Vulnerable Kootenay women, many of whom are the victims of long-term domestic violence, are without adequate support according to Nelson’s seventh annual Report Card on Homelessness, released this week.
“Women fleeing from violence in the home has been found to be one of the major causes of housing instability in Nelson. Women often flee with limited or even no resources, and they’re forced to live in substandard or unsafe conditions — if they can even find housing at all,” said Ann Harvey of the Nelson Committee on Homelessness.
Along with government officials, as well as representatives from the police and community, the committee unveiled their latest report Tuesday afternoon at the Best Western Hotel.
This year’s report has a two-pronged focus: women who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, and the continuing affordable housing crunch.
The committee believes the two issues are intimately related.
Violence and housing instability
According to Anna Maskerine, the coordinator of the Aimee Beaulieu Transition House, they routinely see Kootenay women in retreat.
“What we see most often is women fleeing abusive relationships, or maybe things are escalating at home and they need safety. She will leave the family home and come into the transition house,” Maskerine said.
“Maybe the police are involved, and they’ll pick him up and he’ll be left in cells overnight — at most — and then he will go home. At that point it becomes unsafe for her to return home, so she can either regain that home or she’s homeless.”
Other options, such as sharing space with other acquaintances, can easily put women at risk of victimization and sexual assault. In the report, there is a firsthand account of a woman with children who was victimized by a female housemate suffering from mental health issues.
“Most of what’s available to them is substandard. We see women moving into shared accommodations with people they don’t know. Sexual assaults take place, women are re-victimized. They’re very vulnerable in these situations.”
Maskerine is frustrated, because according to her the government isn’t providing the housing and resources these women need. That means many are forced to remain in dire poverty, unable to escape their abusers.
According to the report card, last year the Transition House had to turn away 118 people, including 91 women and 27 children.
Specialized victim services’ representative Sarah Bolton noted there is a pressing need for second stage housing, because women who successfully get into the shelter are only given 30 days to find suitable accommodations before being asked to move on.
“One month is not a lot of time to get your whole life organized, especially when you’re dealing with multiple kids and there aren’t any options,” she said. “There are huge barriers.”
Lowest vacancy rate in BC
A healthy vacancy rate is generally agreed to be approximately three per cent. When CHMC, Canada’s national housing agency released their study in October, Nelson’s rate sat at 0.6 per cent — the lowest in BC.
“The Regional District of Central Kootenay grew by only 4.6 per cent, but 38 per cent of the district’s population growth was within Nelson. As Nelson continues to grow, it is likely that this growth will create increased housing demand,” reads the report.
On top of that, they found fewer than a dozen three-bedroom units exist. That’s less than they need to generate a statistic, and means women with multiple kids have nearly no available options.
And during that time, rents have increased.
“Individuals and families looking for rental housing faced average advertised rental increases over this past year of 8.3 per cent for one-bedroom units ($836), 4.9 per cent for two-bedroom apartments ($1,038) and a big 20 per cent increase for two bedroom houses ($1,236),” reads the report.
“For lone parent families and families on fixed incomes or a minimum or low wage it is a big challenge. Many leave Nelson.”
Currently, 46.8 per cent of Nelsonites pay more than 30 per cent of their income for shelter costs.
Poverty reduction strategy
In a letter signed by co-chairs Cheryl Dowden and Phyllis Nash, the Nelson Committee on Homelessness notes BC is currently the only province without a poverty reduction strategy and assert that’s the primary reason women are being put at risk.
“Canada does not have an affordable housing strategy. This is an election year on the federal level and an opportunity for all of us as citizens to make our priorities clear. It is our chance to be specific about the kind of Canada we want to live in,” they wrote.
The report suggests urging municipal councils to create a standards of maintenance bylaw as indicated in Nelson’s official community plan.
“It would need to include limits of rental increases for required maintenance. Another possible action is ensuring that developers pay a per-door fee on condo developments that is directed to affordable housing.”
They also encourage residents to write letters to their Member of Parliament, and candidates for the federal election.
“Let them know it is not acceptable to you that women (as a single demographic) are not seen as an at-risk population needing more supports and housing options due to intimate partner violence or sexual violence. It is also not acceptable that we do not have a national housing policy and corresponding programs.”
But they also say “there’s much more work to be done” and lay the blame for the current crisis squarely at the feet of the federal government.
“The rise of homelessness in Canada can be traced directly back to the withdrawal of the federal government’s investment in affordable housing, and pan-Canadian cuts to welfare several decades ago.”
It warns that Canada could lose 365,000 low-income households within the next 20 years. In 1989, Canadians contributed $115 per person to federal housing investments. That dropped to $60 per person by 2013.
It demonstrates that social housing is the cheapest way to address homelessness when compared with rent supplementation, providing shelter beds and the cost of keeping an individual in prison or jail.
Raise the rates
During the report card presentation, the panel was asked what needs to change to address both the affordable housing crisis and assist women in need. All agreed there is a desperate need to raise the provincial rates of income assistance.
“That may not solve it completely, but it will definitely help in so many ways,” said homeless outreach worker Vanessa Alexander. “They’ve been the same since 2007, and it just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s completely unacceptable that anyone should have to choose between shelter or food.”
“We all know that. We know none us could live on that amount of money, so why has it remained the same for eight years?”
A member of the audience urged everyone present to take part in BC.’s Raise the Rates campaign, which aims to address the level of poverty and homeless in BC.
Share the report
This year’s homelessness report is small enough to forward to someone in an email, and is available for wide distribution. The authors hope readers will feel compelled to share with friends, family members and anyone in the community — and to start a dialogue about the findings.
It features firsthand accounts of women fleeing violence, letters from community members, statistics and proposed solutions.
This year’s Homelessness Action Week is October 11 to 17, followed by a Community Connect Day on Saturday, Nov. 21 at Central School Gym.
You can download the report at nelsoncares.ca.