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Class Work, Health & Wellness, Social Issues

Breaking the silence: The effectiveness of women’s shelters

By Billy Courtice

A new research study aims to measure the effectiveness of women’s shelters across Ontario to encourage more government funding, Western University reporter Billy Courtice reports in an upcoming radio doc.

Courtice headed north to the scenic town of Goderich to get a grasp on life in the Huron Women’s Shelter. The doc features a tour of the shelter  a shelter occupant who has been in and out of the shelter’s care since 1998.

Shelter director aims to increase provincial funding

At its busiest, Melody Tigani, the residential service manager at the Huron Women’s Shelter in Goderich, Ont. may walk into her office to find a woman sleeping on her couch.

Last October, two months after the town was ravaged by an F-3 tornado, the shelter had a 178 per cent occupancy rate. The crowded situation is not unique to Goderich – women’s shelters across Ontario are housing more occupants than the province is funding them for, a new study shows.

The study comes after Huron’s executive director, Michele Hansen, was required to provide research after she applied for grant money for her shelter, and found that there was none available.

At Huron, a relatively small shelter, the Ministry of Community and Social Services provides funding for 10 beds. But the shelter offers 13 beds, five roll-away mattresses, four cribs, and a sofa, for emergencies.

The average Ontario women’s shelter offers 21 beds, but it is “common” for that number to exceed the province’s designation of number of beds, and the funding the Ministry offers, the research shows.

The Ministry grants nearly $200,000 to Huron each year, covering two-thirds of their costs. That leaves the shelter to raise $100, 000 on their own, Hansen said in a presentation at Western University Monday.

Hansen, along with Nadine Wathen of Western University, have partnered with 68 English-speaking Ontario women’s shelters to produce the Ontario Shelter Research Project, an evaluation of the function of women’s shelters in the province.

Hansen is producing research with a $248,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation

Hansen is producing research with a $248,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation

The research highlighted a growing gap between provincial funding and actual shelter costs. Operating costs rose roughly 13 per cent to $88.8 million from 2004-2005 to 2006-2007, while Ministry funding increased by just 9.5 per cent, accounting for $72.8 million, according to the study. That gap continues to expand today.

The researchers’ goal is to cement the shelters’ importance in their respective communities in hope of obtaining more suitable provincial funding.

“Having evidence-based research that demonstrates what we do makes a difference,” Hansen said. The project found that the public’s opinion of women’s shelters was hazy, and disconnected from the reality within the shelters.

“There’s a public perception of shelters and what they do and then there’s actuality,” Wathen said. “And the actuality is actually far more complex.”

Most of Ontario’s shelters also provide 24-hour crisis lines, food and clothing, health and legal services, children’s recreation, and a plethora of other resources, aside from simply a safe haven for women. Many, including Huron Women’s Shelter, also provide housing options for women as they prepare to move out of the shelters.

The study is the first attempt to evaluate the province’s shelters, and was made possible through a $248,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Hansen said.

Researchers have completed the project’s first phase, which consisted of interviews with executive directors, staff members, and occupants in the 68 shelter systems. Once results of the study are released publically in the spring, they plan to begin a second phase, which would specify “success outcomes” for each individual shelter.

Those outcomes vary among locations, based on funding and resources available. But Hansen and Wathen said the everyday successes at women’s shelters have been ignored too long by policy-makers.

“I don’t think we need to prove that shelters save women’s lives,” Wathen said. “I just think people need to understand the extent to which that work happens.”

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About Western Journalism

We're members of the University of Western Ontario's master of arts in journalism program. Our blog represents a common theme in stories through our third term.

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