Ms. Drebot, for your opening statement. You have seven minutes.
Thank you so much for having me.
As introduced, I'm Cynthia, and I'm from North End Women's Centre, which is located in Winnipeg, right in the inner city in the north end. We provide a variety of programs for women to work towards being in charge of their own lives, through a variety of support services. Specifically, I'll talk about shelter and transitional housing with regard to the experience we have, but also some of the challenges and gaps we have seen.
From a shelter perspective, we are not a shelter specifically. We are a women's centre, but we work very closely with shelters. We provide, in terms of capacity, the individual and group counselling that is often needed when it relates to domestic violence. Oftentimes, from a shelter perspective, women will leave the shelter and then have that work to do. Oftentimes, there's a connection back and forth in terms of referral between our centre and shelters.
As well as lots of advocacy and support, there's connecting people to shelter, people who may come to our centre first and talk about domestic violence or intimate partner violence that they're experiencing. They're looking for ways to get into a shelter but they don't really know how to do that. We do those pieces around shelter connection.
As far as transitional housing is concerned, we have 14 transitional housing beds. Six of them are specifically for women who are in addictions recovery and need a place, through their recovery, to live, because they feel that if they were living in their home environment, they would not be successful. We also have eight beds specifically for women who are being sexually exploited or human-trafficked. Women in these transitional housing beds can live with us for anywhere between a year and two years.
As it relates to domestic violence and some of the challenges we've been seeing, I would say that some of our programs are very specific when it comes to whom they may serve. When we talk about transitional housing, I mentioned addictions recovery and sexual exploitation and trafficking. However, the women who come to all of our programs, or a large majority of them, will report domestic violence in their lives, either previously or currently. One of the challenges we've experienced is its prominence. It's spreading across all of our programs. We've been around for 34 years, and in our beginning years, domestic violence was a large portion of what we did solely. The idea of needing to broaden out into different areas of work has allowed us to do different work, but the domestic violence connection is prominent throughout all of our programs.
One challenge we've been experiencing over the last while has been with the increase in poverty and low income, specifically with women involved in domestic violence, specifically racialized women. We're located in the inner city, so we find that many of the women who come to us are living in poverty, with very low incomes. From a domestic violence perspective, they often say to us, “I do not have an option to leave. I do not have a place to stay. I do not have anywhere to go, even if I were to go to a shelter.” They often feel they don't have the choice to leave. Income is a huge barrier for them.
We've seen addictions in connection with domestic violence coping for many years, but the increase in meth use is something that we've definitely been seeing over the last while as well. The challenge that comes with this is that many organizations and agencies do not want to work with people when they're under the influence and using, so that becomes a barrier as well. There are also increased mental health challenges.
From the perspective of accessing resources, often a gender lens is not put on the analysis and on the policy development, which creates a challenge in access for women specifically. An example of that might be policies related to homelessness around a housing first policy, and people needing to be homeless for six months.
Women in domestic violence situations and homelessness situations will often couch surf or find a friend or a family member to live with. They will stay in a situation that isn't the best situation but is the situation that they might feel is the best for them at that time or the safest at that time or the only option at that time.
As far as gaps go, I just want to highlight specifically for Winnipeg that we have a few gaps, I would say, related to domestic violence and other areas. We are in desperate need of a 24-7 safe space for women. We do not have a place that is open 24-7 for women to come to where they're in a situation of safety. That can be very broad, but we do not have such a place for women.
When I say women, I'm including trans women. Trans women typically report that they feel unsafe using many of the existing resources that are in place. I would say that from a crisis shelter bed perspective, we are seeing that there is nothing in place for women fleeing exploitation situations. Often the exploitation is a result of domestic violence that has happened in the past, or there can be a connection with partners who are involved in bringing women into exploitation and trafficking.
Transitional housing and affordable housing—
South Shore Transition House Association—or Harbour House—is a 15-bed shelter that covers Lunenburg and Queens counties in Nova Scotia. We provide shelter for women and children, supporting high-risk protocols, emergency protection order application support, crisis and supportive counselling, court and sexual assault exam accompaniment, child and youth counselling, child care, referrals and advocacy. We are in schools doing educational groups. We are speaking and educating in workplaces. We operate through nine satellite locations to offer services in home communities.
Over the past five years, a remarkable increase in access to services has occurred. For example, access to our women's outreach program has increased by 968%, and participation in child and youth programs in schools by 883%. Overall distress calls have increased by 27%, in-house counselling by 105.3% and outreach counselling by 110.1%. Women are coming to the shelter more often with their children, which shows an increase of 111.45%. What these statistics show is that the community is accessing our programs and services consistently and more frequently.
Through the development of partnerships with community service providers in our jurisdiction, we are trying to minimize the risk associated with increased demand for services with no additional position funding. Our organization consists of long-term employees, team members who have immeasurable knowledge of violence against women. However, the increase in program and service access has made it a continual struggle to provide the services that clients are entitled to receive. We have not had an increase in operational funding since 2015.
After attending the Women's Shelters Canada conference this past spring and reviewing the “Blueprint”, it is clear that the trends in accessing shelter services across Canada have increased in all areas, perhaps as a result of movements like #MeToo, but ultimately because people understand gender-based violence differently. It seems that violence against women is being de-normalized.
Shelters are not band-aid solutions to issues of violence against women. Rather, they are part of a larger, system-level component that's essential for supporting women and children in crisis. We provide 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year access to a place that is safe and that helps each woman with her immediate needs. These include health care, safety planning, criminal justice system navigation, trauma-informed supportive counselling for the woman and her children, and linking with a broader system for next steps. Without a safe place to go to escape violence, the level of risk in her situation will certainly increase.
