CM: Where do you go when ‘home’ isn’t safe?: Domestic violence shelter options in Alberta
By Jenna Robinson, ESPC Summer Research Assistant
When critically engaging with houselessness in Edmonton, it is essential to include its intersection with experiences of family and intimate partner violence. Domestic violence is often cited as a leading cause of houselessness among women in Canada (Homeless Hub, 2016). There are many factors that cause this to occur, including structural barriers to accessing housing, financial constraints, and the overall nature of family and intimate partner violence.
Prevalence of Family and Intimate Partner Violence in Canada
Family violence and intimate partner violence are often used synonymously to define experiences of domestic violence, however, there are important distinctions between the two; family violence includes violence within a household and can occur between parents, children, and siblings (Moorer, 2021). Intimate partner violence includes violence in a romantic relationship who may or may not reside in the same household. Both family violence and intimate partner violence can take form in many ways, such as emotional/psychological, financial, sexual, and physical abuse. In 2019, 67% of the victims of family violence in Canada were women and girls and this population also comprised 79% of all victims of intimate partner violence (Statistics Canada, 2021). In previous years, Alberta has had the third highest reported rate of intimate partner violence among all provinces in Canada (Mertz, 2017); Saskatchewan had the highest, followed by Manitoba.
It is critical to note that these rates only include police-reported experiences of violence which fail to depict the severity of violence; “It’s impossible to calculate the number of women and girls experiencing violence at the hands of an intimate partner, spouse or relative. The majority – more than 80%, according to one StatsCan estimate – go unreported” (Kingston, 2019). Many of those who experience family and intimate partner violence do not report their experiences to the police due to fear, lack of trust in authorities, and denial. Some folks do not know that they are experiencing violence, nor do they want their partner to get in trouble. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a dramatic increase in calls to Albertan women’s shelters, leaving Sagesse Domestic Violence Prevention Society with an increase of over 100% from 2019-2021 (Fikowski, 2021). Support and housing options are required now more than ever to provide immediate safety for women and children fleeing violence.
Shelter Options for Women Fleeing Family Violence in Alberta
Folks leaving family violence have three options of shelters in Alberta: emergency, first stage, and second stage shelters. All shelters have strict surveillance and security measures to ensure residents are as safe as possible and no unwanted visitors are able to enter. One study found that “going to a domestic violence shelter could allow a survivor to access additional services, support, and a sense of community” (Rizo et al., 2022). In addition, Rizo et al, (2022) found that shelters ‘help a survivor get out of survival mode,’ provide safety, and potentially enhance well-being.” Housing is important because it provides folks with a safe and secure space where they can process their experiences and plan for the future. However, there are significant barriers for women leaving violence and attempting to secure safe, affordable housing. For example, financial abuse affects a woman’s ability to afford housing because her partner may not have allowed her to work or freely access the family finances (National Network to End Domestic Violence, 2017). Racism, sexism, and discrimination also influence a woman’s ability to find housing, for her and her children. For those who have nowhere else to go, there are some options:
Emergency shelters are short-term housing spaces where folks can temporarily live to physically leave the violence they (and/or their children) are experiencing. Shelter workers connect folks to counsellors who can help them find the support they need. An example of an emergency shelter for women fleeing violence in Edmonton is Lurana Shelter. Lurana Shelter provides “safe, secure refuge and emergency services such as meals, clothing, personal care items, transportation, and child support, as well as services related to advocacy, and staffing 24/7 for support and security. One-on-one counselling is provided in partnership with a community agency” (Catholic Social Services, 2022). If needed, an emergency shelter can refer a woman (and their children) to other shelter options that provide longer-term support, such as Wings of Providence.
First Stage Shelters
First stage shelters allow folks to focus on recovery and healing from their experiences. Residents typically do not work or go to school and instead attend group and individual counselling sessions. Free childcare is typically offered while the mother attends one-on-one and peer counselling, group counselling, healing circles, and/or other important appointments. An example of a first-stage shelter for women in Edmonton is WINGS of Providence; their first-stage shelter is an apartment building with 49 units consisting of 2- and 3-bedroom living spaces that are fully furnished (Wings of Providence, 2022). WINGS also offers social support and life skills education. This includes safety planning, court accompaniment, food pantry, grocery gift cards, and many other services. Along with their first stage shelter, WINGS supports some women through their second stage shelter, “Home Next Door”.
Second Stage Shelters
Second-stage shelters are “safe, long term, affordable housing [options] to promote continued healing and independence.” (Wings of Providence, 2022). These shelters differ from emergency and first stages shelters because they require women to return to work or school to aid in their integration into society, yet still provide programming options for women and their children. At the Home Next Door, families still have access to the WINGS donation programming and an Outreach Program that provides counseling support, education, and resources for those overcoming family violence.
Limitations of Domestic Violence Shelters – Are They the Best Solution?
Although domestic violence shelters as a temporary refuge is a response to the growing rates of family and intimate partner violence in Canada, there are limitations and concerns associated with them. For example, the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters [ACSW] (2019) reported that between 2018-2019, Alberta shelters had to turn away 23,247 women, children, and seniors who were seeking housing due to capacity limitations. This finding is not only potentially life-threatening but likely is an under-estimate of the current severity of those being turned away. Although experiences of domestic violence itself influence the rate of hidden homelessness within populations (which cannot be calculated), the lack of available shelter beds increases the severity of this problem because it forces this population to couch surf, return to unsafe relationships, engage in survival sex work, or live in their vehicle (Thielman, 2021). COVID-19 has sparked an influx in reporting of family and intimate partner violence but has also likely influenced the invisibility of family and intimate partner violence. Accessing support services and shelters became more difficult due to mandatory quarantines and lockdowns because partners and family members were forced to stay home. As a result, individuals experiencing violence have less opportunity to be alone and access domestic violence support.
When responding to the growing rates of family and intimate partner violence, we must address and consider the unique experiences of specific populations in our communities, such as visible minority groups, members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, as well as youth and older adults.
Edmonton has taken a step in the right direction by providing a one-time investment of $880,000 in 2022 to women’s shelters across Edmonton, but they must not stop there (Komadina, 2022). It is critical that Edmonton expands its support and services to better support all genders, sexual orientations, and racial, ethnic, and cultural identities who endure family and intimate partner violence.
If you are worried about yourself or someone you know, you can learn about warning signs of an abusive relationship here. For a list of other domestic violence shelters supporting women leaving violence in Alberta, please visit the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters website. For domestic violence support catered for refugee and immigrant populations, visit the Islamic Family and Social Services Association. The Aboriginal Counselling Services of Alberta offers programming for Indigenous Peoples impacted by domestic violence, such as the Circles of Safety program for men, women, children, and youth. The Today Centre provides services for those impacted by family violence and is 2SLGBTQIA+ friendly.
Note: This is an excerpt from our September 2022 Community Matters, you can read the full publication here
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Jenna Robinson was the Research Assistant with ESPC in the summer of 2022 and has since moved to Calgary to complete her Master of Arts in Sociology at the University of Calgary. Her research interests include criminalized and victimized women, intersectionality, and anti-racism.
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