Lack of funding hampering aid to domestic violence survivors, report says

OTTAWA — A study on shelters helping survivors of domestic violence become independent says a lack of funding is getting in the way of providing programs and retaining quality staff.

The study's authors say many organizations, known as second-stage shelters, often have to fundraise to cover the cost of their operations and pay employee salaries.

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Wages in the sector are low, leading to high turnover rates, with staff often leaving for government jobs.

The report from Women's Shelters Canada calls for more funding to help increase the number of second-stage shelters, particularly in rural, remote, northern and Indigenous communities.

It also says the federal government's national housing strategy needs to remove barriers that prevent service providers from accessing money expand existing shelters or build new ones.

Gaelle Fedida, co-chair of the board for Women's Shelters Canada, says government funding programs are key to maintaining the critical services, but they don't always respond to the shelters' unique needs.

"Definitely the national housing strategy has programs targeting this sector, but the programs themselves and the format are not at all adapted to our reality," said Fedida, who is also the coordinator of an alliance of second-stage shelters in Quebec.

"This needs definitely to be adjusted if we want to develop new units and this is especially pertinent in the context of the global pandemic because shelters have to reorganize their space to accommodate health regulations."

Fedida and others spoke about the study during a virtual release.

The shelters can go by different names, but are a transitional support for women who have left emergency shelters and need a medium-term housing option as they heal from trauma and rebuild their lives.

Previous research by Women's Shelters Canada has found that women on average spend about 10 months in these second-stage shelters during a period when they're often at risk of lethal violence from leaving an abusive partner.

There are more than 124 second-stage shelters in Canada, with very few in Indigenous communities, and only two on First Nations reserves. They rely on a patchwork of government and corporate funding.

Cindy Chaisson with Betty's Haven in Yukon said the cost of supplies is also a problem, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Contractors building affordable housing in the North have plywood on back order, she said.

The head of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., which funded the study, said the newly announced $1-billion rapid-housing program will look to create units for women and children fleeing domestic violence.

Evan Siddall said his agency is also trying to build a dozen new shelters for Indigenous women over the next five years, including 10 in First Nations and two in the territories.

But he added housing challenges for victims of intimate partner violence have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and will take much longer to address.

"We hear a lot about this powerful rallying cry in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic that we're all in this together," Siddall said.

"The truth is some people have been harder hit by it than others and the crisis has deepened existing inequities."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2020.

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