Shelters are an integral component in addressing gender-based violence. Our goal is to eliminate gender-based violence. By doing the things that we do, we are part of the solution. Of course, we have a strong focus on prevention and education, but this is often challenging to embed into our work of direct client service delivery—the clients we support in-house and through our outreach programs are our priority. However, as I detailed previously, our outreach services are reaching more people.
We have been in our community for 31 years. The significant increase in access can also be attributed to an increased understanding that what shelters do works. We engage with people fairly, we understand the impacts of gender-based violence and we provide meaningful contributions, not only to their journey to safety but to the broader system seeking to end gender-based violence.
With regard to existing federal programs and funding, we co-wrote an application with two local partners to Status of Women Canada. We submitted it in March 2018. To this point, we have not received any communication about whether our project was approved or rejected. We also have concerns with restrictions on how the funding can be used. This is an issue for us. For example, we need more people doing outreach activities, but if the funding guidelines state that the money cannot be used to support existing programs, it fails to address one of the greatest needs we have. People are accessing our programs and we need to build our staffing capacity to meet the demands of our communities.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which is offering the co-investment funding, will give us up to 40% for shelter repairs, renovations or—
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation will give up to 40% for repairs, renovations or new capital investments, but for an organization that barely makes it out of a deficit, creating and finding a 60% contribution becomes basically impossible. Fundraising such a large amount is unachievable in a rural area of Nova Scotia that has high unemployment rates and a large geographical boundary.
With regard to the gap between the beds required and the number of beds, reviewing occupancy rates of shelters can be incredibly misleading. If we have a family in a room with three beds and only two are being used, it skews the occupancy rate. When a family is in-house, no single woman can stay in the same room for privacy, as well as safety, concerns. Also, if there's a woman with significant health concerns, it may be difficult or unsafe for her to be housed in a room with other women. However, it is our policy to try to put several single women in a room together as much as possible.
We do not have second- or third-stage housing, although the demand is most certainly there. If we had second- or third-stage housing, every unit would be filled today. Instead, women are staying in shelters longer, as safe and affordable housing is just not readily available in our jurisdiction. Women have left our shelter to go to substandard housing, such as apartments with no flooring other than plywood or rooming houses that are co-located with men, which is a significant safety issue for women experiencing gender-based violence. These rooms often do not have inside or outside locks, which leaves women unsafe when they are home or when they are in the community.
Single staffing of shelters also creates numerous concerns. The staff is responsible for answering the crisis line, meeting the needs of the in-house clients, letting people in and out, monitoring the overall house safety, completing intakes and departures, liaising with community partners, and case conferencing—all while trying to do supportive counselling sessions and working to complete safety assessments and plans. Sessions are interrupted, thus creating problems in the continuity of the counselling rapport.
The solutions I propose are as follows:
Address the increased demand for services by reviewing the core funding to shelters.
Fund double staffing in shelters to ensure the continuity of counselling rapport and case planning. This will also lead to shortened stays and will ensure that all the needs of the shelter are met.
Fund shelters to develop and implement both second- and third-stage housing in Canadian jurisdictions.
Review the existing Canadian shelter data and the outcomes of programs and services.
Create clear and time-sensitive communication with regard to funding allotments and project approvals or rejections.
I do appreciate this opportunity to participate in this current study of shelters and transition houses serving women and children affected by violence and intimate partner violence. The Tearmann Society for Abused Women, commonly known as Tearmann House, is a 15-bed shelter providing services similar to our sister shelters across the province, as described by my colleague Jennifer Gagnon of Harbour House.
I would like to note that Tearmann House and Harbour House are members of the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia, which includes seven transition houses, one outreach organization and two healing centres, covering 12 locations throughout Nova Scotia. I will be speaking to the front-line work as it pertains to violence against women and the scope of the study.
Speaking for Tearmann House—and I believe this is common to shelters in Nova Scotia—our occupancy is at near full to full capacity on a consistent basis. Since January of this year, 78 women and 44 children resided at Tearmann, with an occupancy rate of 70%. If a woman is in need of shelter and we are at full capacity, we will offer our living room for the night and work with the woman for options the following morning. Shelters that are at full occupancy often call other shelters closest to them to see if beds are available, and if so, women and their children may agree to transfer to another shelter for a temporary stay. I am aware that in urban areas and some rural areas across the country there are simply not enough beds or shelters to meet the needs of women seeking safety, particularly in our indigenous communities in the north, as Lyda Fuller clearly described in her presentation.
Shelters, whether at full capacity or not, are often single-staffed and are experiencing an increase in the needs of women who are presenting with complex trauma, mental health issues and/or addictions. In our community, the changes to mental health services, for example the closure of a short-stay unit, have resulted in an increase of referrals from the hospital. Transference of trauma treatment from the health care system to community-based organizations, with no additional resources, has created a widening gap for women experiencing trauma and a need for suicide intervention and mental health supports.
Women are triaged, assessed and discharged with a referral to shelters. Shelter staff offer a trauma-informed approach, and meet all women where they are. It is a disservice to women, when they arrive at a shelter and after spending some time with us, to realize we do not have the clinical capacity to provide appropriate treatment or support for the complex trauma they are experiencing. The ability to, at the very least, double staff to contribute to the physical and mental well-being of women and children, in addition to funding for clinical therapists, would contribute effectively to address immediate trauma needs and reduce the long-term impacts of trauma.
The effect of violence on children is manifesting as well, with the presentation of aggression and violent behaviours, and it requires full-time trauma-informed supports. The safety and needs of all children residing in a shelter are the key to healing, but it is an extremely stressful time for both mom and child during their stay. Our child and youth counsellors offer in-house and outreach programs and services to support this. Last year, we had an overwhelming increase of 40% in our child and youth outreach programs, and as resources were stretched, we tried our best to meet the needs of children and youth in the shelter and respond to the needs in the community.
