Report calls for more homeless shelters for women, children in B.C.
Crystal Wilson has spent the last two months at a transitional housing facility in Abbotsford, as she searches for a more long-term housing solution for herself, her two children and partner.
Wilson called around to shelters in the Abbotsford area when she moved back to the city from Prince Rupert in January, but none could accommodate her family.
“It has been so overwhelming,” the mother and full-time student told the Straight by phone from the Firth Residence. “It’s very hard to find family units, or even just a family shelter.”
Wilson was taken in by the Firth Residence in Abbotsford during the extreme weather program, according to Shawn Bayes, the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver. The organization has kept Wilson and her family sheltered at the facility since then, despite the fact they don’t meet the criteria for the transitional housing program.
“At EFry, we have…seven women and children that we’ve taken with no money, because there’s just no place for them to be,” Bayes told the Straight by phone.
“So if you have, such is the case out there, shelters only for men and they’ll take up to five women, that means if you have children, you’re forced to put them in the care of the ministry.”
The issue of emergency shelter space for B.C. women and children is highlighted in a report released by the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver this week.
“Bridging the Divide: Building Safe Shelters for Women and Families in B.C.” is the result of a symposium held by the organization in November 2011. The report recommends that more family shelters be created, and that protocol be developed to assist families when no such shelter space is available.
Bayes sees the need for spaces for women and children as particularly critical in areas outside of Vancouver, such as North Vancouver, Langley, Abbotsford, and Richmond. She noted that the three Elizabeth Fry shelters for women in the Lower Mainland are at 100 percent capacity.
“I think it’s really important to speak to the need for gender-specific shelters,” said Bayes.
The EFry report also outlines recommendations for addressing women’s safety in co-ed homeless shelters. Suggested measures include creating designated, separate women-only spaces such as sleeping areas, washrooms, and counselling space, having female-only staff conduct bed checks on women, developing policies and procedures to address claims of violence or sexual harassment, and defining separate sleeping accommodations for women in co-ed settings as having a door.
“When you talk about having co-ed shelters, there has to be recognition that women-only space includes a degree of segregation of space,” said Bayes.
The Metro Vancouver homeless count conducted in March 2011 indicated the proportion of homeless women in the region has increased, from 26 percent in the 2005 count, to 30 percent in 2011. The report also showed the highest number of families in the homeless shelter system to date, with 56 families, including 54 children, identified in the 24-hour count. The final report on the 2011 Metro Vancouver Homeless Count also found that the primary reason women cited for homelessness was low income and high rents.
Bayes said she expects the number of homeless women and children to continue growing in B.C.
According to provincial government data cited in the “Bridging the Divide” report, the number of social assistance cases for families in B.C. increased by 50 percent between January 1, 2007 and December 21, 2011, while the number of single-parent households on income assistance increased by 29 percent.
“I think that we are not recognizing that this is a province-wide issue,” argued Bayes. “It needs a systemic consideration, it needs to be looked at, and we absolutely need to ensure that we are not forcing women to make the best of an entire lot of bad choices—and that’s what they’re faced with.”
Bayes also noted the number of homeless women, as identified in the Metro Vancouver count, doesn’t include the amount of “invisible homeless” in the region.
“Most women who are homeless are not visible,” she said. “They do the couch surfing, and they trade housework or sex for housing, and so when you start seeing that number increasingly become more and more visible, I think it’s important.”
The full “Bridging the Divide” report can be viewed on the Elizabeth Fry website.