Challenges facing Violence Against Women Shelters in Ottawa

[Epistemic effort: I’ve had a month for digesting what I heard, but haven’t actually set time aside to think hard about the implications. I have done my best to cross-reference all the claims that I noted down, but there may still be some mistakes remaining, and there’s a chance that I completely misinterpreted something that was said.]

I went to a roundtable discussion on the challenges faced by women’s shelters in the Ottawa region mid-November, and I realized that I was incredibly privileged in that government regime changes generally don’t affect me.

What do I mean by that? Well, I think there’s this general consensus around my social class, that politics are mostly a form of entertainment, and all of the head political figures all kind of channel Zaphod Beeblebrox while some 50 year old white dude with 30 years in the public service and a job title like Assistant Deputy Chief Underminster of Finance actually controls everything. It turns out that I was very, very wrong, and it’s just that the “middle” class is kind of untouchable politically. The Ford administration has actually meant that some urgently needed social services are now underfunded or defunded entirely, with severe implications for the subaltern classes. There are changes, and people’s lives have objectively gotten shittier. I just didn’t see it.

This realization has made me change from ambivalence to disapproval of my fellow leftists who are/identify as accelerationists, who think that we should just burn the entire current structure down and start anew, because according to them the system in place has a net negative impact on the world. Now that I know that this is not the case, my reaction is “hey buddy if you’re going to burn down this system that millions of people depend upon for some reason or another, you better have a dang good reason, because the people whose lives will be upended the most, and for the worse, will be your poor, your disabled, and your oppressed, not the well-off relatives that you resent for being xenophobic.“

In the specific case of the roundtable, I learned that  women’s shelters in Ontario lost funding, meaning they either didn’t get enough to keep up with wages and inflation, or actually had to cut the number of beds that they had, which was already pathetically few to begin with. Whatever number you had in mind, it’s lower than that. There are 121 in Ottawa as of 2016. Women who flee often flee because they want to protect their children, so each woman that you take in will generally require 2-3 beds. Women stay for 3-6 months while they get their lives in order to move on. So. Ottawa, a city with a population of almost a million, can support approximately 50-60 abused women at a time, and zero men. I am willing to bet money that that is not close to enough. Ottawa is not a uniquely bad city when it comes to supporting battered women; in fact it may be better than average. Society just flat sucks, in general. (If this information made you update your mental model on the services your city provides for women, I regretfully inform you that you should make approximately the same update w/r/t homeless shelters, resources for refugees, subsidized/community housing, support for queer youth, CPS, and so on and so forth.)

The other incredibly shitty thing is that when it comes to supporting the subaltern classes, funding models are exceedingly zero sum at times. Three years ago, women’s’ shelters here were able to ring up 311 (the municipal help line) when they had a woman on the line who needed to get out, but no room in their shelter or in any other shelter in the city. The city would hook them up with a room for, not 3-6 months, but a decent chunk of time. Now, because of rising housing costs and an influx of refugees, the motels, city shelters, and overflow rooms are all full, all the time,  and that is no longer an option for the shelters. This, by the way, is the case even though the mayor, who honestly seems like a pretty cool guy, spent $6.4m over budget last year on shelters.

And, the week after I went to this roundtable, Ford started cutting watchdogs for the province left and right, because according to the party they were ineffectual and therefore a waste of taxpayer dollars. Watchdogs were brought up as a topic during the roundtable discussion as well. According to the panelists, in general they weren’t the most efficient form of advocacy, because it’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you. But it was still useful, and it was provided at no cost to the shelters. Now, the shelters are preparing  to scrape at the splintered bottoms of their barrels to pay for advocacy themselves. I don’t like that, but I am generally not a fan of anything that our current government is doing, so that’s not a big surprise.

Misc notes:

  • Cities don’t have enough money to do anything in the “best” way that we are taught at City Planning School. The way “housing first” is supposed to work: “step one when a person becomes homeless is to give them a stable source of housing, so that they can keep their stuff, have an address which is very important for applying to jobs, and not fall apart mentally.” The way “housing first” works because there are approximately like, negative four affordable units in the city: the city will give you a subsidy of $250 a month for housing. But. Only after you’ve spent more than a cumulative total of 2 years in a homeless shelter, and are not addicted to any substances (“clean”). It is very hard to be clean, if you’ve spent 2 years homeless. Also, homeless shelters are not safe for women generally, so only men stay for long periods of time. This means that men got 80% of the “housing first” subsidies. By the time you get a house because of the “housing first” policy, you already lost most things that a house was supposed to give you.
  • Another fun thing is that, landlords that are familiar with the housing first policy will deliberately push their rents above the affordable housing threshold, because they don’t want “troubled” tenants. I won’t say that landlords are scum because of this, because I can see where they’re coming from. But this goes back to how severely problematic rent-seeking, and the idea of housing as a form of investment/passive income, is.
  • This should go without saying, but battered women will make bad decisions sometimes, like going back to their abuser after their shelter stay. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t help them, because a) you don’t know their circumstances and b) you would likely do the same in their shoes. These women [a/n: I feel really uncomfortable with how the shelters speak of their clientele exclusively using female pronouns, but I mean, they’re women’s shelters.] are doing incredibly draining crisis management on a day-to-day basis. They’re trying to keep food on the table and their kids quiet so they don’t get beat up. Recovery is non-linear. Don’t hold this against them.
  • Lots of women will “hold out” until the shelters have a bed available for them.
  • A common misconception is that a women’s shelter is like, a large hall with 60 beds in one room. In general they’re like motels, with individual suites – some with connecting rooms too or a dividing wall that can be brought in if there are older kids who need their own space, etc. Lots of times, the kids don’t even know that they’re staying at a shelter of some kind, their mothers tell them that they’re just going on a mini staycation or something.
  • We know the solution for solving all these problems – for raising women out of poverty, for effectively transitioning them away from abusive relationships. Things like having beds immediately available, providing childcare, and ensuring that they can keep their pets with them (because they are beloved members of the family, and also something that the abuser can threaten/injure/kill if it is left behind) all help women stay away. The only problem is that we don’t have money, and in fact we are losing funding. Ain’t that a bitch.
  • This year has been especially bad for women. In general, one woman is killed every six days. In 2018, the figure has shot up to 2.5-3.
  • On the bright side, #metoo has had a visible impact, and more women are seeking out shelters – older women, wealthier women, immigrant women.

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