Tearmann was fortunate to receive two years of funding to support a casual child and youth counsellor through our annual letter campaign. We also received funding from the Pictou Mutual Community Foundation, which supports self-esteem programs for girls in rural schools. Additionally, we received funding from the Pictou County United Way to support a house coordinator's position. These options are not always available in every community, and while we are meeting the needs in the short term and temporarily, the temporary and part-time positions are difficult to fill and do not support the hiring and retention of trained staff.
Women and their families can stay at Tearmann House for up to six weeks. Often, depending on available and affordable housing options or other circumstances, they may request an extension. On average, 70% of women departing from Tearmann will be accessing income assistance. The cost of renting an apartment is often $80 to $100 more than the rent budgeted by income assistance, resulting in women having to take their excess rent out of their personal allowance amounts.
Women with children may be entitled to the supplement offered through Housing Nova Scotia, and while this offers women the opportunity to rent decent housing, the supplement is not transferable, meaning that a woman who is being stalked by an abusive partner and needs to relocate will lose her supplement.
We are fortunate to be partnering with the local housing authority and the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, with funding through the homelessness partnering strategy, to manage six second-stage housing units at Brenda Place, which are at full occupancy. Women can reside in these units for up to a year and have access to ongoing programs and support. We know that the most dangerous time for a woman is when she leaves her abusive partner. It is crucial that first-, second- and third-stage options be available and fully funded for women and their families fleeing family and intimate partner violence.
Transition house workers work with women applying for emergency protection orders, peace bonds, family court hearings, and case conferencing with child welfare agencies. Women designated “high risk” based on the Jacquelyn Campbell risk assessment or the ODARA, through the police or RCMP, are requesting support with case conferencing, ensuring their voices are heard and their choices respected as they navigate through processes meant to protect them.
The pressure on women to protect themselves and their children, to leave abusive partners while knowing that their personal safety is more at risk as they do so, to relocate their families, to reside in a shelter or choose to stay in a relationship to manage risk is a burden no woman should have to endure. We all need to work together to address gender-based violence and eliminate violence against women.
My recommendations are that the federal government support provinces and territories with core funding specifically for transition houses and support services for women and their families; include the voices of women's lived experience in this study; and support “A Blueprint for Canada’s National Action Plan on Violence Against Women and Girls”, presented by Lise Martin of Women's Shelters Canada.
Hello, my name is Samantha Lacourse, and I am here as a representative of the Victoria Faulkner Women's Centre in Whitehorse, Yukon.
At the VFWC, I am in charge of running the only low-barrier evening and weekend drop-in program for self-identified women in the entire territory.
The landscape of issues surrounding women affected by violence in the north is very different from that in the rest of Canada. For one, there are limited services available. Also, a number of barriers and gaps in services exist for women in a northern community, the most pervasive of which I will try to touch on now.
On low-barrier services, speaking specifically about Yukon, currently there are three shelters serving women and children affected by violence across the territory. One is in Whitehorse. A second one is in Dawson City, which is located seven hours north of Whitehorse, and a third is in Watson Lake, which is five hours south of Whitehorse. None of these three shelters and transition houses will accommodate women under the influence of a substance. There is no safe option for a woman who uses substances and is affected by violence. This is indicative of a major gap in low-barrier shelters for women across the Yukon.
Regarding long-term support, when the perception of violence is no longer immediately present, the effects of violence remain. We estimate that it can take as many as three to seven years from the definitive end of an abusive relationship for a woman to get back on her feet. Women in Yukon face a pronounced lack of long-term support from organizations narrowly mandated to serve only women facing current threats to safety.
The Victoria Faulkner Women's Centre does its best with limited capacity and funding. It is not a shelter. We provide vital support for women and non-binary people in terms of advocacy, housing, food, prenatal care programming, as well as basic services in our drop-in, such as access to showers, laundry, Internet, phones, fax, long-distance calling, and hygiene products, among many other things.
More needs to be available for women past the perceived end of a threat to safety. The lens of what long-term support looks like must expand beyond the counselling and trauma treatment programs to include programs that give space for women to support and be supported by peers—
Thank you. I'll slow down.
The lens of what long-term support looks like must expand beyond the counselling and trauma treatment programs to include programs that give space for women to support and be supported by peers, as well as space to build community as a remedy for isolation. Long-term support includes help with finding housing, tax clinics, employment support, and opportunities for new training and greater education. By broadening the mandate of support to women affected by violence, we can address these gaps and the needs of women past the perceived end of the abusive relationship, because the effects of trauma do not end with the violence.
In terms of capacity for supporting women living with mental health challenges, in Yukon, when an individual accesses a shelter or service due to the presence of violence in their lives and is assessed as having a mental health need, the capacity for those organizations to support them decreases. The more complex the individual's mental health situation is, the more ill-equipped staff are to support them as a victim of violence. Both needs are treated as independent from each other, rather than acknowledging their close intersectionality. This needs to change, and the only way to do so is to build the capacity of the organizations supporting victims of violence, and the people within them.
In terms of confidentiality, compounding the limited services is the social reality of northern communities. Communities in Yukon are small, and therefore an individual's social networks are well connected with others. Confidentiality is a challenge across the board, and conflicts of interest are not always evident, nor do they give favour to the more vulnerable. With only one shelter in Whitehorse, there is no other option if that shelter does not feel safe or if a person is not accepted there.
My recommendations to the committee are the following.
