Budget could add many more spaces in domestic violence shelters

Shelter operators are now looking for a seat at the table as the federal government works out the details of the new spending program

OTTAWA – When the new women’s shelter in Melfort, Sask., is completed this spring, it will be the first shelter built in the province in more than 25 years and will meet a growing need for spaces for women escaping domestic violence.

Last week’s federal budget has raised hopes that more projects like Melfort will spring up in areas where demand outstrips supply, including in the North.

The federal budget promised $89.9 million over two years that would allow 3,000 spaces to be renovated or created.

Lise Martin of the Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters and Transition Houses said that if half the money went to new spaces, it would mean two new shelters for every province. Those facilities would address a shortfall in spaces that in just one day last year saw shelters turn away 302 women and 221 children because of a lack of resources, she said.

“The reality is yes, a lot of shelters are at capacity and the sad fact is, yes, there is a real need for greater creation of space,” Martin said.

The number could be higher if provinces decide to provide matching funds, but the budget says the money will flow even without such a requirement.

Shelter operators are now looking for a seat at the table as the federal government works out the details of the new spending program.

In an interview earlier this month with The Canadian Press, Status of Women Minister Patricia Hajdu said the government wanted to create new spaces in communities that didn’t have any domestic violence shelters, but was also looking to ensure there are more transitional spaces to help bridge women between emergency shelters and permanent housing.

“We definitely want to get people out of toxic environments, dangerous environments quickly, but we also want to make sure they’re moving towards recovery with their families as quickly as possible,” said Hajdu, who ran Thunder Bay’s largest shelter before entering politics.

Statistics Canada’s most recent report on domestic violence shelters found there were 12,058 spaces in 2014, up about five per cent from the 11,461 available in 2010. The new federal spending would likely double that expansion rate in two years.

Many of those spaces were built in the late 1970s and 1980s, meaning they are not only in need of repairs, but also renovations to meet the demands of modern shelter users, including women with disabilities who are disproportionately affected by violence.

In London, Ont., Women’s Community House was designed for larger families of four or more, not single women or those with one child and has shared spaces that didn’t allow for privacy.

“We know the physical structures are not meeting their needs,” said Shelley Yeo, the shelter’s assistant executive director.

While the one-time capital funding is being welcomed, there remains a lingering need for operational cash. Martin said more than half of shelters have reported turning to food banks to feed their clients as costs increase and government funding has stayed flat.

“We need shelters, but the money for the programming within the shelters and the cost of shelters — the provincial budgets have not budged in the last 10 years,” she said.

“Electricity has gone up, insurance has gone up, so all of the costs that we have within our individual households, well, it’s the same thing with shelters.”