By Denise Doyle, CEO YWCA Hamilton
Violence continues to be the leading cause of women’s homelessness in Canada, with more than 100,000 women and children fleeing their homes each year. Many of them never make it to a shelter at all. They live on the streets of our cities, in poverty and exposed daily to sexual harassment and violence.
December 6th is Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women – marking the anniversary of the Montreal shooting deaths of 14 women in 1989. This year YWCA Canada and its member associations across the country are speaking out to draw attention and demand action on the crisis in women’s homelessness and its inherent links to violence.
To get a glimpse at conditions faced by homeless women, The Social Planning and Research Council prepared a unique and first of its kind report, Not To Be Forgotten: Homeless Women in Hamilton, last May for Mission Services (full report at sprc.hamilton.on.ca).
Upon investigation, the SPRC found over 7,000 women and their families are at immediate risk of homelessness in our city. They estimate at least 3,000 additional women are part of Hamilton’s hidden homeless – living on friend’s couches with limited power and control.
Homeless women face 10 times the mortality rate of other women, and according to the SPRC, they die on average at the age of 39 – this is half of the Canadian life expectancy for women. Without a roof over their heads and a door to lock safely behind them women risk assault, harassment, and even murder.
The report reveals that the experience of homelessness and the way we address it cannot be done from a gender-neutral lens. “The needs of homeless women … tend to be even more complex than men,” the report says. “Women tend to access shelter only after exhausting all other social and community resources, making it much harder to assist them in rebuilding their lives.”
As a community we can take action to end violence by ending women’s homelessness. While there is no single solution to either issue, we need to ensure that women’s homelessness is being discussed and investments are made.
Moving directly from homelessness to permanent housing is not effective for all women. The SPRC found that the vast majority of Hamilton’s homeless women cycle between one shelter to the next – never able to scrape together enough money for first and last month’s rent or have the supports and resources in place to successfully lead healthy and independent lives.
Based on these findings, we can say with certainty that transitional and supportive housing clearly play an important role in ending homelessness for some women. “The gaps within services for homeless women include transitional housing. The insufficient number of transitional housing beds and services has left many women cycling through the shelter system” says SPRC.
When we think about investment and planning for women’s homelessness we need to ensure more gender-segregated programs for homeless men and women. The solution for women’s homelessness needs to be different.
At YWCA Hamilton, we offer 65 beds through our Transitional Living Program to women in need of a safe, secure environment where they can access support, programs and services to rebuild their lives.
There are other services in Hamilton also addressing the needs of single women at risk of or experiencing homelessness. But the effectiveness of all of our programs is undermined by a lack of resources that would better support women toward achieving safe and sustainable homes in our community. Across the province there is no secure established funding for transitional housing programs for marginalized homeless women.
Women’s organizations and homeless women have been voicing their concerns that solutions to reducing homelessness have not responded to women’s needs. Various levels of government are beginning to listen.
It is time for us, as individuals and taxpayers, to urge our elected officials and community leaders to educate themselves on women’s homelessness in Hamilton and take action to fix the gaps in services.
It is time for governments at the federal, provincial and municipal level as well as other funding institutions to declare women’s homelessness unacceptable and respond with effective, sustainable and co-ordinated solutions.
Denise Doyle is CEO of YWCA Hamilton.