One, increase funding for transportation services in the north, providing lifelines for women in remote communities to get out in times of need.
Two, push for amendments within CRA policy to take into account violence against women. Currently, there is a 90-day waiting period for a person to change their status to single. This 90-day waiting period is a barrier for women to leave an abusive relationship, because many are unable to access social assistance while tied to their partner. Within the Yukon government, a smaller entity, we have advocated for and seen change in their management of applications for social assistance when violence in a relationship is declared. Still, we support many women who are faced with heavier barriers within Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. Should both partners in the relationship be accessing social assistance through INAC, a written notice for both parties must currently be provided to change their status to single. This is a problem.
Three, push for low-barrier shelters and create incentive for existing shelters to adopt more harm reduction practices. Again, there is no low-barrier shelter for women affected by violence in Yukon, leaving women who use substances with no safe option.
Four, increase funding for long-term support for women affected by violence. The mandate for violence against women is narrow. Immediate support exists for an individual, yet there is little for women in the years to come.
Five, this issue deserves a more appropriate voice than mine, and frankly more time than I am able to give in this presentation. We cannot talk about improving services affecting indigenous women without acknowledging the colonial mentality that informs these services. More space must be given to traditional ways of living when it is culturally appropriate.
Thank you very much, Chair.
Before I start, I want to welcome the three women from the Ryerson Women in the House program—Meghan, Sarah and Sarah—our future leaders, I hope. Kudos to Ryerson for getting them right into the work we do.
I have a question for the South Shore Transition House Association. I don't know if we met two summers ago, but a bunch of us were on the south shore and met with someone from your group. I think 10 different organizations were at a round table together. It was really impressive and long-standing work. One of your colleagues said they had been doing this for 29 years and thought they would have worked themselves out of a job by now.
So thank you, to you and all your colleagues at home.
This is a study on domestic violence, shelters and transition houses, and I've been discouraged to hear quite a lot of people testifying at this committee saying that all we need to do is qualify more women for mortgages—some of them $750,000 mortgages—and build more housing.
That is true, but I want to hear you say that you agree—or that I've heard you and your co-workers clearly—that this is not a fix for the issue of domestic violence, and that the programming that goes with your shelter operations and then your transition operations is a vital part of what happens, especially since the point at which women choose to leave a violent relationship is the time when they're most vulnerable.
Can you give me some evidence to use in our final argument here?
In terms of the helpline situation, several years ago—I don't know how long ago now—we, too, lost a local helpline that was in place and was accessed quite a bit. For funding reasons, it was discontinued. The Tearmann Society has the only 24-hour crisis line in our area, and the demand for the crisis line is constant and growing.
We partner with our Pictou County Women’s Resource and Sexual Assault Centre on a program called MORPH, which stands for “mapping our road to power and healing”, and our crisis line is added to that. That money came from the sexual assault strategy in the province to create supports for women dealing with sexual violence.
We are a part of that support, and although we don't get any additional funding for that—the funding is through the women's centre—we're certainly open. We spoke about the issue of staffing in transition houses. You have one staff member on, primarily, covering the crisis line, the business line and case management of the house, and supporting the residents in the shelter. There's often only one person there. If they're on the crisis line, there may be interruptions from the house, from the doors, whatever.
Funding for additional staff to support the extra work that comes in and the extra support that's necessary to meet the needs of the women in our community is essential. We are finding pieces. At Tearmann House, we're finding funding in small pots to have extra additional staff on, but that's temporary staff. As I said, when we're looking at training and getting more people on board in trauma-informed training opportunities, to retain staff and get well-qualified staff on there.... When staff come on, they are dedicated. Most of our staff have been there for 15-plus years. I've been doing it since 2002. The needs are not decreasing; they are definitely increasing. Funding for additional staff would do a heck of a lot for all the shelters that I speak to.
Thank you to our presenters for the great presentations and for all the great work they do under very difficult circumstances.
The only presentation I didn't hear was the one from Winnipeg. I'm from Winnipeg, so fortunately I know about the good work that is done by the North End Women's Centre.
My first question is for you, Cynthia, and then I have a question for our Nova Scotia friends.
Our Minister of Social Development made a major announcement today on homelessness, titled “Reaching Home: Canada's Homelessness Strategy”. It's $2.2 billion over 10 years. It sounds like a lot of money.
One of the important things announced this morning was increased flexibility and the importance of tailoring this to individual communities. As you'll recall, the homelessness partnering strategy—the housing first approach—was quite rigid. Not that we're completely jettisoning that.... I'm just wondering about the connection between your programs and homelessness and how this might help you.
I'm going to call the meeting back to order.
Welcome back to the 120th meeting of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women.
Before we go to our panellists, I will let committee members know that there will be no meeting on November 21. The fall economic statement will be delivered in the House that afternoon, so there won't be a meeting that day.
For the second hour, I'm pleased to welcome the Atira Women's Resource Society and Caithlin Scarpelli, director of communications and fund development. We also have Crossroads for Women Inc., with Geneviève Latour, associate director. We also have Fiona Cunningham, who is a mental health counsellor at Iris Kirby House. Last but certainly not least, from the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, we have Daisy Kler and Jean Fong, who are both transition house workers.
I will now turn the floor over to you, Ms. Scarpelli, for your opening statement. You have seven minutes.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today.
Atira Women's Resource Society was incorporated in March 1983, and we opened our first transition house in South Surrey in 1987. Then called the Atira Transition House, its mandate was to support battered women and their children. In keeping with the practice of the time, this meant that women were screened in or screened out, based on a number of onerous screening criteria. For example, if you disclosed that you struggled with substance use or you had a mental health diagnosis, you were turned away. If you lied in order to secure that desperately needed space and you were discovered, you were asked to leave, regardless of the consequence to you.
