Hundreds of women fleeing abuse turned away by shelters

Tracy and her husband had been having trouble for months. There had been lots of yelling, as well as some pushing and shoving.

On Nov. 6, Tracy’s husband attacked her, smashing her phone. She fought back. She had to get out.

“It was 11:30 at night and I called 311 and said, ‘Do you know if there’s any shelters?'” she recalled. “She just basically gave me phone numbers of different places that I could try.”

They’re trying to leave an unsafe situation, but there’s absolutely nowhere for them to go.– Keri Lewis, Nelson House

None of the women’s shelters on the list had any beds available. With $98 to her name, Tracy began driving around town, looking for an inexpensive hotel.

CBC has agreed to let Tracy use a pseudonym to protect her identity, and her safety.

When Tracy finally found a place on Prince of Wales Drive, there was no vacancy. The man behind the desk offered to keep an eye on her while she slept in her car in the parking lot. 

The temperature was hovering around zero that night, but it was the best offer she’d had.

A woman who left a violent home in Ottawa explains why she ended up sleeping in her car and on couches for a week before she could get into a shelter.  0:59

Nearly 700 women turned away

Tracy’s experience is far from unique.

There are just 120 beds at Ottawa’s five Violence Against Women (VAW) shelters, and demand from women needing a safe place to sleep far outweighs the supply.

“From April 1 of this year, 698 women have sought shelter in a VAW emergency shelter and have been turned away,” said Keri Lewis, executive director of Nelson House, which runs one of those shelters in addition to offering other services.

But women aren’t always turned away because all the beds are full. 

According to Lewis, there are 30 to 40 shelter beds in Ottawa, including five at Nelson House, lying empty on any given night because the agencies don’t have enough staff and resources to make them available.

“I used to be able to say that any woman fleeing violence in our community could find a safe place to sleep at night. But that is no longer the case,” Lewis said.

‘Policy of diversion’

According to city protocol, if a call comes in and there are no beds available, the operator first makes sure the woman is safe, then asks if there is anywhere else she can go for the night. Shelter staff call it a “policy of diversion.”

In the past, women with nowhere else to turn were provided with a bed at a family shelter, or given a room in a hotel or motel. These days, those options are rarely available.

“They’re trying to leave an unsafe situation, but there’s absolutely nowhere for them to go,” Lewis said. “We’ve been hearing stories from centres, from crisis workers across the city of women sleeping in cars, women sleeping on the streets, women having to return home to abusive partners and then being assaulted.”

Tracy left an abusive relationship only to spend several nights sleeping in her car. She eventually found a bed at Nelson House, and plans to move into a new home by Christmas. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

Bleak options

Lewis said she’s collected 55 such stories in recent months.

“If a person is trying to flee a situation of abuse, that’s not an appropriate time to use a policy of diversion,” she said.

Other options sometimes offered by 311 operators include checking into the Shepherds of Good Hope, or travelling to a women’s shelter outside Ottawa.

Tracy said the only time she’d ever been to the Shepherds of Good Hope was to deliver donations, but three days after leaving her husband, she realized the homeless shelter was her only remaining alternative.

“And then when I got inside … it was so noisy and just my anxiety level and everything else, I just, I was like, no.”

She ended up spending yet another night in her car.

“If I had called 311 and they had suggested a hotel option, I would’ve jumped on that immediately. At least then I would have been somewhere and I could have taken a breath for a minute,” she said.

Keri Lewis, executive director of Nelson House, says women who are turned away from women’s shelter in Ottawa often return to unsafe situations. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

Provincial responsibility

“It’s not a perfect system,” conceded Coun. Keith Egli, whose Knoxdale-Merivale ward is home to Nelson House. But Egli pointed out funding and operation of the shelters is a provincial responsibility, not a municipal one.

“Every time the city steps in and fills one of those gaps, then the province doesn’t have to,” Egli said. “To permanently take on that funding creates another financial strain on the city.”

At the same time, Egli said no woman should be sleeping in her car, or returning to an unsafe situation.

Egli said he’s held preliminary talks with both the shelters and city staff to look into better training for the 311 operators who take calls from women fleeing danger.

In an email, the office of Jill Dunlop, Ontario’s associate minister of children and women’s issues, said this year the government is investing “in supports for survivors and violence prevention initiatives” to the tune of $8.7 million in the Ottawa area.

Coun. Keith Egli represents Knoxdale-Merivale ward, home to Nelson House. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Housing bottleneck

The general shortage of affordable housing in the city is one of the reasons the women’s shelters are chronically full.

Once a woman secures a bed at a shelter, it can take several months to find her appropriate housing. That in turn creates a bottleneck, according to shelter and affordable housing advocates.

After a week of sleeping in her car and on couches, Tracy was eventually able to secure a bed at Nelson House.

“I feel supported here,” she said.

She’s also found a new home to rent, and she and her son plan to move in before Christmas.

But Tracy said she understands why some women who can’t get into a shelter often return to abusive partners.

“It’s hard to break that cycle, especially when you’ve been with somebody for over a decade.”

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