Kate thought the hardest part of leaving her abusive husband would be finding the courage to leave his house and never return. But in the months since she left, her hope of building a new life has diminished.
What you need most seems to be out of reach.
“I can’t try to find a job, I can’t get better, I can’t be safe if I don’t have a house,” she said in a recent interview.
Breaking: spoke to three women who fled domestic violence in Nova Scotia but were forced to stay for months in shelters known as halfway houses, as they search in vain for safe, affordable places to live.
They say support workers have told them it can take years to get public housing, and other income-oriented housing, including for women fleeing intimate partner violence, is full across the province.
This leaves the women, whom Breaking: is not identifying by their real names because they fear for their safety, with no choice but to try to find apartments with market rents in a province with low vacancy rates and rising rental prices.
Two of the women said they are considering returning to their abusers because they don’t know what else to do. One of them is worried about losing full custody of her son because the couple has been living in a women’s shelter for a long time.
They are asking the provincial government for help.
“I think the provincial government is not taking the lack of affordable housing seriously,” Kate said. “When you have to turn women away and send them back to their deaths, to an abusive husband in an abusive situation after they’ve found the courage to leave, just because we can’t find accommodation.”
Ann de Ste Croix, provincial coordinator for the Nova Scotia Transitional Home Association, said that due to the current housing market, women are forced to stay up to a year in transitional homes, which are shelters for women and children who have He fled the abuse. Typically, she said, women are only supposed to stay about six weeks.
De Ste Croix said that last year, the 11 halfway houses run by her organization provided services to about 4,200 women and children across the province. But shelters are often full, which can mean turning women away.
“Risks include women becoming homeless and often that is out of our sight,” she said. “So we have women who live on the streets, but it can also look like they’re couch surfing or trading sex for a bed.”
In small towns, the same story.
One of the province’s smallest halfway houses, Autumn House in Amherst, N.S., is often full.
“If they follow through with our mandate and there’s some real risk, we’ll bring a woman in here, we’ll turn our living room into an overflow room,” said Dawn Ferris, executive director of the Cumberland County Transitional Home Association.
waiting for a bed
Kate had a large house in the country with her young son, her husband and a family dog, but the psychological abuse and coercive control was just below the surface.
When she realized she was being abused, she decided to take her daughter and leave. But the women’s shelter in her area was full. She waited two weeks in fear until he received a phone call informing her that there was a free bed for her.
Kate said leaving gave her freedom, but she found it difficult. Working with a supportive housing worker for months, she still hasn’t been able to find anything she can pay with employment insurance payments.
“I don’t see where to go,” he said. “I’ll be stuck there. I’ll have to spend Christmas there.”
‘We need to do more’
Housing Minister John Lohr said in an interview that the Nova Scotia government has “deep sympathy” for people fleeing domestic violence. They are at the top of the public housing waiting list, but still have to wait until a unit becomes available.
In January, the waiting list for priority access to public housing, which included 117 people across the province, had an average wait time of 1.6 years. For the 4,790 people on the non-priority list, the average wait is just over two years.
When asked if the wait times show the need for greater public housing supply, Lohr said, “We are not categorically ruling out the construction of new housing.”
“I will say that in our internal discussion we talked about all the options,” he said.
Lohr highlighted his department’s investment in programs such as the Community Homeownership Program and the housing land initiative.
“We’re doing all kinds of things,” Lohr said. “We know we need to do more, and especially for victims fleeing family violence, our hearts go out to them.”
According to a Department of Community Services spokesperson, the Nova Scotia Office on the Status of Women provides $7,405,345 in annual core funding to halfway houses.
In March, the province announced an additional $8 million help organizations supporting women experiencing gender-based violence meet growing demand for their services and address rising operational costs.
The women who spoke to Breaking: said they’re happy to be safe, but living in a halfway house has its difficulties.
One woman, Sarah, decided to leave her partner last winter when he strangled her unconscious. For the first few months, she couch surfed and stayed with her family. She has been in a halfway house since April.
Sarah said there is little privacy, which makes it difficult to relax, and her small bedroom never feels like home.
“One of the most important things for everyone is sleep,” Sarah said. “If we can sleep, we can at least start to feel better, start to heal. But it’s hard to do there.”
Kate said some days her young daughter struggles in the community setting.
“One night he had thrown everything in the drawers and suitcases on the bed,” Kate said. “She’s screaming that she wants to go home. So I finally explained to her that mom and dad have separate homes and that, for now, the halfway house is mom’s home.”
Although Kate worries about her daughter, her biggest concern is not getting full custody of her daughter due to her living situation.
Morgan Manzer, a child protection lawyer with Nova Scotia Legal Aid, said judges and Community Services decision-makers become “very concerned” about children when their parents can’t find long-term housing.
“It represents a very significant and real barrier for people trying to get their children into their care or stay in their care,” Manzer said, noting that most of their cases can be related to a lack of affordable housing.
When asked how the Department of Community Services assesses the risk of a child remaining in a shelter with a mother, a spokesperson did not respond.
“DCS’s goal will always be to ensure the best interests of the child,” spokeswoman Christina Deveau wrote in an email. “We work with community organizations like halfway houses to find solutions that allow safe environments for children where they can stay with their parents.”
No end in sight
Mary, who is in her 60s, left her husband of more than 30 years, escaping physical and psychological abuse. She now receives financial assistance and is paid $950 a month.
She has been in a halfway house for six months and said as time goes on she begins to feel like she has no choice but to return to her husband.
“The housing support workers say their hands are tied. They can’t make these apartments appear. They can’t. They do the best they can and show it to us, but everything on the list starts at $1,400,” Mary said.
“I just don’t see an end to it. I think I’ll have to go back. I don’t know what else I can do.”
People in Nova Scotia affected by intimate partner violence can call or text the provincial toll-free line at 1-855-225-0220 or contact your local shelter organization.