Violence against women in intimate relationships, also known as domestic or family violence, is a serious problem: almost 30% of Canadian women indicate to researchers that they have experienced violence in a domestic relationship, and there is evidence that further domestic violence goes unreported.
Women’s shelters offer short-term accommodation and support to women and children fleeing violence. Shelters began to open more than thirty years ago in Saskatchewan, as the women’s movement gained momentum in the early 1970s. Women were beginning to talk to each other about issues affecting them, including violence in their families and communities. It was through these discussions that they identified a need for women leaving abusive relationships to have a safe place to stay as well as the support of other women. Women’s shelters—also commonly known as transition houses, interval houses, or temporary emergency shelters—operate much like a home setting. Women have their own bedroom for themselves and their children, but share bathroom, kitchen, and living areas with other shelter residents. Some shelters look just like a single-family residence from the outside, while others are in more institutional settings. Women’s shelters normally do not charge a fee to their residents, since women leaving violent domestic relationships are usually in financial distress.
Shelters have staff on duty twenty-four hours a day; continuous availability is very important since women may need to leave an abusive situation at any time of the day or night. Unfortunately, there is not always room at a shelter, and a woman may be put on a waiting list until a space opens up. Shortage of space in shelters, and uneven geographic access to shelters, remain problems for women needing safety and support immediately, when other options such as staying with family or at a hotel may not be safe or affordable.
Saskatoon was the first community in Saskatchewan, and one of the first in Canada, to establish a women’s shelter. The opening of Saskatoon Interval House in 1973 was followed over the next five years by Wichihick Iskewak Safe House in Regina, Regina Transition House, and Moose Jaw Transition House. Since that time several additional shelters have opened in communities across the province, including Prince Albert, Yorkton, the Battlefords, Saskatoon, Regina, Swift Current, Meadow Lake, and Fort Qu’Appelle. During the 1970s and 1980s many of the shelters in Saskatchewan were funded by the provincial government on a fee-for-service basis, supplemented by other grants and fundraising efforts. Fluctuating income from fees-for-service created financial instability for shelters. Most shelter funding is now provided through operating grants from the provincial Department of Community Resources and Employment. A few shelters are funded in whole or in part by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Many shelters have also received capital improvement grants from federal government departments and agencies. In addition to receiving government grants, shelters do extensive fund raising, and rely significantly on volunteers to supplement staff resources and enhance programming.
When the first shelters opened in Saskatchewan and across the country, they were a reaction to an immediate need to keep women safe from violence. At first there was very little programming offered to women and children staying in shelters. While safety has remained the most critical service, over time shelters have expanded their services to fit the variety of needs of their residents. Many now offer services like child counseling and other children’s programming, support groups for current and past clients, adult counseling services, abuse education, transportation, referrals, and advocacy. Shelter staff and volunteers are also active in communities, increasing public awareness and understanding of domestic violence issues.
The original shelter concept addressed the short-term needs of women leaving violent relationships. In some cases, longer-term support strategies are needed to meet the needs of women and children in these circumstances. There are now several longer-term housing facilities, called second-stage shelters, where women leaving emergency shelters can stay for several months in a safe and low-cost environment until they are ready or able to live in a less secure setting. Women’s shelters are part of the range of programs and services to prevent family violence, to reduce the impact of family violence on women and children, and to help Saskatchewan communities maintain a safe and respectful environment for all people.