In September 1992, Janice Abbott came on board as our executive director, and things quickly changed. Based on her lived experience, she understood the deep-rooted relationship between women's experiences of violence and struggles with substance use and mental wellness, and that by excluding these women from receiving services we were causing harm to the very women and children we were meant to support.
Within just a few months, Atira did away with its lengthy screening process and started asking only one question when a person called for space: “Are you fleeing violence?”
Because of this, we were one of the few transition houses, if not the only one, opening their doors to women struggling with substance use and/or mental wellness. We started getting more referrals than we were able to accommodate. The increase in demand was so high that in 1997 we opened a second transition house in Surrey called Shimai, and a second-stage transition house called Koomseh.
From there, we began to expand quickly, and by 2001 we operated the Downtown Eastside's first women-only housing. We now operate more than 23 residential programs for women and their children, including some of Canada's lowest-barrier, women-only housing, as well as a number of innovative non-residential programs, including the world's first—
So...including the world's first community-accessible, women-only safe injection room.
Atira now comprises five entities, including two wholly owned for-profit subsidiaries, Atira Property Management and the Painter Sisters painting company, and two related non-profit societies, the Atira Development Society and the Atira women's arts society.
In 25 years, we have become known for our entrepreneurship, risk-taking and innovative programming and housing—for example, Canada's first multi-unit recycled shipping container development, as well as the Maxxine Wright place, a multi-service, multi-part program focused on keeping moms and their kids together.
The projects are often started on shoestring budgets but with amazing partnerships. They are always in response to the needs of the women and children and based on feedback from our staff who identify gaps in services.
We are also known for taking controversial stands, including supporting and upholding the rights of women who do sex work; opening our doors to transgender and gender-queer women and to non-binary individuals who identify as significantly femme; and setting up shared-use spaces in our buildings without the benefit of legal protection.
Our CEO continues to show bold leadership, coming to the table with amazing ways to respond to challenging needs identified by the women and staff, and inspiring us all to take risks and believe that ending all forms of gendered violence is absolutely possible.
I'd like to take you now through some of the things we've learned over our more than 35 years of experience working alongside women and their children.
First, almost all women who have accessed our programs have been, or have children who are currently, in the care of the Ministry of Child and Family Development. Women who have experienced trauma and violence and who are struggling with that trauma are often holding on by a thread. They are surviving, often living in chaos as a result of their circumstances, trying to find safe, affordable housing for their families, and then their children are apprehended. That thread that they are holding on to disappears. This often leads to struggles with substance use, homelessness, street-level sex work and violent relationships with men, and the intergenerational cycle continues.
We need to keep moms and their kids safely together. We need to do this by providing housing that is affordable, providing support services that offer information and supports around life skills, and providing resources and referrals to outreach teams that can support moms once they leave first- and second-stage transitional housing into subsidized or private market housing.
Second, in 2017 Atira housed close to 2,000 women and their children through first- and second-stage transitional housing and through long-term supported housing. Unfortunately, we have had to turn away more than three times as many women and children as we were able to house. This is due to the lack of space.
We need more housing with operational agreements that adequately reflect the needs of our program. This means food budgets for community kitchens to teach life skills and build support networks; repairs and adequate maintenance budgets; and 24-7 staff who allow women to develop relationships and trust to support them through the next steps in their journey.
Third, Atira supports a disproportionate number of first nation, Métis and Inuit women. More than 70% of the women who access our programs in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and Surrey are women who identify as indigenous. According to the Canadian Women's Foundation, indigenous women are killed at six times the rate of non-indigenous women.
We need culturally appropriate housing for indigenous women and their children, with support services to reconnect them or connect them for the first time with lost culture and healing practices and ceremonies. We need to honour and recognize the continued effects of residential schools and the multi-generational trauma that still happens every day.
I'd like to give you a little example of what that looks like. Recently, a young indigenous woman, aged 19, was brought to our Imouto program by another organization that wasn't able to offer her support. She was tired, scared and incredibly shy. She came to Downtown Eastside to stay with her uncle, who became extremely violent and tried to force her into sex work. When she ran away, she was alone, lost, hungry and she had no money. When she got to Imouto, she wasn't connecting with staff and barely spoke to anyone at all. Staff were finally able to build some trust with her and figured out that she wanted to return home. Neither her band nor her family could or would provide her with the bus ticket she needed to make that journey back. Staff provided arrangements to drive her to a reserve near Keremeos. When they got into her territory, she completely changed, telling stories of her auntie and talking about the mountains and her family. She's still living there and she's thriving.
This program, Imouto, is currently single-staffed, and we are required to raise more than $160,000 each year from the public to keeps its doors open. Without this program, this young woman would likely have been lost to the Downtown Eastside.
Finally, I would like to say that because of years of no increase in funding for housing for women victims of violence, Atira has had to be creative with building new housing and partnering with different levels of government through cash funding, donations of land use and waiving of permit fees. We have also had to—
Good morning. My name is Geneviève Latour, and I am the Associate Director of Crossroads for Women inc.
Since 1981, Crossroads for Women has been helping women and their children who are affected by violence against women and intimate partner violence.
Crossroads for Women is the only transition house for victims of family violence and sexual assault in southeastern New Brunswick. We also provide the following bilingual programs and services: a family crisis centre, a sexual assault centre, a toll-free crisis line, more long-term housing, a community outreach program and a youth support program.
Our transition house provides much more than a safe place. We provide vital services and resources that enable women and their children experiencing violence to begin their healing, to rebuild their self-esteem and to take steps to return to a self-sufficient and independent life.
