October 2nd marks the International Day of Non-Violence, an initiative by the United Nations that seeks to disseminate the message of non-violence through education and public awareness, in the hopes of securing a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence. In honour of this initiative, it is critical to identify the multitude of ways violence manifests in our lives. One pervasive form of violence throughout the world and particularly Canadian society is Domestic Violence.
Domestic Violence (DV) can be defined as physical, sexual or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse as well as by other family members, or by a partner’s family members. This type of violence can occur among heterosexual or LGBTQ2S couples and does not require sexual intimacy. DV does not discriminate, as individuals regardless of age, race, economic status, religion, sexual orientation or level of educational attainment can experience it.
To understand the magnitude of DV in our society and the many ways in which it touches those who experience it, the Canadian Women’s Foundation provides us with a helpful snapshot:
- Approximately every six days, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner. Out of the 83 police-reported intimate partner homicides in 2014, 67 of the victims—over 80%—were women.
- Women are about four times as likely as men to be victims of intimate partner homicide.
- Indigenous women are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violence than non-Indigenous women.
- On any given night in Canada, 3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters because it isn't safe at home.
- 70% of spousal violence is not reported to the police.
- Women who identified as lesbian or bisexual were three to four times more likely than heterosexual women to report experiencing spousal violence.
- One study found almost 40% of those who had experienced domestic abuse said it made it difficult for them to get to work, and 8.5% said that they lost their jobs because of it.
- Those experiencing DV sometimes stay with their abuser because they are financially dependent upon them; leaving an abusive relationship may involve a ‘choice’ between remaining with an abuser and falling into poverty and/or homelessness.
Domestic Violence & homelessness
Research shows that DV is commonly cited as the leading cause of homelessness for women, where one study found 38% of women reported becoming homeless immediately after separating from their partner. It is critical to note, however, that there is no single explanation that directly links the experience of DV to homelessness. Rather, a combination of factors such as the structural epidemic of unaffordable housing, a lack of adequate income and precarious employment (especially for women) as well as individual and relational factors (e.g. family break-up or domestic violence) all contribute to the risk of homelessness. In addition, system failures also contribute to homelessness, such as instances where shelters at full capacity are forced to turn unhoused survivors of DV away.
The cost of structural & system failures
As stated earlier, on any given night in Canada, 3,491 women and their 2,724 children turn to emergency shelters to escape violent households. This figure does not include the large proportion of those escaping DV who do not utilize emergency services, where for every “visibly” homeless person (i.e. at a shelter), an estimated 3.5 to 4 are “hidden” homeless, particularly women (i.e. couch surfing, with family or friends).
Emergency shelters are often the first line response for individuals who are looking for a safe place to stay. These accommodations can include either domestic violence shelters or homeless shelters. Domestic violence shelters are more ideal for those escaping DV, as the services found here are tailored more to the needs of those escaping DV as well as offer accommodations for a longer period of time. Whereas survivors of DV accessing homeless shelters may not receive DV specific services and may feel vulnerable to the gender-mixed environment.
Emergency shelters provide short-term accommodations ranging anywhere from a couple days to a couple months, yet accessing these accommodations can be a struggle and many seeking accommodations are turned away. For those fortunate enough to access emergency shelters, ideally individuals would then move on to transitional housing facilities that offer longer-term accommodations (e.g., 6 months to a year or more). At times, however, this fails to be the case.
Upon leaving emergency accommodations, one study asked 133 DV survivors departing emergency accommodations where they were departing to and found:
- 7% returned to their abuser.
- 21% had found accommodations without their abuser.
- 17% stated they had provisional accommodations (i.e. staying with friends or family).
- 8% reported that they were departing to another shelter or residential service.
- 4% reported going to a hospital.
- 24% stated it was unknown where they were going upon departure.
In addition to structural and system failures, DV survivors leaving their abusers are not a homogenous group, as their experiences in successfully leaving their abusers and accessing accommodations differ based on their ethnicity, sexual orientation, geographical location and citizenship status, to name a few. Research finds that women escaping DV who are of a lower socio-economic status, are facing mental illness (often due to the psychological distress of abuse, including depression & PTSD) and who are racialized face the highest rates of homelessness among women.
