Southern Alberta women's shelter turns women away daily due to housing backlogs

·5 min read
Denille Tizzard says women are being turned away, transferred to other shelters or even put up in hotels due to a lack of beds at Lethbridge's emergency women's shelter. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC - image credit)
Denille Tizzard says women are being turned away, transferred to other shelters or even put up in hotels due to a lack of beds at Lethbridge's emergency women's shelter. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC - image credit)

The sunset turns the sky orange over Lethbridge as seen through the corner window of the family recreation room at Harbour House.

Down the hallway, a kitchen is stocked with fresh fruit, pasta and coffee. The room next to it offers access to laundry.

The domestic violence shelter, a program run by the YWCA, is the only one of its kind in Lethbridge, and offers 24 beds for women and children who need a place to stay.

Lately, the site has been so busy that people are being turned away daily, transferred to other shelters, or even put up in hotels, says Denille Tizzard, program manager at Harbour House.

Jennifer Dorozio/CBC
Jennifer Dorozio/CBC

"It's hard. It's hard for staff to take crisis calls and talk to a woman … and hearing the abusive situation she is in, [saying] 'I'm really sorry, we don't have space for you,'" said Tizzard.

When women access Harbour House, the shelter has 21 days to connect them with supportive programming and, if needed, find them appropriate transitional housing. But Tizzard says matching women to houses in the area is an ongoing challenge, and women's stays are having to be extended for longer than the 21-day cap, which further limits how many people they help.

She says it's especially dire now, given they are seeing more violent cases of domestic abuse during the pandemic.

Between April 2019 and March 2020, the shelter served 317 women and 130 children. The following year during the same time period — and while operating at half capacity due to COVID-19 — they helped 238 women and 90 children.

A competitive rental market and a lack of transitional housing options are all contributing to the problem, says Tizzard.

Struggle to secure housing

Anne, who is in her early 30s and has two children, ages five and under, arrived at Harbour House on Dec. 24. CBC News has agreed to not use her real name.

She's had to use the shelter before over the years. This instance was again for fleeing domestic violence.

Anne says that since 2014, she has been trying to lock down a place to live but hasn't had any luck in Lethbridge. She is optimistic about a place in Cardston that she recently put a deposit on, but she says finding a place to live has been incredibly difficult as an Indigenous woman.

"Just the racism … I think that's the biggest problem. And the judgments on, 'Oh well, you're fleeing domestic [violence]," she said.

Anne says many of the rental options she's looking at are out of her budget, and she has gotten turned down for rentals after landlords meet with her. As a person who has formerly used drugs, Anne says she has also met with stigma when trying to access housing.

"How is a person supposed to get out of a rut if no one is willing to give them a chance?" she said.

Jennifer Dorozio/CBC
Jennifer Dorozio/CBC

Sharing shelter space

When Harbour House is full and cannot take in clients, staff often work with Safe Haven Women's Shelter Society in Taber, about 50 kilometres northeast of Lethbridge.

The shelter, which normally offers 21 beds, is now running at half capacity in order to meet COVID-19 protocols.

"It's quite common for us to be full here," said Phyllis Monk, executive director at the shelter.

"A lot of shelters within the province are experiencing the same thing."

Monk says the shelter, which serves the area between Medicine Hat and Lethbridge and down south toward the U.S. border, sometimes has to turn clients away.

According to the 2020-21 report from the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters, 13,605 turn-aways were noted for women and seniors seeking access to shelters (this number did not include the 5,300 children identified).

These instances happen when the shelter doesn't have the space or cannot provide the service needed by the caller.

The report also stated that more women connected with outreach services for things like safety planning and housing support between April 2020 and March 2021 than during the same time period in 2019 and 2020.

Jennifer Dorozio/CBC
Jennifer Dorozio/CBC

Issue of housing

Southern Alberta's rental market is extremely competitive right now for anyone entering the market, says Amy Breznik general manager at Renter's Choice & Management Ltd., which works in the area.

"The market is incredibly low on inventory, especially single family homes.… It is a very, very tough market to find anything available."

If someone is competing against another applicant for a home and they can't provide a credit check, or consistent renter's history, they may be passed over, she says.

Affordable housing options

Lethbridge Housing Authority is one of the local organizations that connects people to programs like rent supplement, affordable housing and community housing.

They typically have a wait list of around 300 individuals and families waiting to access the rent supplement program, affordable housing or rent geared to income social housing, says Robin James, CAO with Lethbridge Housing Authority.

There is currently a deficit of 4,800 affordable housing units in the city, says Marty Thomson, manager of community and social development for the City of Lethbridge.

"It is challenging to find appropriate safe and affordable housing in the current marketplace," he said.

Both James and Thomson agree there is also a critical need for more supportive housing tailored to those who are exiting shelters but cannot live yet independently and may need addiction or mental health support.

"We're in desperate need of a facility where we can have the housing plus the 24/7 supports," said Thomson.

Thomson says the city has recently completed a municipal housing strategy and is in the process of hiring a municipal housing specialist to implement that plan.

He says the city is also working with the YWCA and other organizations "to make sure we have affordable housing, transitional housing, supportive housing and additional shelter capacity."

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