Women and Homelessness
Homelessness definitely has a stereotype: a single, older adult male asking for change on the city streets. However, women make up 27.3% of the overall homeless population in Canada.
As we continue to persevere and adapt to the challenges of Covid-19, it is important that we acknowledge the hardships that women, girls and gender diverse peoples experiencing homelessness face on a daily basis. Without a door to lock safely behind them, women are at great risk of physical, emotional and psychological harm.
What are the challenges?
EMPLOYMENT & INCOME
The pandemic has pushed women’s participation in the labour force down to its lowest level in three decades. A recent report by RBC shows 1.5 million Canadian women lost their jobs in the first two months of the pandemic. Women are being hardest hit because they tend to work in industries — hospitality and food services, retail, educational services, health care and social assistance — most affected by closures, earnings losses and layoffs.
Women-led households are dependent on reliable and affordable childcare. Women are more likely to leave work for maternity, child care or elder care, causing an extended break in their employment. This can lead to a loss of networks, connections and confidence.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AND ABUSE
Women also experience higher rates of domestic violence. Violence against women by intimate partners is often the cause of homelessness. The Canadian Women’s Foundation estimates that, on any given night in Canada, 3,491 women (often with children) seek refuge in emergency shelters because it isn’t safe at home.
Research also shows that women who have experienced domestic violence are often dealing with depression and PTSD, and will “face significant discrimination from landlords when trying to find a home”.
Women who don’t have a home face higher rates of physical, sexual and emotional abuse than women who are housed. This is often the cause of mental health issues.
Homeless women are living with mental illness at much higher rates than the general population. About 75% of homeless women struggle with disorders such as anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.
Maintaining good physical health is another common challenge that homeless women face. Accessing menstrual products, personal hygiene products, and a reliable private place for self-care is difficult at the best of times. During a pandemic, it can be a fulltime (and sometimes impossible) job.
Similarly, without access to essential medical care and supplies, pregnant women face potential health complications. Things like maintaining good nutrition and having regular visits with a doctor can be difficult for homeless mothers-to-be, putting their health and the health of their baby at risk.
Women are more likely to experience what is called ‘hidden homelessness’. This could mean staying in an abusive relationship to avoid living on the street, short-term stays with friends or relatives, trading sex for a place to live, or sharing a living space with others well beyond its capacity.
Women facing hidden homelessness will often cycle through whatever options they have – couch-surfing, the shelter system, and time on the street, etc. – as a way to avoid overstaying their welcome while struggling to get back on their feet. These examples of hidden homelessness make it difficult to accurately estimate the number of women and families experiencing homelessness in Canada.
Fatima House: New Shelter, New Beginnings
Shelters designed specifically for women and their individual needs are essential. More and more women in Toronto are experiencing homelessness, using shelters or are precariously housed. In addition, there is an acute lack of women-only, trauma-informed housing services in Toronto.
In response to this growing need, Fred Victor is opening Fatima House – a shelter designed specifically for women experiencing homelessness and poverty. It is a newly-renovated, accessible and pet-friendly shelter that will house up to 52 women (the current occupancy is reduced due to COVID-19 precautions). The shelter offers meals, counselling and healthcare services, as well as housing support. Staff onsite will work with the women to help them secure and transition to a permanent and affordable place to live.
The shelter program at Fatima House is moving from the Women’s Hostel at 86 Lombard St. At this location, Fred Victor staff supported 50-60 women move on to permanent housing every year.
THE COMMUNITY RESPONSE
Sometimes new shelters like Fatima House have met resistance from local residents. But in this case, there has been an outpouring of compassion and encouragement from the neighbouring community – from donated welcome baskets, to offers of volunteer support.
A student group from the nearby St. Mary Catholic Academy (SMCA) created personalized welcome cards for the shelter’s incoming residents – featuring messages, inspirational quotes and poems. One SMCA Student remarked, “I hope the cards can make the women feel happy, and I hope they know that there are other women looking after them in the community.”
An ongoing community engagement process has been integral to the positive response from area residents. A Community Liaison Committee, facilitated by the City of Toronto, has provided resident representatives, businesses, and community organizations with opportunities to be involved in the successful integration of the shelter into the neighbourhood.
Fatima House represents a new beginning. For the women moving in, it is an opportunity to begin rebuilding their lives. It is also a step forward in ending the stigma surrounding homelessness and homeless shelters. The high-end and intentional design of the space, as well as the extensive wrap-around services offered by the staff there, will help to change the image of what a shelter should be.
In addressing the need for shelters like Fatima House, Sylvia Braithwaite, Director of 24-hr Services at Fred Victor, says, “People deserve to have a space where they can get help when they’re in crisis.” She continues, “If they can come into a clean, beautiful space with resources, and a welcoming community, it tells them they are being treated with dignity – and they deserve to have a space like this to get back on their feet.”
HOW CAN I HELP?
Give a Women a Heartfelt Gift
Moving into a place like this is an exciting time and a big moment for the women. However, for many of them, Fatima House may be their first home in a long time. We are inviting all readers to make a donation today that will go toward Fatima House Fund – a heartfelt gift that includes all the basic necessities for someone starting over and moving forward.