We also raise awareness and contribute to social change as part of broader efforts to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls.
The transition house has three cribs and 41 beds, three of which are accessible to women and children with reduced mobility. As I just said, we provide much more than housing.
In 2017-2018, we responded to thousands of crisis calls. We provided support to more than 70 individuals who came to the hospital to get medical care in the wake of violence they suffered. We housed 250 women and 90 children.
The federal government really has a leadership role to play in addressing violence against women, and that of course includes the work of transition houses like ours.
I will begin by talking about the discrepancy between the number of beds needed and the number of beds available. It is difficult to gauge that discrepancy. In November 2016, our capacity went from 17 beds to 41 beds. In 2016, our rate of refusal was over 30% and, now, it is just under 20%. The reason there was a drop of only 10% while our capacity increased by 40% is that we are doing more to raise public awareness of this important issue affecting women. Each effort we make to raise awareness leads to more calls.
Although we have nearly two and a half times more beds than before, our operational income has increased by only 4%. I will talk more about this issue later, but for now, I will come back to the second issue of interest to us—existing federal programs and funding for transition houses.
As you know, the federal government does not provide funding to cover the operating costs of transition houses for women who are victims of violence, with the exception of transition houses on reserve. The majority of federal funding is intended for capital. Managing a transition house is like managing any other house. We must pay bills for public services, insurance, property taxes, food, and so on. All those expenses have increased over the years, but our core funding has only increased very slightly.
Who pays the price of that? Our responders and employees do, and that staff is made up entirely of women. Retaining qualified staff is really a major problem. At the end of the day, women and children fleeing violence pay the price. My recommendation concerning existing federal programs and funding for transition houses has to do with core funding. Ultimately, we cannot do our job effectively if we do not get the funding we need for our operations.
What are the potential solutions? We recommend that, in future legislation, shelters really be recognized as a fundamental human right. Canada needs more safe and affordable shelters for women and children. I also think it is important to keep in mind that transition houses are not “band-aid solutions”. Building more affordable housing without support services for women and children who have fled from violence is not the solution. Those two elements are really necessary. We need more affordable housing, but we also need adequately funded transition houses for women and children fleeing violence.
With adequate funding, transition houses can ensure that all women get immediate access to services. All women have the right to live and enjoy a life free from violence and abuse. Right now, we are abandoning those women if we cannot provide them with services. The only statistic I will emphasize today is the fact that, in Canada, a woman is murdered every six days by someone she knows and is very likely in an intimate relationship with.
It is impossible to cover all the challenges we are facing as a transition house, be it in terms of aboriginal women, the LGBTQ+ community, elderly women, women with disabilities or others. I decided to use my testimony to tell you about the situation of immigrant, refugee and non-status women we accommodate. I am talking to you about this to point out that core funding and the provision of specialized programs are important for transition houses.
In our house, Crossroads for Women, there are always on average three immigrant or refugee women and three children. Those women and children are facing specific barriers not known to non-immigrant women. For example, the average stay in our house is about 28 days for Canadian women, while it is 74 days for immigrant women and families. Some of the things those women are dealing with are language barriers, difficulties navigating in various systems, cost of services, the length of the process to obtain a status—which impedes all the other steps—the absence of a support system, and racism, which is an integral part of all the obstacles I just listed.
Our organization's current funding does not enable us to hire someone who could work specifically with that population and meet their unique needs. I remind you that we have 41 beds, but 85% of the time, we have a single employee on site to support the residents, prepare meals, answer calls, take in community donations, and so on. So you will understand that the issue of discrepancy between the number of existing beds and the number of available beds goes beyond the question of available physical beds. It is important for an increase in the number of beds to go hand in hand with an increase in core funding and a program for women and children.
If I had more time, I would talk to you about an employee's typical shift, but I will rather encourage you to visit a transition house in your region. You are certainly welcome to come to ours.
Before I conclude, I want to repeat that it is necessary to adopt a Canada-wide policy on housing and domestic violence.
Thank you for the opportunity to be here today.
I'm Fiona Cunningham. I am the mental health counsellor for Iris Kirby House in St. John's and O’Shaughnessy House in Carbonear, Newfoundland and Labrador. Our organization provides support and shelter from domestic violence for the Avalon region of Newfoundland and Labrador, servicing a population of over 260,000.
Our shelters have 32 and 15 beds, respectively. Additionally, we have 13 second-stage housing units. Last year, we collectively housed over 350 women and children, and answered almost 900 distress calls. Additional services include supporting ex-residents. We answered about 1,400 phone calls last year providing recreational and therapeutic groups for women and children, and providing system navigation housing support.
We work from a trauma-informed, empowerment-based approach, incorporating harm reduction and an individualized approach to each woman's and each family's needs.
From the front-line staff, who are responsible for the daily health and safety of the residents in the building, to all supportive and administrative personnel, we are a hard-working organization. But no matter how hard we work, there are gaps in the system: services we need that don't currently exist, and women and children who fall between the cracks. It is important to note that the gaps in the system don't necessarily exist within the shelter system, but at the intersection between agencies and services.
What do some of those gaps look like for us?
First, there is no women-only homelessness shelter in our area. Trauma-informed practice allows us to understand that women with extensive histories of gender-based violence sometimes cannot live in a mixed-gender shelter. The women we interact with may not be coming directly from gender-based violence, but their histories are richly narrated, and their present-day struggles are a direct result of gender-based violence. They have nowhere to go, nor do they fit within our service parameters. We need a continuum of services to support homelessness as it intersects with domestic violence.
