Talking About Domestic Violence and Homelessness
By Andrea Turcotte
In my experience, in just over a decade of supporting women and children at Women’s House, many women who present to the shelter seeking admission as homeless, are actually fleeing current or recent abusive situations and have a history of trauma dating back to their childhoods. There are very few situations in which a woman is “just” homeless, with no recent or historical experiences of abuse. Many women have been relying on family or friends to provide a place to stay for varying lengths of time before they seek shelter services, and this may no longer be an option for a variety of reasons.
Research has demonstrated that domestic violence is one of the foremost causes of homelessness for women, with many experiencing homelessness in the period immediately following separation from their abuser. There is no one single reason for this, rather it is due to a combination of factors, including a profound lack of affordable housing, precarious employment, poverty and other individual factors (break-up of the family, domestic violence). Homelessness rates are even higher for women who are fleeing domestic violence and are also of lower socio-economic status, are experiencing mental health issues, or are racialized. Women who are LGTBQ+ or have disabilities also face further barriers and discrimination. Indigenous women face additional issues due to Canada’s history of colonization, including a lack of services and housing in remote communities, a lack of culturally appropriate services, and encountering racism and discrimination when they do attempt to access services. When all of this is combined with a grossly under-funded shelter system, many women who are victims of abuse find themselves turned away by domestic violence shelters that are at capacity night after night.
It is frequently women and children who are forced to leave the family home, not their abusers. In many cases, this is for safety reasons, and a shelter is often the safest place for women in high risk situations. Often the abuser is not incarcerated. There may have been no police involvement, there may have been police involvement but no arrest or charges, or the abuser may have been arrested and then released. Many women do not feel safe staying where their abuser is fully aware of their location, and may only have a piece of paper barring him from contacting her or being at that location.
Women experiencing domestic violence, and homelessness as a result of that violence, are then expected to undertake the extremely stressful task of searching for safe and affordable housing, while continuing to navigate the risks of separation from their abuser. The challenge of this search is compounded by the lack of subsidized housing. Many county housing providers have wait lists that are years long. Some individuals fleeing abuse or human trafficking can apply for Special Priority Status but even if approved for Special Priority Status, the wait for housing can be up to one year. Market rental rates in Grey-Bruce are typically too high for many women fleeing violence, leaving them with very limited options.
Many domestic violence organizations, including Women’s House, also provide Second Stage Housing programs. These programs are typically apartment or townhouse style units, where women and children are provided geared-to-income housing on a short-term basis. Second Stage Housing programs typically have an application process and wait lists of varying lengths. Participants in Women’s House Second Stage program are provided with support by a dedicated counsellor throughout their time in the program, who assists with long-term transition/housing plans, provides counselling and connection with community programs and resources. The realities of subsidized housing wait lists and market rental prices leave many women in the difficult position of having no long-term housing secured as their discharge date approaches. Often, they seek temporary accommodations with family or friends, or may seek admission to a shelter if they have no other safe options. Extensions in the program are sometimes a possibility but due to the number of women on our wait list, an extension is not always an option.
Some solutions to this issue are increased funding for shelters, Second Stage programs, and subsidized housing programs to increase spaces available for women who are homeless due to domestic violence. Additional solutions that would alleviate income and poverty issues include the following: allowing women who receive Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Payments to receive their own separate payments into their own accounts when they reside with a partner also receiving the same payments, or implementation of a Universal Basic Income program. This would ensure that no woman is left without options due to a lack of adequate income. Finally, changes to the way the justice system interacts with perpetrators of domestic violence, such as increased charges and incarceration, and harsher penalties for violating release or bail conditions, may allow more women and children to safely remain in their homes. Without changes to our systems, it is clear that women will continue to face risks as they try to find safety from violence.
Andrea Turcotte works with Women’s House Serving Bruce Grey