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Calgary bedroom communities meet growing need for women’s shelters

A growing number of women looking for domestic violence shelter and services in Calgary – and across Alberta – has led several bedroom communities to build their own shelters.

The Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (ACWS), located in Edmonton, said more than 10,000 women and children enter a domestic violence shelter every year in the province.

More than 15,000 women and children will be turned away.

It’s a number the ACWS says is increasing every year as our population grows.

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“With domestic violence, if a woman cannot access services immediately, and she’s at high risk, there’s a continued high risk of her being seriously assaulted or killed,” said Ian Wheeliker, director of programs with the ACWS.

Those numbers may overlap, ACWS said. If a woman calls and needs a space but a shelter is full, that’s counted as a turn away. That same woman in subsequent days, however, may get into a shelter. But the particular day she’s unable to get in counts as a turn away. 

The increase has led to a capacity issue for women’s shelters in Alberta, particularly in big centers like Calgary.

YWCA not seeing slowdown in women seeking help

Allison McLauchlan, manager of shelter and outreach services with the YWCA, said that in the last year they’ve turned away roughly 2,000 women. As the second biggest shelter in Calgary, the organization adds they’re almost always running at full capacity. They’re also not seeing a slowdown in the number of women reaching out to them. 

When talking about Calgary’s bedroom communities, however, the YW generally doesn’t see many women from outside of Calgary stay at their shelter. 

The YW says they turned away around 2,000 women last year. FROM YWCA

“Women from rural communities don’t necessarily want to come into the city. When we ask women to uproot their entire life and come into Calgary or farther afield, you know, that’s a lot to ask,” she said.

McLauchlan said some women may stay in unsafe situations as a result.

“So I honestly believe that if Airdrie or Cochrane build a shelter it would be filled.”

Bedroom communities working on shelters

Currently, Airdrie, Cochrane and Chestermere are all in planning and development for their own women’s shelters. 

Margaret Van Tighem is the co-founder of Big Hill Haven located in Cochrane. Right now, it’s an online safety and resource centre with the goal of building a place for women to stay when fleeing domestic violence. 

Van Tighem said Cochrane has a high incidence of domestic violence in its boundaries. Without a shelter, women are sent to Calgary or other shelters in Morley or Banff. 

“And that’s still the case because we don’t have an actual shelter yet,” she said.

Van Tighem is currently working on securing funding for the $3 million hub model. There, staff and volunteers would have a place to come together for outreach and counselling, along with having a couple of emergency beds. 

Working on building a smaller facility means women have more of an opportunity in Cochrane can stay in their community. Something Van Tighem said is important.

“In a town the size of Cochrane we couldn’t build a women’s shelter and have a hidden location. But sending them into Calgary means uprooting them from all of their support.”

“And anytime you’re dealing with somebody that has dealt with domestic violence, you’re dealing with people who are traumatized. So it’s better for them to stay in their communities. It’s just better for their healing and better for their processes.”

Options available for women turned away

Women turned away from shelters have a number of options available to them. Shelters across the province talk with women directly and assess their risk. If in immediate danger, shelters provide different options like other shelter options or even getting a hotel room. 

Shelters will also work with women on immediate safety planning and counselling support.

Wheeliker said he’s seeing the development of smaller models in communities with plans to build bigger in the future. That’s because securing funding can be difficult for smaller centres.

But he adds those building shelters themselves in Calgary’s growing bedroom communities is key to helping women often turned away from services in the city. If more shelters were built in smaller communities, they would most likely be filled.

More shelters needed: ACWS

“If you were to build a 30-bed shelter in a community the size of Airdrie area, there’s a pretty good chance that they’re going to be running just under full capacity year-round. There’s just that much domestic violence out there,” he said.

“And I think these communities are recognizing that in communities where shelters currently do exist in the cities are running over occupancy and they just can’t get clients when they need to. So they’ve got to sort of roll up their sleeves and get a shelter built in their community.”

Alberta Works – Support for Albertans Fleeing Abuse
24-hour line: 1-866-644-5135

Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter
24-hour family violence help line: 403-234-SAFE (7233) or toll-free 1-866-606-7233

The Distress Center
24-hour crisis line: 403-266-HELP (4357)