Second, we experience long wait times for mental health and addiction services. These can be upward of six months just for an intake assessment, before service can even begin. Women who struggle with communal living for a variety of reasons, often mental health or chaotic drug or alcohol use, cannot access shelter services, nor can they access timely addictions and mental health support.
Third, there's a lack of transportation to and from services. Women may not have the ability to navigate a public transportation system due to trauma, mental health restrictions or mental acuity, or the area where they need to go may not even be accessible by public transportation. It is not enough for a service to exist; it must also be accessible.
Fourth, our current shelter system is a reactive, acute model, much like the revolving door of our acute mental health care hospital system. Clients often need an approach that is outside the current funding guidelines, which creates limitations on the support and healing we can provide.
Fifth, our legal system can fail to provide safety to women who wish to return home or even live safely in their community, which can create unnecessarily long and restrictive stays in our shelter. Denial of emergency protection orders because a woman is in a shelter aligns the system with the abuse and can begin the cascade of reasons why a woman feels unsafe and distrusting within a legal system that re-traumatizes her.
Sixth, another gap is the need to prove poverty in order to access legal representation. There's a group of women who fall above the legal aid cut-off but are unable to pay for legal representation as well as meet their basic needs. This can create a gross disparity between the woman who has survived domestic violence and the abuser. In effect, it creates another modality in which the abuser can continue, and even increase, the violence.
Finally, a woman with employment can have her job threatened due to the need to take time off for medical, police, and legal appointments, and the time it takes to move from home to shelter to a new home. Much of Newfoundland and Labrador is rural, and there are no shelters to be accessed locally, meaning that a woman may have to choose between safety and employment.
Some solutions to the above gaps include the ability to provide flexible, individualized approaches to working with women and families. In the year that I have been employed as the mental health counsellor at the shelter, I don't think two days have looked the same. Front-line workers need the space to be creative in their interventions. Systemic constraints not only revictimize clients on a daily basis but create vicarious trauma in workers as they stand in helplessness with their clients, unable to have their basic needs met. When funding is provided in a rigid framework, women who need services quickly fall outside the box.
We need to provide training and a focus on trauma-informed practices, not just within the shelter system but as a requirement of training for police, lawyers, judges and all support personnel working within the systems to reduce re-traumatization and to begin to create a system that believes and supports women's stories.
We need more access to drop-in, short-term, single-session mental health and addiction support services, specifically those that are trauma-informed and women-centred.
We need to view access to legal representation from a rights-based approach and provide each person interacting with the legal system timely and adequate representation.
We need a shelter system that includes appropriate care to trans and non-binary individuals. A system needs to understand gender as a continuum rather than a duality.
We need to differentiate between women who experience sexual exploitation and those who participate in consensual sex work. Under the shelter system, we need to simultaneously and effectively respond to both groups, which can have vastly divergent needs.
Also, we need a national domestic violence lead policy so that women can both retain their employment and deal with the time-consuming tasks that are thrust upon them as a result of surviving domestic violence.
I wish to thank the committee for taking the time to hear my voice, but I do not have lived experience of domestic violence. It is my wish to elevate the voices of the women around me who do, as I speak from a place of privilege. Therefore, I would encourage the committee to speak directly to those affected by interpersonal gender-based violence, to truly hear stories that are infused with colour and meaning and need. When we take the time to honour each and every woman who has lived and is living the horror of domestic violence, we will find with their strength and resilience that we will seek and find solutions. In listening to them with open hearts and minds, we will be able to stop gender-based violence.
Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting us to speak today on this important topic. My name is Jean Fong, and I have been a collective member with the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter for the past 15 years.
Established in 1973, Vancouver Rape Relief is Canada's first rape crisis centre. It operates a 24-hour rape crisis line and transition house for women escaping immediate male violence. We respond to roughly 1,300 calls and house around 100 women and their children fleeing male violence every year. Women who call us have been raped, battered, sexually harassed, incested or prostituted. They're immigrant women, indigenous women, women of colour, women from rural areas and urban centres. They're women of all classes and all races.
We operate as a collective of paid and unpaid members. Our membership varies in age, race and class. Our membership includes former battered women, women who have exited prostitution, sexual assault survivors and women who have lived in our transition house. Women call seeking emotional support, information and help with the criminal justice system, but mostly women call because they're looking for somewhere to go.
Through our daily work, we see that women's homelessness is tied to male violence against women, colonialism, racism and poverty. Because of male violence, women are forced to leave their homes to protect themselves and to protect their children. Women leave and go to hotels; homes of friends, family members, and sometimes strangers; and of course, transition houses and women's shelters. Overwhelmingly, the majority of women who have lived in our transition house are poor women, women who don't speak English, and indigenous women.
But transition houses are more than just a place to go. They are a women-only space where women are able to heal, regroup and connect with other women who are also escaping male violence. In transition houses, women talk with one another and begin to understand that the violence they endured is not a result of what they did or did not do, nor is it unique to them, but a symptom of patriarchy and the world we live in.
Women celebrate each other's successes and cry with one another when everything seems insurmountable. Transition houses provide space for women to be able to imagine how to move forward, to make plans for the future and to learn how to dream.
In the course of their stay, we also help women apply for welfare, find housing, obtain a lawyer for things like custody and access, make police statements, and find day care, child care, translation, and almost anything else they may need on a daily basis. We continue to be available as a resource and support for a woman who has lived in our transition house long after she has moved out, because matters like those I've just listed continue well past her stay. Often within the first 18 months after a woman leaves, her attacker will escalate his violence in an effort to stop and dissuade her from untangling her life from his.
