Written for The Record by Shantal Otchere
(Appeared in the print edition of the Waterloo Region Record on March 10, 2021)
COVID-19 has escalated the need to address our housing system’s gendered fault lines amid spikes in domestic violence cases and soaring unemployment rates among women.
On its surface, a housing strategy designed to keep people out of shelters seems logical. But a closer look at the region’s homelessness prevention and diversion model reveals a policy, which aims to provide “individualized” solutions, that isn’t equipped to address the distinct needs of under-housed women.
This is concerning for Elizabeth Clarke, CEO of the YW Kitchener-Waterloo— a major service provider for people experiencing homelessness in the region.
“I believe we have created shelters and programs that don’t just fail to serve women, but actually perpetuate their homelessness. And that’s not just here in this region, but everywhere where we have studied men and men’s homelessness,” she explained.
“Because men are more visible when they’re homeless they’re easier to count and they’re easier to research. We’ve lost services over the course of this shelter care experiment because they’ve all gone over to the men’s programs, where the simple numbers say they’re most needed.”
People at risk of becoming homeless or already experiencing homelessness are encouraged to call Prevention and Diversion, a referral service established in the region to avert people away from entering the shelter system when possible and point them in the direction of other housing options. It is the first point of access to shelter services for single adults.
Through a series of questions dispensed by staff over the phone, callers are either propelled along a path toward securing a few night’s sleep in a shelter bed or turned around and urged to reconsider square one.
A Prevention and Diversion assessment template published by Waterloo Region outlines questions used to evaluate urgent housing need. The template, upon which the current Prevention and Diversion framework is likely modelled, reads like a script, helping staff persuade callers not already on the street to stay put.
“Where did you sleep last night?”
“Is it possible or safe for you to go back to your former address?”
“What resources would you need to remain in your current housing?”
But, Clarke affirms, a housing strategy that prioritizes getting people off the street doesn’t prioritize women.
For women, found most often to circumvent shelters in favour of couch surfing, staying in unsafe relationships or doing everything they can in order to avoid rough sleeping or being separated from children, a one-size-fits-all model applied to identifying homelessness leaves them stuck in a cycle of poverty and vulnerable to violence and abuse.
“Women, very frequently, will be in circumstances that are very vulnerable. And, because of the situation that the woman’s in, she’s not likely to express the danger that she may be in,” said Clarke.
“So, this idea that couch surfing is better than being in a shelter is, in my opinion, an economically driven decision rather than one that’s in the best interest of women.”
A ground-breaking report released last year details just how critical the problem of “less visible” homelessness, often described as “hidden homelessness”, is for women and youth across Canada, particularly for women and girls of colour.
“In all provinces and territories, women, girls, and gender diverse peoples experience some of the most severe forms of housing need. Black women, women of colour, Indigenous women, gender diverse peoples, (dis)abled women, poor women, LGBTQ2S+ peoples, sex workers, incarcerated women, newcomer women, and younger and older women are all disproportionately affected,” the report states.
Construction is set to begin this month on a 41-unit affordable housing site for women experiencing homelessness in the Kitchener and Waterloo regions.
With a pledge of $6.5 million from the Federal government to develop the facility as part of the Rapid Housing Initiative and land from the City of Kitchener, perhaps, this project will provide the beginnings of an innovative housing strategy that employs a gendered lens.
Plans for the development, which the YW Kitchener Waterloo will manage, includes allotting units to half the women on the region’s supportive housing waitlist. Families will have access to onsite crisis management, casework supports and visits from healthcare providers.
The nation’s current housing model misses the mark on addressing the needs of under-housed and unhoused women. But experts and researchers agree, a housing strategy that employs a gender equity lens can help pull more women out of precarity to stability.
“I think that what we need to see is a plan that doesn’t treat all homeless people as if they’re homeless men,” asserts Clarke.
Consider donating to the YW Kitchener-Waterloo today and help us house women and families in need through this especially difficult time.