Women and children make up half of shelters for abuse survivors

A new Statistics Canada report found four in 10 shelter residents are children, and over half are women.

A strong majority of women residents who were parents were admitted with at least one of their children. They were often protecting their children from abuse or violence as well.

“The reason that there are so many kids in shelters is that women put up with abuse for a long time,” says Dr. Lea Caragata, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of British Columbia.

“In some of the studies… that I’ve done, women will tend to leave three consecutive times before they’ll finally leave for good. What tends to kind of push women into a final departure is when the abuse is affecting children.”

And in the context of a pandemic with its many lockdowns, Caragata notes that when family stress increases, violence increases.

“If you imagine the circumstances of the pandemic, and the ways in which women have lost work hours in a very significant way, families have been constrained at home,” says the UBC prof.

‘Depending on the shelter system’

The report specified that 21 per cent of women residents and 22 per cent of children in shelters identified as First Nations, Métis or Inuit.

Indigenous women make up five per cent of women in Canada while eight per cent of all children in the county are Indigenous, according to the national agency.

This means that intimate partner violence disproportionally affects Indigenous people.

One StatsCan report from May 2021 that COVID-19 disproportionately affected women due to employment losses from March 2020 to February 2021. Caragata says that this reality was exacerbated for Indigenous and racialized women.

“We need stable work; that’s the best way out of this is for women to be able to have jobs that pay them at the same kinds of rates that men get paid,” she says.

“Right now, they have so few options that they’re depending on the shelter system.”

An affordable housing issue

About 70 per cent of women were turned away from shelters because they were full, according to the report.

Aside from pandemic-related concerns, shelters reported that the lack of affordable long-term housing is a top issue for their clients.

“We know that the turnout rates are quite high, due to lack of space, lack of resources,” says Kaitlin Geiger-Bardswich, director of communications, development, and grants at Women’s Shelters Canada.

“The affordable housing crisis is the issue because women can’t move out of the shelter because there’s no affordable spaces for them to move into.”

As a result, Both Geiger-Bardswich and Caragata emphasize that women end up staying in shelters for longer than intended.

“If you’re a caring shelter, and you know that there’s a woman in there with her kids, and she can’t find a place to live, the shelter doesn’t want to put her out on the streets, which creates this incredible backlog,” Caragata tells Glacier Media.

In her own research, Caragata reflects on an interview she had with a woman who stayed with her abusive partner.

“She said very, very powerfully, that she knew that if she left, her children would be in dire poverty because of the kinds of housing costs, because she would have to spend something in the order of 70 per cent of her income on rent.”

And while affordable housing is one issue, Caragata says there is stigma around single mothers on social assistance as well.

“About 85 per cent of single parents in Canada are women. So, the stigma of landlords to rent to a single mom, and especially single moms on social assistance is huge.”

This is why Caragata says that “it’s very hard for a woman to leave an abusive partner, find safety with her children in a shelter, and then leave the shelter in some kind of dignified way into some kind of stable housing solution.”

Raising awareness for intimate partner violence

Although domestic violence increased during the pandemic, Geiger-Bardswich emphasizes that “domestic violence was a pandemic before the COVID pandemic hit.”

“The general public needs to know that this sort of thing is not ending and is still getting worse. We’ve seen that the rate of femicide has increased during the pandemic,” she says.

The report also found that 49 per cent of shelters reported an increase in the number of crisis calls received, compared with pre-pandemic times.

In their own report, Geiger-Bardswich said they found that in 2020, there was a decline in shelter calls.

“I think a lot of that was because people were, you know, concerned about leaving their homes. They didn’t know if shelters were open, like, there’s a lot of misinformation out there. And then as soon as lockdown measures kind of ease those demands, those calls skyrocketed.”

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