The cost of leaving family violence behind

What’s the biggest challenge faced by Calgarians trying to leave abusive relationships?

Finding affordable housing, according to Lisa Falkowsky, Executive Director of the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter. The shelter’s 50 beds are always in use, and the shelter has revealed that it couldn’t offer a bed to more than 3,000 women and children who needed one last year. Nevertheless, the organization saw use of its services increase as more Calgarians used the shelter’s 24-hour Family Violence Helpline and community services.

United Way invests in programs that address family violence (including programming at the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter) to make our communities stronger and healthier for everyone. We spoke with Falkowsky to find out more about Calgary’s progress on this issue — and the cost of leaving family violence behind.

More people are using your services. What does this increase tell you?

We know Calgary has one of the highest rates of family violence in Canada. Our research shows that 62 per cent of Calgarians say they or somebody they know have experienced family violence and abuse. So the demand is incredible, and we know that the majority of people never tell anyone. Our job is to encourage more people to come forward and get support. As we do that, if we’re successful, more people come forward to get services.

We serve over 14,000 Calgarians each year. They’re served in three key ways. One is through our 24-hour Family Violence Helpline. The second is through the emergency shelter. The third area that we provide support is in the community. For example, a woman might call in and say, “Listen, my husband’s on a three-week rotation in Fort McMurray. I have three weeks. I don’t have to come into the emergency shelter because he’s not home right now, but I need to deal with this before he comes back.” We will go to her home or workplace and give her information and support so she can decide what’s best.

There are three women’s emergency shelters in Calgary — 119 beds. With a growing community, and with all of the work that the community is doing to help encourage people to stand up against family violence and abuse, we need more emergency shelter spaces. Twenty-eight women and children are waiting for every single women’s emergency shelter bed in Calgary every day. And that number is increasing, because we’re not getting to them as fast as we did a year ago.

Why has the length of stays at the shelter increased?

Because there is no housing. People are staying in our programs almost twice as long as they did a year ago, due solely to lack of any place to live — both rental and purchasing.

Rental and housing has always been difficult, but the last year has seen a significant increase in the difficulty that our clients are facing and therefore they’re staying longer. And if people aren’t leaving the emergency shelter, it means we’re serving fewer people.

Even if you went to buy a house today, and you’re working, it would be difficult for you to afford a mortgage and find a house that you could afford. The city as a whole needs to come together to solve that issue. Affordable housing is the biggest challenge that people have in ending the abuse in their lives right now.

As a city, are we making progress on the issue of family violence?

Of course. Every person who calls us is a success. More people are talking about family violence, more people are calling the police, more people are getting counselling. We can’t keep up with the demand for our men’s counselling program. That’s for men who are using abusive behaviours and want to change. If you want to end abuse, you end it at the abuser.

Our prevention services also include a school program in 18 junior high and high schools across Calgary. That program supports youth who are either experiencing abuse or who are using abusive behaviors. It allows them to explore what healthy relationships are, and provides support they might need to live free from abuse or to stop abusing.

What do you think? How can Calgary make greater progress on the issues of family violence and affordable housing?

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