In the case of Indigenous women, this population has faced a long legacy of inequality as a direct result of Canada’s history of colonization. The intergenerational trauma of this history (i.e. the residential schools) still impacts Indigenous families, and specifically Indigenous women today. This is, in one way, evident by the fact that Indigenous women face higher rates of violence than non-Indigenous women, with rates of spousal assault against Indigenous women more than 3 times higher than those of non-Indigenous women. In leaving violent homes, Indigenous women face significant barriers, citing a lack of housing and accessible emergency services overall as barely existing in the rural north. Furthermore, Indigenous individuals escaping DV also face issues of racism, discrimination and lack of cultural understanding on the part of emergency service providers, thereby discouraging use.
Research on the experiences of LGBTQ2S individuals escaping DV also reveals significant difficulties in accessing accommodations they need, where structural forms of discrimination like homophobia, heterosexism and transphobia are reproduced even at the level of emergency accommodations. One study found that homophobia and transphobia on part of service providers, as well as police officers, act as barriers to seeking accommodations or help in escaping abusers. Furthermore, LGBTQ2S individuals also expressed a reluctance to utilize domestic violence shelters, as they have traditionally been geared towards servicing heterosexual women.
Citizenship status also acts as a significant barrier to service. Survivors of DV who are also newcomers are cited to be hesitant to report an abuser due to fear of deportation, a lack of knowledge regarding their rights, are financially dependent on their abuser or lack an awareness of community resources available to them.
Individuals fleeing DV who also are living with a disability often face significant challenges in accessing services. One study found shelters in older buildings may not be accessibility friendly, and that only 1 in 3 shelters were accessible and had services in place for those with physical and/or hearing impairments, health needs, visual impairment, or cognitive disabilities. The same study also found that individuals with mental illness and/or experiencing addiction may also be turned away from shelter accommodations.
Furthermore, having children, in some cases, acts as a barrier to accessing emergency services, as parents fear their children being apprehended by child welfare services when accessing shelter accommodations.
The cycle of homelessness
Many of those fleeing DV are often parenting and/or pregnant. Of concern here, then, is the impact of experiencing the stressors and violence of DV, and subsequently homelessness, on the children of those escaping DV. The literature confirms that the risk of youth and/or adult homelessness starts in childhood. Research demonstrates that involvement with child protection services, and high rates of foster care involvement are correlated with youth homelessness. Furthermore, traumatic childhood events are also strongly prevalent among adults experiencing homelessness.
Housing First, backed by an overwhelming amount of evidence from the U.S., Canada and Europe is increasingly regarded as a “Best Practice” when it comes to addressing homelessness. A Housing First approach simply means providing unhoused individuals with homes without being contingent upon ‘readiness’ or sobriety. Housing First also incorporates choice and self-determination, harm reduction, social and community integration and individualized support services as vital elements to providing an effective and realistic response to homelessness.
As Housing First promotes an individually tailored approach to the delivery of services, the prospect of developing a Housing First approach tailored to the unique experiences of individuals that is sensitive to sexual orientation, race, gender and/or mental health is promising. Homes for Women, for instance, provides a detailed analysis of how Housing First can work for women fleeing DV, as well as it does for men experiencing homelessness:
- Liaison with shelters to connect with survivors of DV departing emergency accommodations to permanent, affordable housing for themselves and their children through Housing First. Furthermore, attempts to reach hidden homeless populations (who are primarily women) are required to connect with Housing First programs.
- Provide women-only and girl-only space to ensure a sense of security, particularly for those traumatized by abuse.
- As the sharpest increase in homeless shelter use has been amongst families, homeless women with children need models that are responsive, recognizing needs such as child care, community supports, income and rental supports with proximity to schools.
- Protect parents from the threat of losing children to child welfare authorities.
- Provide organizations that utilize a Housing First framework in the rural north, where rates of women’s homelessness are high.
- A Housing First approach needs to work to ensure women and girls safely keep their housing and abusers are removed.
- Ensure service providers are sufficiently trained on issues regards DV as well as possess a cultural understanding of the populations they are servicing (e.g. Indigenous populations and people of colour).
- Housing options that enable women to maintain and/or re-establish their relationships with their children are critical.
In addition to inclusive, accessible, culturally and gender sensitive housing supports, structural policy solutions that involve a commitment to affordable housing, a living wage, non-precarious employment and accessible emergency services when needed are all critical steps that must be taken in combatting homelessness, particularly for survivors of DV.
Last but not least, it is crucial to note that DV cannot be eradicated solely by interventions focused on women or survivors of DV, but by aggressively promoting interventions aimed directly at the patriarchal (male dominance at a structural level) attitudes that facilitate DV. Such interventions should not only be directed to perpetrators of DV, but wider society as a whole.
If you or someone you know are facing issues of DV, please contact the service provider nearest you.