Violence against women is worldwide. Women's homelessness is also worldwide. Often the two go together.
For years, Canadian governments have responded to women’s homelessness in two different ways. One provides supports to women living with a violent partner (domestic violence). The other is available to women and people who identify as women who experience homelessness for other reasons.
This distinction masks several features that these two publicly-funded programs have in common. Both are underfunded and full to overflowing. They frequently have to turn away people who need help. As well, even though only one of the two services references violence, the people who use either service have experience of violence, though not necessarily domestic violence.
These similarities in the two services are coming to light partly because some community agencies provide both kinds of services. Research has also helped. This post introduces two studies that have recently been published. The researchers interviewed people who were using a domestic violence or a homelessness service. Both studies were carried out in the last two years, during the COVID emergency.
One study focussed on domestic violence services in and around Toronto, Ontario. Domestic violence services include shelters, which provide temporary housing, as well as outreach workers who support women who continue to live at home with their violent partner.
When COVID arrived, both services had to change how they assisted their clients very quickly.
Before the pandemic, outreach workers met with their clients in community settings (think community centres, coffee shops, etc). When these settings closed, the idea of ending support to clients was unthinkable. Instead, the outreach workers figured out new ways to connect with their clients while they were complying with the public health instructions to stay at home.
For example, when clients were having a bad day with their partners, they put a towel outside their home to signal that they needed help. Outreach workers picked up the signal during regular drive-bys.
At the same time, more and more people were calling to report abuse and asking for support.
The second study from Waterloo Region, also in Ontario, involved the second group of services, which are provided to women and gender diverse people experiencing homelessness (ie. they were not specifically domestic violence services). This study invited women and gender-diverse people to speak about their experience of violence while homeless.
The results leave no doubt that women and gender diverse people who use homelessness services in general also experience violence, not just those accessing domestic violence support programs. 44% of the people who participated in the study experienced violence on a daily basis. Over 90% experienced violence at least once a week.
This research sheds some light on a woman’s decision to live with a violent partner. It shows that leaving a domestic violence situation provides no assurance that violence will end. As well, the research shows that homelessness services provided to any woman or gender-diverse individual should assume experience of violence.
This post touches on just one aspect of the findings in these reports. They will be of interest in any jurisdiction where services are provided to women and gender diverse people who are homeless.
Both reports also demonstrate how to involve people with experience, particularly when the goal is to understand violence. Their ‘lived experience’ positions them well to identify challenges in current service models, and to offer practical solutions to make services work better.
You can access the Toronto study of Violence Against Women services at the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions: Adapting the violence against women systems response to the COVID-19 pandemic: an overview of results from the MARCO VAW Study
The Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge study is published by Project Willow: “Don’t tell them you’re homeless”: Experiences of gender-based violence among women experiencing homelessness in Waterloo Region