I have lived with abuse. It’s not always violent like in the movies, but it can be. Sometimes it means blood, broken bones, and bruises that bloom purple across your body. Sometimes it means words that belittle and control, that shrink you down to a speck. I used to lock myself in the bathroom, let the cold floor soothe my hot shame: I wanted to leave, but the bonds that tie the abused to their abusers are strong and tangled. More than that: sometimes there is simply no place to go.
Intimate partner violence is broadly defined as behaviour that causes physical, sexual, or psychological harm. In Toronto, my very expensive hometown, about 10 per cent of women live with physical abuse, and 20 per cent live with non-physical abuse. In 2013, nearly 5,000 Toronto women reported experiencing abuse (though it’s likely many cases go unreported). We are not a small group — and there are too many of us for the chronically overburdened shelter system to handle.
There are many reasons abused women don’t access shelters, but the most common reason is that those shelters are too often full. About 75 per cent of women who’ve sought shelter beds or transitional housing this year have been turned away, according to Women’s Shelters Canada. Meanwhile, the system accommodates more than 80 new women a day. We need more shelters, that much is obvious. Less obvious: more shelters is nowhere near enough.
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To end violence against women — not merely triage it — we need long-term solutions, including safe and affordable housing. “Violence is not a one-time event,” writes lead researcher Amanda Dale in a 2008 YWCA discussion paper, “and shelters, however critical an emergency response, are not the only answer to the problem.” In fact, one-third of women staying in shelters at any given time have stayed there before, according to a 2012 Statistics Canada study. That same study noted that only 22 per cent of women who leave the shelter system have a safe place of their own to go.
The affordable housing crisis affects one in five Canadians, many of whom live precariously. But imagine what it’s like to live that way when you don’t have control of your own finances, or your partner deliberately trashes your credit, or you’re not allowed to work — all common scenarios in abusive relationships. In other words, when the housing crisis collides with the abuse crisis, chaos breaks out the party hats and streamers.
So how are women mired in abusive relationships supposed to break free? If they can’t leave, how are they expected to live?
Of course, some don’t. Between 2004 and 2013, 58 women in Toronto were killed by their partners. The stigma against abused women who stay only makes things worse. Nearly 40 per cent of Ontarians believe women are responsible for the consequences of an abusive relationship if they stay, according to a 2015 Angus Reid poll. More than 65 per cent believe women exaggerate or outright lie about their abuse. Just, ugh.
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It’s like a guilt-shame-blame ouroboros — an infinite loop in which we expect women to leave, then make it almost impossible for them to do so. We say things like: Well, if it were me and I would never and How could she? Spare me. None of these judgments account for the ways abuse can chip away at you, turning your inner monologue into a chorus of I-can’t-I-can’t-I-can’t.
But maybe if women knew they had a safe, affordable place to go they would leave sooner. As it is, abused women take an average of seven attempts to break things off completely, according to the US National Domestic Violence Hotline — sometimes for financial reasons, other times because the risk of violence is high. My biggest obstacle was fear, but the source felt infinite: Would I be safe? Where would I get first and last rent? How would I pay rent after that? Would I get sued for abandoning my lease? Cue: staying.
Thankfully it seems the Ontario government recognizes that building affordable housing capacity is the easiest way to prevent — and hopefully one day to end — abuse. In March 2016, it passed a new law allowing tenants to end their lease on 30 days’ notice if they or their child have experienced abuse. And a recently launched two-year pilot program has made $500 monthly housing subsidies and $2,500 first-and-last deposits available to a small number of abuse survivors. The money comes with many conditions, including some problematic ones — like having up-to-date income tax returns and a household income that doesn’t exceed low-income thresholds — but it’s a start.
Still, the pilot program is just one hopeful star in a vast, inky universe of problem. We can’t meet the need for affordable housing with a pilot program that could take years to scale up, if it scales up at all. And numerous surveys have indicated that, while we wait for something to happen, many women will choose homelessness over living in abusive homes. Even that reprieve, such as it is, will likely be short-lived: a 2007 Street Health report on Toronto’s homeless population found that nearly 40 per cent of homeless women had been physically assaulted in the past year. One in five had been raped.
Sometimes, I let myself have this fantasy: I get to rewrite the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, always adding, never subtracting. I get a fancy feathered pen and maybe a serious-looking robe (for dramatic effect, dahling). And I get to declare that affordable, safe housing is as much a human right as a life without violence is.
Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus.