The desperate hunt for a place to live during a housing shortage can quickly become a dangerous failure to find safe shelter for victims of domestic violence.
Such stranded victims, forced to remain in abusive situations because there is simply nowhere to go, are part of a hidden crisis that’s seldom considered when a housing crunch impacts major cities like Calgary, says a UCalgary researcher and expert on domestic violence.
“It is a real crisis — and what’s happening is because of the diversity of needs and there is not enough space in women’s shelters,” says Lana Wells, associate professor in UCalgary's Faculty of Social Work and Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence.
“Women’s shelters were originally designed for short-term stays, and when there is no affordable housing it’s a domino effect, creating a bottleneck in emergency shelters as there are no affordable housing options for women experiencing abuse.”
Wells says the bottleneck in the support system, due to a lack of affordable homes, means victims have no option but to endure the abuse.
“Finances and the ability to find housing is a key consideration in decision-making when you want to leave an abusive relationship,” she says.
“People often ask, ‘Why don’t women just leave?’ and this is a huge barrier right now, in that there is no housing to go to. They’re trapped.”
It’s an especially volatile situation coming on the heels of a countrywide spate of domestic violence that started at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and may be continuing as a result of inflation and other societal pressures.
The Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (ACWS) said demand for domestic violence shelters increased by 36 per cent in 2021-22, with more than 19,000 requests for shelter unable to be granted due to lack of space.
Recent figures suggest that while the spike in number of victims has peaked, the severity and complexity of abuse is rising, says Wells.
Changes needed and soon
The latest figures released by The City of Calgary state the average cost to rent a home has grown by 40 per cent since 2020, and an emergency meeting of City Council in mid-September resulted in a new strategy hoped to relieve the pressure.
Council passed an incentive program to create new secondary suites, opened unused city land for new housing units, and adopted new zoning rules to allow row houses and duplexes anywhere in the city.
But changes will take time, and Wells says the solution for victims of abuse will require political will along with public and private sectors working together.
“We need all governments working together. We need more affordable housing stock, we need rent subsidies to follow the people, we need municipal policies to change and be flexible. We need to prioritize this issue,” she says.
“Affordable housing is critical for women who are experiencing domestic violence or intimate partner violence, and it’s just another risk factor that keeps people in dangerous relationships because they have nowhere to go.”
Move faster to solve the crisis
As city council and other levels of government work to solve a housing crisis that’s impacting all Canadians to some degree, Wells says we need to move faster as a society on this issue.
“Housing is the basis of stability for an individual or family. Every person deserves to experience peace and security within their home, and that’s not happening for a lot of women.”