Tim Richter, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness President & CEO, appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women today. The committee is looking into the system of shelters and transition houses serving women and children affected by violence against women and intimate partner violence for a study.
Here’s what he had to say:
Good afternoon everyone. Thank you for this opportunity. I’m pleased to be speaking to you from traditional territories of the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta. The City of Calgary is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III. I’m here in my capacity as President & CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness with expertise in preventing and ending homelessness. I can’t and won’t claim to be an expert in domestic violence. I’m also here aware of the fact that I’m a middle-aged, middle-class white man whose privileged personal perspective is not the most important in your study.
I strongly encourage the committee to get out into the community, visit shelters and speak directly to women and children with lived experience of domestic violence. They are your most important experts.
To prepare for this meeting, I reached out to the women on the Women’s Homelessness Advisory Committee of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. This committee consists of 35 women from across Canada who work in domestic violence, mainstream homeless services, family shelters, transitional housing as well as women who work helping other women who want to exit sexual exploitation and many leading academics. Our committee importantly includes women who have experienced homelessness, Indigenous women and women from racialized communities.
If there’s any wisdom to be gleaned from my presentation, they deserve the credit. I think this committee should meet with these brilliant women and hear directly from them. I would be happy to help arrange that meeting.
I want to share a few quotes from emails I received from colleagues on our advisory committee to paint a picture of the challenge.
“In general, at our local domestic violence shelter where I work we are seeing women whose extensive histories of trauma manifest in mental health and addictions concerns which are beyond the capacity of the resources in our system. We have extremely long wait times for mental health and addictions services and this situation ultimately contributes to homelessness.
“We have no women-only shelters for women over 30 aside from the domestic violence shelter, so there is no continuum of services for women who are homeless but do not fit the domestic violence mandate. We have 4 female beds at one of our local shelters, serving the Avalon Region of 250,000 people. We also do a very poor job of serving individuals whose gender identity falls outside of the binary”.
This situation was mirrored in Winnipeg:
“In Winnipeg there are no women only homeless shelters or 24/7 safe spaces and access to violence against women shelters is often refused due to capacity issues, high acuity of cases and experiences of homelessness. This leaves women with literally nowhere to go besides the street or into precarious situations. Co-ed shelters are common spaces for abuse and victimization and generally not accessed by women (hence the hidden aspect of women’s homelessness). This also has a direct link to the MMIWG epidemic in this country.”
For Indigenous women and girls, the situation is even more acute:
“Indigenous women and girls experience violent victimization at twice the rate of non-Indigenous women. They also experience spousal violence at three times the rate of non-Indigenous women and experience more severe forms of abuse. For marginalized and victimized women, housing and safety from violence are inseparable and efforts to address either must recognize their interconnectedness. Investing in women has an immediate impact on her family and community.”
This committee is examining “the gap between the number of beds required and the number of beds provided in shelters and transition houses and possible solutions to close this gap.”
Without question there’s a need for domestic violence shelter beds in Canada, but I think we’ll find ourselves with an infinite demand for new beds unless we start talking about prevention and long-term solutions.
Long-term solutions will be found by involving women with lived experience of domestic violence at every stage of the policy process. In the homelessness world, we’ve applied rights-based approaches like Housing First with significant success. Housing First empowers people experiencing homelessness with agency, voice, and choice and by doing that we achieve far better long-term outcomes than ever before. By listening carefully to them, and reflecting their input and needs in our systems and programs we design more effective systems and programs.
It’s clear many women and children involved in the domestic violence system have very acute needs – needs that are often beyond the capacity of organizations to support. We can’t talk about shelter beds without addressing the critical need for mental health, trauma, addiction treatment and other supports essential to the well-being and long-term success of women and children fleeing violence. It’s worth noting here a point one colleague made to me in an email yesterday:
“…. the chronic under-funding of women’s programs and services is in itself a form of violence against women. This is ten-fold for those women at the intersections of multiple forms of inequality: women who are Indigenous, women who identify as part of the LGTBQ Community, women who are new Canadians, women who are entrenched in chaotic drug use, women who are sex working or survivors of sexual exploitation.”
Providing safe, decent and affordable permanent housing is a critical step in achieving better outcomes for women and children fleeing domestic violence. Positive outcomes are a result of wraparound support that helps women build self-reliance and heal from their trauma. We’re seeing interventions borrowed from the homeless system, like Housing First, achieve significant success for women and children fleeing violence when the model is adapted to their unique and specific needs. A great example of this approach is the Community Housing Program at Discovery House in Calgary.
For Indigenous People’s providing access to Indigenous-focused, women-centered, trauma-informed community supports and care solutions, coordinated between violence prevention and housing programs, creates an inclusive, holistic approach to addressing homelessness and domestic violence which allows Indigenous women access to needed services and the ability to maintain their housing situation.
We have to address the multiple and compounding structural barriers that harm and systematically disadvantage women. For example, homelessness and domestic violence systems in Canada operate completely separately leaving women often without any support from either. Homeless women often can’t access the domestic violence system (despite violent victimization being pervasive for homeless women) and will have few options in homeless systems which are designed for and serve mostly men. Women in the domestic violence system can’t access the resources of the homelessness system because those systems restrict homelessness only to the mainstream homeless programs (like homelessness emergency shelters). These barriers are compounded by involvement in child welfare systems, racism, complex mental health and addiction concerns or having a gender identity falling outside the binary.
Domestic violence like homelessness is a public policy Gordian knot. Long-term solutions require provincial and federal support, but coordinated local systems are also needed. We’re learning in the homelessness world that taking a rights-based approach and focusing on a permanent solution – on ending, not managing homelessness – at a local level can achieve significant results. The Alliance is now working with over 40 communities in 8 provinces to use real-time, person specific data to build coordinated local systems, and to use human centred design and iterative problem solving to prevent and reduce chronic homelessness. Using this approach, we can identify gaps, target resources more efficiently, coordinate our responses more effectively, identify public system breakdowns and target prevention efforts.
This approach is reflected in the new federal homelessness strategy Reaching Home. Women and children fleeing violence are homeless. The federal government should explore how Reaching Home can support these families and how homeless systems and domestic violence systems can be better integrated.
As in homelessness, federal leadership on domestic violence is essential and there are many potential policy and funding levers at the federal government’s disposal to prevent and reduce domestic violence. I urge this committee to explore those levers. For example, the National Housing Strategy requires 25% of all investments to go to housing for women. How will that housing be invested to prevent and reduce domestic violence and homelessness?
Finally, please remember that the women and children accessing domestic violence shelters are not a homogenous population – these are individual women with individual needs and leaders of families. We won’t solve this problem if we homogenize them and only see them in the context of the system they are in.
Thank you all very much for the invitation to speak with you today.