Single homeless women and mothers with their children are in crucial need of more shelter and housing in Greater Victoria, according to new reports from an organization that helps the homeless.
“Family homelessness tends to be more hidden. They’ll live in cars or move around, not [stay in] shelters, for fear of losing their children,” said Andrew Wynn-Williams, executive director of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness.
The coalition released a report Thursdawy that shows the majority of families who experienced homelessness in Victoria last year were single-parent and female-led.
Many of these were women who experienced violence and unemployment and faced barriers, from shelter policies to a lack of space, in getting housing for their families. The report found mothers are often forced to place their children in care before they can access transitional services.
“One of the major findings was how the complexity of the system makes it hard for homeless families to get re-housed,” said Wynn-Williams, adding one of the solutions in the report is more outreach workers to help navigate assistance and services.
A count of Greater Victoria shelters that the coalition conducted on one night in February 2014, showed 70 families and 105 children were sheltered but at least 12 children were among those turned away.
A report on the count also revealed something unusual compared to previous years: More women (39) than men (27) were turned away from shelters. The report said this indicates a lack of shelter for women, who represent 30 per cent of shelter users, and single-parent women-headed families.
“Occupancy has been way higher than normal, even in the summer when we usually see a dip,” said Christine O’Brien, co-ordinator at Cool Aid Society’s Sandy Merriman House for women. The shelter is operating over capacity, with all 25 of its standard beds taken and emergency beds in constant use.
“We’re seeing a lot of new faces too, women not from Victoria,” said O’Brien, noting women seek shelter at the house for various reasons, from poverty to fleeing abuse. “They hear Victoria has good services but then get a surprise with the cost of living and lack of affordable housing here.”
Sandy Power, who stayed at Sandy Merriman House five years ago before moving into low-income housing, said the women-only shelter helped turn her life around. “I found myself with cancer overlapping an abusive relationship. I was a mess, withdrawn and untrusting,” Power said. “Coming here opened my eyes to see that there are people out there helping others, women helping women.”
Power said the house has become a home of sorts for her and a group of other women in their 50s who regularly meet for the free daily community lunch, which serves 2,000 meals a month.
“I try to help as much as I can and look out for other women. I see a lot of young women wandering around downtown, not knowing where to go. If I can help, I do,” she said.
Mary Carr, 46, came to the house two weeks ago after running out of money at a local hostel. She said she came to the Island from the Interior after an ex-boyfriend threatened her with a gun. She said living dorm-style is a bit of a shock but she’s thankful for her experience at the house.
“It’s all kinds of people, from all walks of life, we’re all the same when it comes to this stuff,” she said.
Another woman, who did not want her name used, said she’s been coming to the shelter off and on for more than 15 years.
“I have anxiety and do much better in a female atmosphere,” she said. For the past year, she’s alternated between Sandy Merriman, which only allows one-month stays at a time, and stints at Cool Aid’s Rock Bay Landing shelter.