Doing more with less
Time for a National Action Plan to combat violence against women
École Polytechnique remembrance vigil in 2013, University of the Fraser Valley photo.
École Polytechnique remembrance vigil in 2013, University of the Fraser Valley photo.
Two reports came out in early May that should have received a lot more attention than they did. The Standing Committee on the Status of Women released its latest study, Surviving Abuse and Building Resilience, on Canada’s systems of shelters and transition houses serving women and children fleeing violence. And Women’s Shelter Canada (WSC) published More Than a Bed, the first-ever survey of shelters developed by and for the violence against women (VAW) sector.
As the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls gets ready to release its final report on June 3rd, these reports provide a timely reminder of the glaring gaps in the services available to women and children traumatized by violence and the need for meaningful action and sustained, long-term funding to end gender-based violence and care for survivors.
With the federal election around the corner, it’s fair to wonder: Is anybody listening?
Persistent and devastating
For more than 40 years, women’s shelters have been working in communities across Canada offering temporary safety to women and children fleeing violence. Over this time, the number of shelters and transition houses—and the scope of their work—have grown to attempt to meet the needs of women at the most vulnerable point in their lives.
On any given night in Canada, 3,565 women and their 3,137 children sleep in shelters because it isn’t safe at home. And over 900 women and children are turned away because shelters are already full.1 Hundreds more are assisted through outreach programs, groups, and services.2
The scale of the need is enormous. The World Health Organization estimates that one in four women in Canada will experience intimate partner violence or sexual violence in her lifetime.3
In 2017, almost 96,000 people in Canada were victims of intimate partner violence (IPV), representing just over a quarter (30%) of all victims of police-reported violent crime.4 Four out of five victims of police-reported intimate partner violence were women (79%)—representing about 72,000 female victims. This is the most common kind of violence experienced by women.5
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Police-reported statistics provide only a partial picture of the violence women experience. Sexual assault and intimate partner violence6 are vastly underreported. Statistics Canada estimates that 90% of the incidents of sexual assault and harassment7 and 70% of the incidents of intimate partner violence are never reported to the police.8 In 2018, only 29% of women staying in a VAW shelter reported their experience of abuse to the police.9
The struggle to meet demand
“We have 21 physical beds which are usually at full capacity. Last year’s fiscal year we operated at 120% occupancy rate.”
These numbers just hint at the reality women experience and that shelters report. The demands on shelters are constant.
More than a Bed paints a picture of the extraordinary work that shelters do helping women and their children to rebuild their lives and heal from abuse. But they continue to struggle with the lack of sustainable and adequate resources to do this work and provide needed beds, with VAW shelters increasingly being expected to do more with less.
Shelters regularly work at capacity or near capacity10—a situation that is compounded exponentially by Canada’s affordable housing crisis.11 WSC’s national survey found close to half (41%) of VAW shelters reported that capacity issues were a “major challenge”, with four in ten shelters (39%) reporting that they “almost always” operated at capacity and another third (33%) reporting that they “often” operated at capacity.12
The fact is that the staff at VAW shelters do what it takes to provide support. Shelters will take in more people than they have funded beds. They will provide extensions for residents when they can’t—as is too often the case—find safe affordable housing in the community or secure a transitional or second stage housing unit. They will step up for women who are turned away, providing referrals, emailing or phoning around to other shelters to find alternative spaces, and helping to develop safety plans and accessing needed support services.
All of which stretches resources to the max and reduces their capacity to take in new women who are seeking shelter.
“Always doing more with less”
“Shelters are not funded adequately, they’ve never really been funded adequately ... They’re essentially doing the same work year after year with less money, because things like rent and taxes and food costs are all increasing, but funding is not increasing.”
More than a Bed provides important insight into the range of services that VAW shelters now offer to support an increasingly diverse clientele experiencing gender-based violence or struggling with histories of trauma. This group includes Indigenous women,13 women with significant mental health concerns, LGBTQ2+ people,14 women with disabilities and deaf women,15 young women,16 and immigrant and refugee women17—all groups that experience heightened risk of violence.
