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Greater Victoria facing domestic violence shelter space crisis

Emergency shelters fill up in wake of pandemic-fuelled household stress
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Demand for spaces at domestic violence shelters in Sooke and elsewhere in Greater Victoria has surged in the past six or seven months, according to Sooke Transition House Society executive director Crystal Gelsingler. (iStock)

Women fleeing domestic violence in Sooke are being sent to other communities or facilities as transition houses and shelters in Greater Victoria struggle to meet demand fuelled by the pandemic and the housing crisis.

Tracy Schetterer, managing director of Annie’s House with the Sooke Transition House Society, said she gets new callers every day looking for room.

“There’s a real crisis, and we’re struggling here, and the women are struggling. They can’t find anywhere to go,” she said. “Just today, I’ve had to refer three women elsewhere.”

Sooke’s Transition House Society is full – the house has a maximum capacity of nine, including children. Some women are being put up in hotels, while others are being directed to Victoria, Schetterer said.

But houses in the city are also struggling for space, said Susan Howard, development and communications director at the Victoria Women’s Transition House Society.

The situation changes so quickly that some days they are full, and on others, they have several spots available, she said.

Like the Sooke one, the Victoria shelter had been empty at the beginning of the pandemic but has since seen demand rocket back up.

“At times of disaster, floods, forest fires, wildfires, earthquakes, even though there may be intimate partner violence and abuse happening in the homes, women will just stay put,” Howard said. “We were told at the beginning of the pandemic stay home, don’t go out. That’s exactly what our women were doing. So we were very concerned.”

READ MORE: Greater Victoria women’s shelter adds second safe harbour

The Victoria Women’s Transition House Society’s primary shelter usually has a capacity of 18 women and children, but it was rolled back to 12 due to the pandemic.

The society was able to open a secondary temporary transition house with 42. Women stay for 30 days, and Howard said they usually stick to the time limit because they want to make sure other women aren’t left without any service.

Clients often stay with friends or family after 30 days, but it’s also common for women to return to their abuser then return to the shelter, sometimes several times. Howard said the society does its best to find people permanent housing, but with current rents, that can be difficult.

Other shelter operators in Victoria include the Cridge Transition House for Women and the Greater Victoria Women’s Shelter Society, which runs Margaret Laurence House. Cridge Transition House manager Marlene Goley said they have a waitlist, noting that some women waiting for a spot wind up staying with their abusers.

Others head up-Island to Duncan or Nanaimo to flee the violence or over to Salt Spring Island.

“But if they’re working here, or the kids are going to school – it’s hard for them to get up there, for one, and they can’t really quit their job, but then they have to commute a couple of hours,” Schetterer said.

Demand has gone up partly due to the stress of the pandemic causing mental health and financial issues, according to Sooke Transition House Society executive director Crystal Gelsingler.

Another major factor, noted Schetterer, is the lack of affordable housing in the city and the long waitlists for public housing. That lack of affordable housing means women cannot move out of the shelter, Goley added, so the typical 30-day stay has turned into six months in some cases – which leaves others waiting.

“We’re at full capacity, but our annual numbers are down because not as many women are moving through; there’s nowhere to go,” Goley said.

Donations do go up around this time of year, Gelsingler said, both monetary and physical goods. One new initiative they have rolled out is the bursary account, which acts as a reserve if women need help in an emergency.

“It’s nice to have the opportunity to jump in when, when things are needed,” she said. “We’re able to help with things that we weren’t able to help with before.”

The fund started in May, paid for emergency dental work for one woman who was suffering from domestic abuse and covered another woman’s heating bill when her power got shut off.

The Sooke society would like to open second-stage transition housing, where women can go after staying in the emergency domestic violence shelter, Schetterer said, but high housing prices make that problematic. Howard said the Victoria society is working on opening up transition housing in the West Shore to a building being ready in the next six to eight months.

While shelters may be primarily full, crisis lines are available 24 hours a day to offer support and help create a safety plan. Anyone in immediate danger should call 911. A woman not in immediate danger can call the Victoria Women’s Transition House 24-hour crisis line at 250-385-6611 for resources and help.

Women can also access outreach services, and those looking to volunteer can call the Cridge Transition House crisis line at 250-479-3963.

Men in need of help and resources can call the Pacific Centre for the Family at 1-866-478-8357 or the Men’s Trauma Centre at 1-866-793-6367.

READ MORE: Pandemic shines spotlight on intimate partner violence in Victoria

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