In closing, I'd like to say that a multitude of initiatives, services and programs working together and alongside each other are necessary to help women be free from male violence. But access to women's services like transition houses and rape crisis centres is limited. There's no excuse for the lack of these essential resources, and they must be available to all women when they choose to leave a dangerous situation. Transition houses and rape crisis centres, and their programs, must become an economic priority for the federal government.
My name is Daisy Kler. I am a collective member at Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter as well. I've been there for about 20 years. My main area of work is in the transition house with the battered women and their kids.
Most of us have already talked about the need for funding for transition houses and affordable housing, so I'm not going to do that. I'll address other gaps in services that undermine a woman's ability to leave an abusive man.
The larger context is that in the 1990s, the federal government began downloading federal responsibilities for social programs such as subsidized housing, social assistance, child care and health care to the provinces. This dismantling of the social safety net undermines women's equality. No access to adequate housing, universal child care, health care, and abysmally low welfare rates increase women's vulnerability to men's violence.
Our recommendations are the following.
The first is about operational funding. There must be independent, women-controlled rape crisis centres and transition houses, with federal operational funding, in every community in Canada, including reserves.
The second is about welfare rates. Forty-five years of anti-violence work tells us that women need economic security in order to leave a battering husband, a sexually harassing boss or a violent pimp. Pay equity legislation is good for those who have secure work. Women in dire poverty and precarious employment need livable social assistance. The federal government should re-establish and strengthen national standards for social assistance rates with cost sharing and enforcement measures, so that each province has to comply. This step can be taken immediately.
For a long-term measure, we call on a guaranteed livable income, universally accessible, with no conditions or strings attached. This can be achieved through a negative income tax mechanism. A guaranteed livable income for a woman is how she can escape an abusive partner, and it can also prevent women from entering into abusive relationships out of economic necessity.
Third, on transportation, British Columbia is home to the infamous Highway of Tears, where many indigenous women have gone missing and been murdered. We have lost our Greyhound bus services. Infrastructure such as highways and transportation is both a federal and a provincial responsibility. We want affordable, frequent and accessible public transportation. Battered women in rural areas cannot even get to transition houses and have to resort to unsafe travelling methods that increase their vulnerability to men's violence.
Fourth, with regard to indigenous women on reserves, shelters funded by INAC, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, receive far below the amounts received by provincially funded shelters. INAC must fund on-reserve shelters at the same level as off-reserve shelters. Also, since no community operates without a sexist bias toward women, funding should not be vulnerable to the whims of changing band councils that may not prioritize fighting violence against women. INAC-funded shelters must be independent from band councils and be in the control of indigenous women from that community.
Fifth, on policing, when women experience male violence, the first point of contact is the police. When the police fail, it undermines women's access to protection through the criminal justice system. The RCMP is in disrepute because of their sexist violence against their own female officers, and because women have no faith in police protecting them from violent men. Abusive men are rarely arrested. Often, police do not prioritize domestic violence calls, and few arrests result in convictions. The federal government has to take a leadership role and direct police across Canada to take violence against women seriously, prioritize crimes against women and force change in the attitudes and actions of the police across the country.
I haven't talked about the possibility of establishing contact with those groups and building ties with their home communities. However, once those people hear about our programs and come to us, they face systemic racism. Beyond the violent trauma she has experienced, a women who is facing fewer obstacles and is simply looking for housing will often be a victim of racism. Some owners will not want to rent an apartment to her because she has too many children for their liking, for example.
In the case of a woman who wants to obtain refugee status, the simple steps to do so can take time, during which she won't have free access to health care. If she has children, the costs are exorbitant. She receives no social assistance and, therefore, has no income. Yet she has expenses because she must live. That is only one example among many.
In addition, there is sometimes a linguistic barrier. For example, some women wanted to file a complaint with the police, but they had to use Google Translate for their statement. Those women have a big learning curve ahead of them regarding support services provided in the region. So we must really be able to support them and provide them with longer-term services. Even once they have an official status, the New Brunswick Department of Social Development limits the length of their stay in a shelter before those women lose their benefits, even if they have not completed the process to obtain their identification papers. So the situation is very complex.
That is why we absolutely need specific programs. I'm not even talking about support those women need related to the trauma of the violence they have suffered in Canada and perhaps also in their home country, or the interventions required with their children, if they have any, including support for them within the school system. We are seeing more and more of those types of women with those kinds of needs. Our staff has the knowledge needed to help them, but it is really difficult to provide them with the support they need if we have to split ourselves among 41 individuals.
We use various tactics. For example, we participate in prevention workshops in schools, where we explain to children what healthy relationships are and tell them about the available resources. A number of mothers have told us that it was their son, coming back from school, who told them that they did not have to suffer all that violence and that shelters existed. So those workshops are a winning strategy.
It is also important to establish relationships with immigrant reception centres and get involved with cultural events in the region. It is a matter of making our organization known and helping people recognize symptoms of family or sexual violence.
So there is more than one way to proceed. That said, I am sure that we are not reaching many women because they speak neither of the two official languages, because their children don't go to school or because they do not participate in those cultural events. We are currently working on that. We have a committee that is looking into this issue and it is making a lot of presentations to various groups.
Moreover, any woman may decide to return to her husband, even if he is violent, but she can also come back to see us. When I started out, I saw that return to her husband as a failure, but my perception has since changed. Now, when that woman returns to us and sees that I am still there and am not judging her, I consider that to be a success. We represent a safe environment where the woman is not judged and where she feels comfortable to return as needed. I think that's amazing.
Of course, we are not really happy to see that woman return to her husband, but it is important to remember that it is her decision and that we have to respect it. I think that respect is why they come back to us when they feel the need to or they call us to say that things are going better or that they have not felt the need to come back, that they separated from their husband and are now living on their own. Creating that relationship is extremely important.