Calgary man who opened first shelter for abused men commits suicide after being forced to sell refuge

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

The apparent suicide of Earl Silverman, a longtime advocate for male victims of spousal abuse, is rippling through the men's rights movement.

Silverman was found hanging Friday in the garage of his recently-sold Calgary home, which he'd turned into Canada's first refuge for men fleeing abusive relationships.

The National Post reports Silverman closed the shelter last month because he could no longer afford to run it. He'd been turned down for federal and provincial assistance because, he believed, it catered to male victims and their children, the Post said.

The house's new owner, Steven Howitt, told the Post he helped Silverman move his belongings on Thursday. He returned Friday and found the body.

“I couldn’t have predicted this," said Howitt. "I got the sense that he was pretty frustrated that the shelter didn’t work out. He was frustrated with the government that he didn’t get any help."

The Calgary Herald described Silverman as a "gruff, bearded and often controversial figure," and a legend among men's rights advocates who felt their problems with domestic violence were ignored and that they were unfairly treated in child-custody and support cases by the courts.

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Silverman traced his advocacy to his experience in a 20-year relationship with an abusive wife, when he discovered that there were no services for men like him. He opened the Men's Alternative Safe House in his northeast Calgary home three years ago, the Herald said.

The privately funded refuge, which had housed 15 men and two children during its operating life, was closed in March. Silverman paid much of the expenses out of his own pocket.

“I personally can’t afford to operate the safe house anymore,” Silverman told Calgary's Beacon News web site at the time. “Family violence has gone from a social issue to only a woman’s issue. So any support for men is interpreted as being against women.”

Social agencies refused to recognize the need for his shelter, Silverman said. A spokeswoman for Alberta Human Services told Beacon News there were programs available for men, including a hotline for all victims of domestic abuse that offers access to other resources.

“Most of our services are available for males or females," said Cheryl Tkalcic. "Either gender that contact a shelter is provided with help and supports and resources.”

Tkalcic admitted there were no shelter beds for men in Calgary but there was one in a woman's shelter in Strathmore, about an hour's drive away, that was available if not being used by a woman.

In an interview with the Post, Silverman said after leaving his wife two decades ago, he let himself go, living on whiskey and cigarettes.

“I basically tried to commit suicide, because I couldn’t do anything," he said.

One of the safe house's residents, Tom Matty, told the Post he knew Silverman was battling "a lot of demons."

"Him and me could get along well because I was battling a lot of the same ones," said Matty. "He hit a point where it just became too much.

“He was a very caring person, very emotional, very direct and honest. He believed very much in fairness and justice and he was just staggered, constantly, that over a period of 20 years that something that is so simple and so logical as gender rights and equality would be so impossible to access for so many people."

Supporters at A Voice For Men memorialized Silverman in a Saturday broadcast on their radio channel. A supporter quoted on the group's web site suggested Silverman killed himself out of a sense of futility.

"He was frustrated because no one seemed to care or do anything about it," said the supporter, who said he had stayed at the shelter.

But an article Monday in the online magazine Salon on Silverman's death, questioned the underlying premise of the men's rights movement.

"In his dogged efforts to help men and to raise public awareness, Silverman worked to remove the stigma that can often prevent men from speaking out because of pride and fear and misunderstanding," wrote contributor Mary Elizabeth Williams.

"Yet where Silverman came up short was in perpetuating the men’s rights movement’s fiction that there’s any gender equity as far as violence and victims."

There is no question female abusers exist, Williams wrote, and men they mistreat must be viewed as victims deserving of respect and compassion.

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But women still heavily outnumber men as victims of abuse, especially when it comes to sexual violence, she argued.

Silverman reportedly left a four-page suicide note blaming the government for failing to recognize male victims of domestic abuse and hoping his death with raise awareness of the issue, the Post said.

"But feminism wasn’t the cause of Silverman’s death," Williams contended in Salon. "Instead, his story seems to be that of a man whose demons had long plagued him."