We know from the 2018 Survey of Residential Facilities for Victims of Abuse that more than one in five women (22%) aged 18 and over residing in shelters on the snapshot day in April 2018 were Indigenous, five times higher than their share of the general population (4%). One in ten (9%) of shelter residents were non-permanent residents, a rate six times higher than their representation in the overall population.18
These groups have unique needs that demand unique supports. Easier said than done as the More than a Bed survey makes clear. Shelters continually struggle to meet the demand for their service. There are significant gaps in service such as transportation (especially in rural areas), specialized supports for mental health and addictions challenges, assisting with the search for safe housing, and prevention services.
Many shelters are also limited in what they can provide for Indigenous women and their families. While 80% of VAW shelters reported serving Indigenous women, only 19% were “often” able to offer culturally appropriate programs.
The survey also found that less than half (47%) of VAW shelters reported that their services were “generally accessible” for women who use a wheelchair or other mobility device; 26% were “somewhat accessible” and 26% were “difficult to access.” This is a significant barrier for women with disabilities seeking assistance.19
Organizational challenges and funding shortfalls undercut impact
“We have received only a very small increase to cover off the additional expenses of the increase to the pension plan. It is becoming impossible to operate a 24 hour agency with no increase in funding. Bake sales, while nice, do not cut it.”
Persistent organizational challenges and funding shortfalls undercut the efforts of shelters time and time again. Three-quarters of VAW shelters indicated that insufficient funding was a “major challenge” facing their shelter; over half said that even supplying basic necessities such as food and transportation was difficult.
Providing support for victims of violence should be seen as an essential public service—yet it’s not. Most shelters cobble together financial support from different governments and then have to fundraise the rest. Incredibly, one in five shelters (20%) haven’t received a funding increase from their main government funder in more than ten years. Over half (55%) can’t make meet their operating expenses without fundraising and 10% can’t meet their operating expenses even with fundraising.
Not surprising, there are high rates of staff burnout due to low wages and poor benefits—as the chart below documents.20 In every province, with the notable exception of Newfoundland and Labrador, average hourly wages for full-time councilors falls considerably short of the average for workers in the health care and social assistance sector.
Shelters have real problems finding and retaining qualified staff. Fully one-third (32%) of all workers in shelters are casual or temporary staff, brought in to support around the clock service—this compared to a benchmark of 15% for all temporary workers.21
It’s long past time for a
national action plan
The Standing Committee report, Surviving Abuse and Building Resilience, raises these same concerns about the gaps in service so starkly evident in all of the new information about the shelter sector. Shelter workers do incredible work—but Canada’s patchwork of programs simply isn’t up to the task.
The federal government’s current Strategy to Address and Prevent Gender Based Violence has ramped up federal programming and research efforts, and has increased funding to community-based organizations, but it lacks a holistic plan for preventing and responding to violence that would ensure coordinated, effective and responsive services across the country as well as equality of access for all women.
Federalism can’t be a barrier to women’s fundamental human rights, as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women said last year in her visit to Canada.22
Surviving Abuse and Building Resilience represents a rare moment of consensus among the federal parties on a set of recommendations to create a plan that ensures comparable levels of services, increased multi-year funding for the repair and expansion of women’s shelters and transition houses, as well as the operational funding needed to run them.
This includes more funding for shelters serving Indigenous women and children and resources to expand culturally sensitive services that meet the needs of Indigenous women as well as immigrants, women with disabilities, transgender women and gender diverse people.
The federal election is five months away. Gender equality and women’s organizations will be asking all parties for their plans to end violence against women. Bake sales won’t cut it anymore. We’ve got the evidence. It’s long past time for action.
Katherine Scott is a Senior Economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Follow her on Twitter @ScottKatherineJ.
1. Greg Moreau (2019), “Canadian residential facilities for victims of abuse, 2017/2018,” Juristat, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X. These figures are based on information collected on a single day (April 18, 2018) from all of the shelters surveyed.
2. For a description of the types of services offered, see: Statistics Canada, Table 35-10-0058-01 Percent of residential facilities for victims of abuse offering selected services. For example, 87% of shelters offer individual counselling, 97% offer safety and protection planning, 82% offer life skills training, and 71% offer legal services.
3. World Health Organization (2013), Global and Regional Estimates Of Violence Against Women: Prevalence And Health Effects Of Intimate Partner Violence And Non-partner Sexual Violence.
4. Intimate partner violence (IPV) includes violent offences that occur between current and former legally married spouses, common-law partners, dating partners and other kinds of intimate partners. Figures are for individuals aged 15 to 89 years.
5. In 2017, 45% of all female victims of violence had been victimized by a current or former partner. Marta Burczycka (2018), “Police-reported intimate partner violence in Canada, 2017,”Family violence in Canada: A statistical profile, 2017. Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 85-002-X.
6. Intimate partner violence includes violence against spouses and partners in other current or former intimate relationships. In 2015, violence within dating relationships was more common than violence within spousal relationships, according to police reported data.
7. Shana Conroy and Adam Cotter (2017), “Self-reported sexual assault in Canada, 2014,” Juristat, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Catalogue no. 85-002-X. See also: Cristine Rotenberg (2017), “Police-reported sexual assaults in Canada, 2009 to 2014: A statistical profile,” Juristat, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Catalogue no. 85-002-X.
8. Marta Burczycka and Shana Conroy (2017), Family violence in Canada: A statistical profile, 2015, Juristat, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Catalogue no. 85-002-X.
9. Greg Moreau (2019), op.cit.
10. According to the latest National Shelter Study, between 2005 and 2014 the Canadian emergency shelter system was operating at over 90% capacity (92% occupancy rate in 2014) as the average length of stay in emergency shelters nearly doubled, with a typical shelter stay increasing from 5.7 days to 10.2 days. Aaron Segaert (2017), “The national shelter study: Emergency shelter use in Canada 2005-2014.” Homelessness Partnering Secretariat. Employment and Social Development Canada.
11. According to the Survey of Residential Facilities for Victims of Abuse (2017-18), two of the top challenges facing facilities and their residents were a lack of permanent housing (38% of facilities) and a lack of affordable and appropriate long-term housing options upon departure (77% of facilities reporting on behalf of their residents). Moreau (2019).
12. Women’s Shelters Canada (2019), More than a bed: A national profile of VAW Shelters and Transition Houses.
13. Indigenous women and girls had an overall rate of violent victimization that was close to triple that of non-Indigenous women and girls. Similarly, Indigenous women were also three times more likely than non-Indigenous women to have been a victim of spousal violence according to the 2014 General Social Survey on Victimization. Jillian Boyce (2016), “Victimization of Aboriginal people in Canada, 2014.” Juristat. Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 85-002-X.
14. Individuals who identified as LGB were more than twice as likely to be sexually assaulted as those who identified as heterosexual. Bisexual women, in particular, reported much higher levels of violent victimization and sexual assault compared to their heterosexual peers. Laura Simpson (2018), “Violent on of lesbians, gays and bisexuals, 2014,” Juristat, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Catalogue no. 85-002-X.
15. Women with disabilities were twice as likely to be victims of violent crime, and experience repeated violence over a 12-month period than women without disabilities. Adam Cotter (2018), “Violent victimization of women with disabilities, 2014,” Juristat, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Catalogue no. 85-002-X.
16. In 2014, young women reported experiences were nearly 1.9 times more likely to experience violence than young men. Tina Hotton Mahony, Joanna Jacob and Heather Hobson (2017), Women and the Criminal Justice System, Women in Canada: A Gender-based Statistical Report. Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 89-503-X.
17. Rupaleem Bhuyan, Bethany Osborne, Sajedeh Zahraei, and Sarah Tarshis (2014), Unprotected, Unrecognized Canadian Immigration Policy and Violence Against Women, 2008-2013, University of Toronto.
18. Moreau (2019).
19. According to the Survey of Residential Facilities for Victims of Abuse, 13% of women and 8% of children residing in a facility for reasons of abuse on snapshot day had at least one disability. This points to the challenges facing women with disabilities seeking shelter, including mobility challenges, poor accessibility, and the requirement of specialized services. Moreau (2019).
20. Over half (55%) of respondents indicated that staff turnover and burnout were a “major challenge” for their VAW shelters.
21. Statistics Canada. Table 14-10-0072-01 Job permanency (permanent and temporary) by industry, annual (x 1,000).
22. Dubravka Šimonović, “End of mission statement - Official visit to Canada”, April 23, 2018.