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Part 1: Domestic abuse and poverty: ‘How am I going to survive?’

Part 1 of five-part series
Advocacy groups say domestic abuse is driving women and children out of their homes. For example, the Victoria Transition House received 2,037 calls to its crisis line in 2014 — directly leading to 129 women and 59 children who were fleeing abuse to stay in accommodation provided by the organization.

For seven years, she endured physical and mental abuse from her husband. Isolated as they travelled to foreign countries for his work, she never saw an out. Until one day, after he hit her and locked her out of the house, she went for a walk and decided to stop at a church for help.

The police were called. He was charged. And what followed was surprisingly harder than the abuse itself: Years of insecure housing and poverty.

“My biggest fear was having to do everything on my own, knowing I’d have to take care of my daughter,” said the 34-year-old woman, who did not want her name used for safety reasons.

“At one point, I told the transition house I was going home and they asked me if I was sure. I was so ashamed. When I told my family, they said don’t go back.”

She moved from Toronto to Victoria to stay with a relative but ended up having to pay exorbitant rent, then being pressured to leave. She was able to get a transitional housing spot at the Cridge Centre for the Family but will have to find a new place to live with her daughter in the next six months when her three-year stay is up.

Read the Hidden Poverty series

“I’m hoping to get B.C. Housing for at least a while,” she said.

Victims who flee domestic abuse are often left with few resources and find themselves homeless. As shelter numbers are at record highs in Victoria this year, advocacy organizations cite abuse as a major driver of homelessness in the city.

“All of the women who come here are fleeing abuse,” said Parm Kroad, deputy director of the Victoria Women’s Transition House Society. “Most of them are in limbo and not sure what to do. Some want to return [home] and almost all are working on a really limited income. Their biggest question is: ‘How am I going to survive?’ ”

Makenna Reilly, executive director of the society, said the issue of resources is complicated by the abusers who often try to prevent the women from getting access to their finances and their children to get them to return home.

“It’s a very difficult situation to be in,” she said.

From January to November of this year, Victoria police received 1,251 calls for domestic disturbances. Saanich received 789 in the same period. In Saanich, about 15 per cent of the calls involved an assault or violence. In both departments, the number of domestic calls has gone down in the past five years.

But not all women who experience domestic abuse call the police, or have someone call on their behalf.

In 2014, the Victoria Transition House received 2,037 calls to its crisis line. These calls led directly to the 129 women and 59 children fleeing abuse to stay at the organization’s 18-bed house for the maximum allowable period of one month.

“We would love to be able to extend the stays but there is a wait-list and there are always people in emergency situations,” said Kroad, noting this year the shelter waitlist was inexplicably high. In the summer, it had 20 families waiting for emergency shelter.

Kroad said some women are lucky enough to find subsidized housing, but most end up on wait-lists for up to a year. In the interim, they might be forced to couch surf, stay in hotels or market rentals they can’t afford. The living standards can be substandard or even unsafe.

“Housing is really tight in Victoria. It’s a huge barrier to women [fleeing abuse],” she said. “When they leave the shelter, the support is dropped and most are expected to find housing.”

According to a report by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, a one-night shelter count in the city found 962 adults and 116 children staying in emergency housing. Of the 78 people turned away from shelters that night, 39 were women and 12 were children.

“We always have a waitlist a mile long,” said Louise Neufelt of the Cridge. “More people are applying than we can house.”

Similarly, Christine O’Brien at Sandy Merriman House for women said the shelter is operating over capacity, with all 25 beds and often four emergency beds in use.

“In the past two months, we’ve had at least 12 new people we’ve never seen come in,” she said. The shelter, run by Cool Aid Society, serves all women in need and is considered low-barrier — meaning, unlike transition houses, it will accept people who are using drugs or alcohol. However Merriman House will not house children. O’Brien said a good portion of the women they see are fleeing domestic abuse, many referred from transition houses, hospital and police.

One woman staying at the shelter said she used to own a home, have a job and live a normal life before she ended up on the streets of Victoria.

“You don’t realize what you have until it’s gone,” said Carol, 52, not her real name. She fled an abusive relationship in Ontario last year after her partner gambled away their finances and punched her in the face one day. When she went to stay with a friend, he found her. So she cobbled together some cash and took the Greyhound to B.C.

“I came to start a new life and it turned out to be nothing but hell,” she said. After her money ran out staying in hotels, she ended up on the streets of Vancouver. “I’d go to these church shelters and it would be 90 guys and 10 girls on mats.”

She decided to try her luck in Victoria a few months ago but spent the first few nights wandering the streets at night and looking for places to nap in the day.

“I was so hungry, at one point, I saw a piece of pizza on a bench with one bite out of it and I ate the rest. I never would have done that in my old life,” Carol said. She ended up staying at Rock Bay Landing a few nights and when a space came up at Sandy Merriman she said it was like winning the lottery.

“Now I’m working on an action plan to get my life together. I want to be independent,” she said.

Follow our series

• Sunday: Childhood poverty and the single-parent trap

• Tuesday: The growing concern of the city’s underemployed and underpaid

• Wednesday: An aging population in financial limbo and a housing crisis

• Friday: Small changes coming and big changes needed to address local poverty